Dispatches from Helsinki: World Design Capital 2012

Guest Contributor post by Julie Pasila

Beautiful Helsinki is the World Design Capital for 2012, a title that is well deserved. The city is a vibrant, cutting-edge metropolitan area, with incredible design at every turn. Helsinki is an obvious choice for such a recognition – you’ve got the flagship stores of design giants Marimekko, Iitalla and Arabia on one magical block (one block!), plus countless up-and-coming designers who have been raised in a sea of truly good looking stuff (Finns are lucky to live in a place where useful, beautiful design is embedded into everyday objects). But, it still got me thinking: What does it take to make a city World Design Capital?

WDC is the brainchild of ICSID (International Council of Societies of Industrial Design). Since its inception in 1957, ICSID has tried to increase the social significance of design in an attempt to influence global leaders to recognize the various merits of this field. WDC itself is only a few years old, with Helsinki being the third in a line that includes Torino, Italy, and Seoul, South Korea.

I started my design tour of Finland’s capital city at Design Helps and came to see why Helsinki truly deserves the WDC title. As my tour guide explained, “Finland is known around the world for two things: design and welfare.” Finland is a successful welfare state, meaning that all of the country's citizens are guaranteed a healthy, respectable standard of living by virtue of being alive. Finns don’t just prize the beautiful in their everyday objects, but they also craft elegant, working solutions to social problems. It’s no wonder that this country has a 100% literacy rate, one of the highest standards of living and one of the world’s best education systems. The combination that Finland has managed to create between beauty and social responsibility is a perfect example of what ICSID hopes to showcase to governments and world leaders.

Design Helps is a temporary exhibition space/shop dedicated to showcasing how Finnish designers are expanding beyond their borders to bridge beauty and social care in other parts of the world. Here are a few of my favourite ideas from the exhibit.

Earth House Systems are beautifully designed, well-crafted housing alternatives targeted towards humanitarian organizations. They are intended as part of a solution to housing problems in developing countries, particularly after major catastrophes. EHS provides an ecological, safe alternative to tents and can be erected without special tools or a professional work force. They even have seismic resistance!

Handpainted Type is dedicated to preserving the typographic practice of street painters in India. With the advent of new technologies, these painters are going out of business; Handpainted Type collects artisan's fonts by purchasing them directly from the painters. They then document them and make them available for public purchase. Proceeds are split between the painters and Handpainted Type.

These beautiful baskets are part of Tikau Share, a Finnish-registered NGO that supports sustainable development and empowerment in a number of poor Indian villages. Tikau Share helps villagers market their products around the world, providing the artisans with sustainable employment.


Julie Pasila is a Canadian multidisciplinary artist and writer. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art and English Literature from the University of Guelph. She is currently available for freelance exhibitions and assignments in Canada and abroad.

Jan Halvarson


Ann-Marie said...

Small correction: it's Iittala, not Iitalla.

I enjoyed the article!

Julie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie said...

Whoops! Thanks for the correction - my mistake :)

Michelle said...

Great story. I've been lucky enough to have spent time in Helsinki. It's a gorgeous city, one of my favourite places in the world. Hopefully you got to visit Turku as well.