Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Finnish design show Northern Stars

One of my favorite things to do is visit museums, and one of my favorite subjects is 20th-century Finnish design, so it was with great anticipation that I went to see Northern Stars, an exhibition of precisely that at the Mingei in San Diego. The show was curated by Marianne Aav, director at Helsinki's Design Museuman incredibly generous and knowledgeable woman with whom I had the chance to work in the early aughts. Imagine, then, the crushing disappointment of walking into the gift shop afterward and being told there was no exhibition catalog! Or rather there was, but only in Finnish. Turns out it was never translated into English. Below are portions of the didactic and label texts—my own little way of preserving a tiny bit of the research that went into the exhibition. These shows take years and years to produce, yet they're fleeting things. I live in hope that the museum may yet publish a translation, but with or without it, this is one of the very best shows I've ever seen.

I think it's also important to give a shout-out to the Mingei's exhibition designer, Jeremiah Maloney, who created the striking installation. I found plenty of inspiration and display ideas for my own home—especially loved the floor-to-ceiling panels of Marimekko fabrics! Crate & Barrel, here I come...

Enjoy the show!

Left to right, front row: Ilmari Tapiovaara, Pirkka chair, 1950s; Eliel Saarinen, Koti chair, 1890s; Louis Sparre, Iris chair, 1898; Back row: 1970s Poulukka dress; Annika Rimala's 1963 Tivoli dress made with Marimekko's Petrooli pattern; Hanging: Taikamylly (Magic Mill), designed by Sanna Annukka for Marimekko in 2008 

"Design has long been an important aspect of national identity in Finland. A national language emerged when Finland was seeking its place as an independent country among the nations and wishing to end Russian rule. The first so-called golden age of Finnish design, around the turn of the 20th century, was the achievement of artists and architects who also became interested in designing objects—in keeping with the Art Nouveau concept of the total work of art." 

Platform: Arabia, Fennia bottle and mug, faience, 1902-1905; Below: Albert William Finch, Iris jug, bowl and candy dish, clay, 1898-1904

 "Respect for materials is a main feature of Finnish design and the use of local materials is often based on symbolic and aesthetic values as well as economic factors. The Iris factory used Finnish red clay to underscore local identity, while the Finnish birch employed by Alvar Aalto in his furniture lines reflects the light color palette preferred by Nordic functionalism."

A platform highlighting the iconic bentwood furniture designs of Alvar Aalto.
It's all about Iittala: at left are Tapio Wirkkala's drinking glasses (1950s), at center is Timo Sarpaneva's Orchid vase (1952), and at rear is Sarpaneva's Sleeping Bird sculpture (1950s)

The room that got me: eye-popping Marimekko panels and pedestals filled with sparkling glass.

"Nature has traditionally been a never-ending source of inspiration for art and design in Finland. The urbanization of the country did not properly get under way until the 1950s, and most Finns still have strong ties to the countryside and rural landscape of rugged beauty. Plant and animal motifs have inspired the designers of Marimekko printed fabrics throughout the history of the company, and in the hands of designer Oiva Toikka, glass has been turned into hundreds of birds of Finland. References to the soft forms of the Finnish landscape can be seen in Alvar Aalto’s organic modernism, while works in glass by Tapio Wirkkala and Timo Sarpaneva inevitably lead to thoughts of icy winter landscapes."

Oiva Toikka for Nuutäjarvi, mold-blown Flora bowl, designed 1966

Oiva Toikka for Iittala, Birds, first designed in 1972. Toikka began his work as a designer at the Nuutäjarvi glassworks company in 1963. The factory merged with Iittala in 1988 and Toikka's pieces are currently sold solely under the Iittala label. In the 1960s and 1970s he designed utility glassware but his most celebrated works are the free-blown bird sculptures seen here. They're made by complex filigree and luster techniques, many of which are hundreds of years old and serve as reminders of the history of Venetian glass.

Gunnel Nyman, Vase, Bowls, Jug and Glass, 1947. Gunnel Nyman's utility glassware became symbols of postwar reconstruction in Finland and examples of everyday objects of beauty. The air bubbles were created by using a preliminary mold with a regular spiked pattern on its inner surface. Glass was blown into the mold and a second layer of glass was then added to the piece, leaving small bubbles of air where the spikes were located. Nyman's glass objects often included a thin layer or veil of colored cased glass to emphasize the difference between the inner and outer surfaces, and combine the play of light with the solidification of flowing molten glass.

"The starting point of design in Finland has often been to seek timelessness free of trends and to encourage the multifunctional nature of objects."
Kaj Franck, Jug and tumblers, blown glass, 1952-54. The conical shape and thin walls allowed them to be stacked and were easily adopted into the small kitchen cupboards of Finland's growing urban population. Variations on the basic core shape correlated with the functionalist ideal of a single basic form serving as many uses as possible.

Chairs, left to right: Eero Aarnio's Pastille chair, plastic, 1968; Ikka Suppanen's plastic Rosebud chair for Vivero Oy, 2005 (named for the infamous sled); Mikko Paakkanen's 2002 Snow Drift chair for Avarte, made of metal, plastic and fabric; Back row: Erja Hirvi's 2004 Equator print for Marimekko; Ritva Falla's 2003 wool coat for Marimekko; Hillevi Aalto's 2001 polyamide and feather coat for Joutsen

"New ideas and innovations jointly developed by designers and industries have been an important aspect of the success story of Finnish design, providing opportunities for aesthetic solutions, improved utility and unprecedented design. It would not have been possible to realize the organic language of form employed by Alvar Aalto without a new technique for curving wood developed by Aalto and the furniture manufacturers in the 1930s. Since the 1960s, the Fiskars company, a manufacturer of various kinds of tools, has invested in the ergonomic properties of its products, exemplified by its scissors model with its distinctive orange plastic handles that fit the user’s hand for increased comfort and efficiency. Underlying the worldwide success of Nokia is the combination of high tech with user-friendly design."
In the 1960s Nokia was a multi-sector conglomerate producing a wide range of products, including rubber boots, tires, paper products and electrical cables. But by the early 1990s it had sold off all of its other sectors to concentrate exclusively on mobile phones. Shown here are the mock-ups for Nokia's first hand-held model, created in 1987 and called the Gorbachev, having been presented to Soviet leader on a visit to Helsinki.
Left to right: Ben af Schulten for Artek, Chair for Children, birch, 1970s; Antti Nurmesniemi's 1952 Sauna stool made of laminated wood; Saara Renvall's laminted wood Koti chair, 2007, for Lundia; Hanging is Vuokko Nurmesniemi's 1964 printed fabric, Another, for Marimekko

 Northern Stars is on view at the Mingei through April 21, 2012.

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