My week in Finland in July with Mike was eye-opening. I'd visited Åland previously, but mainland Finland was completely new to me. We spent six nights between Helsinki, Turku, and Kuopio.
I left with a thousand thoughts about what happens when Scandinavian and Slavic spheres intersect. Helsinki, quite variable by neighborhood, reminded me of Vienna (another city, in an understatement, thoroughly structured by varied cultural impulses from east and west alike), Stockholm, and St. Petersburg. Yet the overall impression was of a city completely unto itself, one that bears comparisons to these other three cities only uneasily.
Turku is a neat and prim city, quite small and very well ordered. Our time there was filtered through my friend Staffan, co-proprietor of Porcupine and part-time Turku resident, who lives in a beautiful apartment. Staffan played the part of tour guide ably, and fielded scores of questions on subjects as wide-ranging as immigration policy and the history of xylitol.
In Helsinki and Turku, I think it's fair to say, the strong imprint of modern Finnish design is omnipresent, and very seductive. As in Sweden and Denmark, it's impossible not to be impressed by the use of light and scale in modern architecture and the crisp feel of furniture, industrial design, and homewares. In Finland, to my mind, there is a stronger dimension of earthiness than in the Swedish and Danish design models, something particularly noticeable in Finnish furniture design. The earthy modern pieces that attracted me most were by Solid Furniture.
Turku's Main Library extension, which opened in 2007, gathers many of these impulses. Designed by Helsinki-based JKMM Architects, it is a breathtaking building.
In Turku two shops introduced me to another dimension of Finnish design, a folksier, DIY impulse that can't really be glimpsed in the modernist perfection of pieces by people like Kaj Franck and Aino Aalto. At Outolintu Arts & Crafts, the items for sale were craftsy, not streamlined, and all very interesting. The leftist café-bookshop at Vahna Suurtori (across from Outolintu) sells a range of simple DIY objects that depart smartly from the Finnish design template. A number of change purses caught my eye. I snapped two up as presents for hosts. Unfortunately their labels contain no contact information beyond the name "Christina."
Kuopio presented an entirely different aesthetic setting. In Kuopio I experienced a smoke sauna, swam in a frigid lake, hiked with rain and mosquitoes through a forest, and felt as if I were in a regional Eastern Bloc capital as opposed to a city in a country as rich and modern as Finland. If anything, the impression left by Kuopio was deeper and more enthralling than the modern design in Turku and Helsinki, which, after all, I had some familiarity with and expected to encounter.
Perfectly executed modern design and the vastness of nature make for a distinctive and very appealing national profile—or, in today's word, brand, while a few measures of Santa/lumberjack kitsch provide an entertaining and amusing sense of play. When it comes to Finland, there are lots of interesting things to ponder, though design and nature are unavoidably central to any visit.