Chairs, vases, rugs, wallpaper—the Finns havealways done it with style. Rick Marin checks outthe country where modernism first met plywood anddiscovers a capital city that never looked back

Julian Broad

In 1951, House Beautiful proclaimed a leaf-shaped plywood platter by Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala "the most beautiful object in the world." With its endless, irregular layers of ply curving out from a bisecting vein, Wirkkala's platter doesn't just imitate a leaf, it appears to be one.

At Stockmann, Helsinki's big, great department store, I bought a lamp by a young Finnish designer named Harri Koskinen. A block of glass, with a light trapped inside—a little visual pun on Finnish life, which consists of being frozen and dark for six months of every year.

Stylish but sensible, with a dry sense of humor. That would be my oversimplified definition of the Finnish design aesthetic. I've been drawn to it since before I knew what it was. I bought Iittala glassware assuming it was Italian, wondered why Arabia china seemed so un-Arabian, and handed it to the Japanese for their cunning Nokia phones. All of them are as Finnish as Marimekko. (That one I did know.)

I CAN'T KEEP MY HANDS OFF FINNISH STUFF. Take the in-flight spoons. I did. Actually, I made my girlfriend, Ilene, stuff them into her bag. Coffee spoons—small, elegant ovals on perfectly proportioned ergonomic stems with my idea of a designer label: Finnair.

Outi Raatikainen wore stylish but sensible shoes as she walked us from her office at the Design Forum, a government-sponsored agency, across town to the Museum of Art & Design. The museum was holding a major Wirkkala retrospective. Outi (the names are as singular as the language) had invited us to a press conference at the museum announcing the winners of some big design award. I couldn't believe I'd come 4,000 miles to go to a press conference. In Finnish. The chairs were comfortable, though. In Helsinki, every chair you sit in is comfortable—and good-looking. Many have short little arms, in the style of Ilmari Tapiovaara, whose simple 1946 Domus chair made him sort of the Eames of Finland. (A New York store called R 20th Century just put on a Tapiovaara show.) After the press conference, we met a couple of pleasantly sincere young guys who had designed a hipster bar, Pravda. We made a drinks plan for later that night and went upstairs to the Wirkkala show.

In his 70 years (Wirkkala died in 1985), this great bear of a man did it all. Organic-shaped sculptures in the same plywood technique as the platter. China for Rosenthal. That Finlandia bottle that looks like melting ice?His. After this blockbuster exhibition, the small Marimekko print in the basement looked, well, small. The best things down there were the huge dark-wood doors on the bathroom stalls.

Good design is everywhere in this city. It's a way of life. Timothy Persons, an expatriate American who lectures at Helsinki's university of art and design, likes the theory that during Finland's history of subjugation by Sweden and Russia, one of the few permissible ways to express nationalism was through displays of art and craft at international shows. I started to make a mental list of commonplace Finnish design bonuses:

  • Chairs always comfortable.
  • Bathrooms always nice. Often equipped with fulllength mirrors.
  • Coat hooks everywhere. On the underside of bars, near tables in restaurants. . . . Finns seem to have skipped the whole coatchecking racket.

On the coat front, I noticed that many younger women were wearing animal skins with ragged fur fringes, which along with the pink hair gave them a sexy Clan of the Cave Bear look. And, as Ilene observed enviously, almost none of them wore heels.

Most of Helsinki's streets are, after all, cobbled and hilly. We were staying at the top of Yrjönkatu (katu means street) at the Torni hotel. My friend Steve had suggested it. He'd lived in Helsinki, having married a Finn, and while researching a screenplay learned that Lee Harvey Oswald slept here en route to Moscow. Until recently, the Torni ("tower" in Finnish) was the tallest building in Helsinki, which is still a small capital (population 500,000) and mostly low to the ground. But history is no guarantee of charm. After explaining that we didn't want a renovated room, a request that baffled the front desk people, we were given a high-ceilinged one-room "suite," also renovated, overlooking a bleak courtyard across the street. I never managed to find out if any of the rooms had the "character" promised in an online guide.

TO RECOVER FROM ROOM-WRANGLING, a sauna was in order. I should say "sa-u-naah." (Finns give the word one more syllable than we do.) The Torni has four, with a shared Aalto-furnished lounge. An hour later, cleansed of toxins and stress, we dressed and went to pick up our local cell phone. Seventy percent of Finland's 5 million people use cell phones, which puts them neck and neck with Iceland for the highest per capita usage in the world. My Finnish friend Eeva Musacchia, a dealer in vintage Finnish glass who came to the United States 20 years ago, had kindly offered us the use of hers. She leaves a phone in the care of her friend Tony Ilmoni, owner of Tony's Deli, a simulacrum of an upscale New York deli. We stayed for a surprisingly good Italian dinner with another pal of Eeva's, Mikki Moisio, a magazine editor who, like almost everybody here, spoke close-to-perfect English. We were also introduced to an expatriate American journalist, Gordon Sander, who spends most of his time in London and Finland. Gordon insisted on showing us "his" Helsinki. We succumbed to his forceful enthusiasm.

For our lunch date, Gordon picked the Taidehallin Klubi, the basement cafeteria of a small art museum near Parliament. The room had a stripped-down Eastern bloc look, but prettier. We had an excellent meal of pork, choucroute, beer. Because Gordon is quite deaf, mostly he talked and we listened, shouting the occasional query. He took us through Töölö, a 19th-century neighborhood with apartment buildings painted cheerful yellows and blues.

Birch leaves crunched underfoot as we walked to Finlandia Hall, the massive white Alvar Aalto edifice that houses his famous concert hall and was the site of the 1976 Helsinki Accord talks (another cold war landmark). Just downhill from there is the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by an American architect, Steven Holl. Having heard that the building—a graceful curve of white stone and glass— is better than the art, we restricted our visit to the lobby. "Finns love soaring spaces," Gordon had said of Aalto's concert hall in Finlandia Hall. Kiasma's lobby was such a space.

Across the street from the museum is Lasipalatsi, a restored mall whose Functionalist style has the streamlined look of Art Deco. The Bio Rex movie theater's neon sign glows again. The restaurant—where I would later dine on reindeer—is much as it was in the thirties. The latest additions to the mall are the cybercafés. We stopped in the Meteori, where a DJ was spinning in the middle of the afternoon, and a few patrons were checking their e-mail. Nokia and the Internet have transformed Finland from a Baltic backwater into a fully wired—and wireless—nation in less than a decade. And a thriving youth culture has grown up around it. Naturally, the kids need caffeine and trendy places in which to consume it.

Before I left for Finland, Zesty Meyers, co-owner of that New York vintage store I mentioned (R 20th Century), told me there was nothing to buy in Helsinki. As an indefatigable shopper, I found that hard to believe. But after a couple of days on the ground I saw what he meant. Many Finnish classics—like Aalto stools, chairs, or tables—never went out of production. Artek, the design shop Aalto helped found, is still on Eteläesplanadi. Maybe because you can still buy fresh from the factory, there's almost no trade in vintage, mid-century modern furniture. We found a ramshackle retro-junk shop called Helsinki Buy & Sell on Annankatu. It had some bigger pieces (chairs, tables, and sofas), but nothing worth shipping home. The young guy who runs the place was astonished when I told him about the Tapiovaara show in New York.

"What's there to show?" he said with a shrug. "A few chairs?" This generation of Finns doesn't seem to have the reverence for the country's own mid-century modern giants that American retrophiles do for Nelson, Eames, and company.

One morning, Timothy Persons took us to the studio of some of his former students who have formed a collective called Revolutions on Request. Two of them were there—intense young slob-dandies wearing low-slung jeans and erratic facial hair. Jiri Geller showed slides of his "Battle of the Worlds," an interactive Foosball game featuring Jesuses versus Shivas, and his partner's riyah rug, which replicated the test pattern of Finland's Channel 2. I would have bought the rug in a second, but none of the pieces were for sale; they were all going into a spring show at Kiasma. The objects were defiantly impractical, whimsical one-offs, though ROR said that if someone wanted to pay them to mass-produce the Channel 2 rug, they'd gladly do it.

One vintage design commodity that is valued and for sale here is glass, perhaps because it's small and easy for people like Eeva to export. Around the corner from the junk shop, on Uudenmaankatu's strip of new bars and cafés, is Bisarri, a tiny shop specializing in vintage glass. Kaj Franck tumblers and Iittala vases and glass birds by Oiva Toikka, some Arabia china. But I knew I'd be going to the Arabia factory and that they had a factory outlet store; I figured I'd do my buying there.

Katja Hagelstam, a photographer friend of Eeva's, took us to Arabia on the outskirts of town. The ninth floor is a mini museum, full of glass cases stocked with 130 years of Arabia china. Katja, whose father had run one of Finland's major auction houses, was an excellent guide. Her preference was not the fifties and sixties patterns we gravitated to, but the earlier, more ornate ones. To her, "modern" was nothing special: she'd lived with it all her life.

We raced through the outlet store on the main floor, hurling glasses, water pitchers, candlesticks, anything, into our shopping cart.

NEXT STOP ON MY PILGRIM'S TRAIL was Nokia headquarters, in Espoo, a suburb just west of Helsinki. Don't be fooled by those whimsical colors and ads—Nokia is as serious as Microsoft. And far from welcoming publicity in any form, as Americans do, Finns seem skeptical of it. Not suspicious. They just can't quite see why you'd want to bother.

Nokia House was another soaring space, a corporate cathedral of glass and steel. On one wall of the cafeteria was a bucolic painting of workers from another century—another millennium!—taking a break in a field. This picture was either very funny or very 1984 or something in between. We hurried out again, where the taxi driver was waiting to take us on to Hvitträsk, Saarinen's house.

In America, Eero is probably the better-known Saarinen, for the JFK terminal and his famous womb chair, and because he spent most of his life in the United States. His father's U.S. legacy is the art school Cranbrook and the Chicago Tribune tower. But in Finland, Eliel, not Eero, is the national hero. He designed one of Helsinki's defining public buildings: the Jugendstil railway station. The house he built for himself and his family has become something of a shrine, the forest surrounding it overgrown because no one has the courage to cut it.

Hvitträsk reopened last year after a restoration of Saarinen's exact decoration and color scheme. Big and airy, it has an unexpectedly craft-y, almost Moroccan feel. Warm tones, glazed tile and rugs everywhere. The restaurant served another unimpeachable lunch. I realized that what I like about Finnish food is that it's hearty but never heavy. We were still able to run most of the way back down the hill and along a country road lined with piles of turnips. The running part was not by choice. We almost missed our train. When the museum people tell you it's two kilometers to the station, do not believe them.

One more shrine on our list was the Church in the Rock, at the top of Lutherinkatu. It's a miraculous place. Not, in my case, for religious reasons, but for its breathtakingly modern interpretation of what a church should be. The architects were brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. They quarried their Lutheran house of worship into the bedrock, half underground, so that the light comes through a vaulted dome. It looks as if a flying saucer has just crash-landed in the middle of Temppeliaukio Square. Pretty wild, even for 1969.

AFTER PORING OVER VARIOUS MAPS of Helsinki to find the Uimahalli public spa, we finally figured out that it was 20 feet from our hotel. Also recently restored—the architects were nominated for the same design prize as the Pravda boys—Uimahalli had been described to me as a sort of latter-day Roman bath.

Romanian maybe, with Soviet-style ambience. After a sauna next to a couple of Russian men swatting themselves with birch branches, I went to my dressing room and lay there waiting for a KGB operative to pull back the blue-striped curtain and point a silencer at me. I began to enjoy my spartan cabana—a cleansing antidote to the aromatherapy and sitar nonsense of your average North American spa. Finns are tough. They don't need, or want, niceties. The fanciest new hotel in Helsinki, a sort of faux Four Seasons called the Kämp, was disdained by every Finn I mentioned it to.

They don't mind the Palace Hotel. We had dinner at the restaurant there. As soon as we saw the sixties black leather chairs in the lobby, we knew this should have been the headquarters of our mod pilgrimage. The Palace, like the Torni, has had some of the character "improved" out of it. Whatever the rooms used to look like, they don't anymore. Management kept some of the original furniture. If only they had kept all of it.

After a meal of deep-fried ox followed by cloudberry-sauced pudding, we took a taxi to the Savoy. The Savoy is the restaurant for which Aalto designed his vase of the same name. Closed. We should have gone back to Pravda, where we'd had drinks a couple of nights before with Teppo Asikainen and Rane Vaskivuori, the guys who designed the place. With its huge glass storefront and undulating gray-felt wall panels to absorb the din, Pravda was as hip as any downtown New York boîte. But it felt more relaxed, less severe. Fliers for art shows and other events were tacked on the wall behind our banquette, as in a student bar. Teppo and Rane shyly told us they wanted to sell more of their home furnishings (like those gray panels) in New York but weren't sure how. It's no accident that the best-known young Finnish designer, Stefan Lindfors, is also Finland's most brazen self-promoter.

Lindfors was in New York when we were in Helsinki, or he surely would have hunted us down. But we did see some of his insectoid handiwork at Mother, a bar on Eerikinkatu. The larval interior makes you feel as if you've been swallowed by one of those creatures in an Alien movie. The tables, the ceiling, most of the surfaces, are covered in a reptilian pattern that is Lindfors's signature. That and translucent insect-wing lighting fixtures. Ilene drank something terrible called a citrus martini (not Lindfors's fault), and we marveled that in a country renowned for its alcohol consumption we kept getting such lousy cocktails.

But we hadn't come to Helsinki to drink. We had come for a nobler purpose: to shop. At Stockmann, we loaded up on ski hats, baby clothes, Iittala candle holders, furry blankets (65 percent mohair, 35 percent puhdasta uutta villaa ren ny ull). At Ristomatti Ratia's studio, Ilene bought a gray messenger bag. Ratia is an elfin elder statesman of Finnish design whose parents started Marimekko and who has now launched a line of products under his own name.

On our final day in Helsinki, after an hour of tax-free shipping bureaucracy at Stockmann's, I peeled off on my own last-minute spree. I bought a pair of black New Balance sneakers I'd never seen in the United States and a hand-painted glass decanter from Bisarri. On the front of the decanter, four sailors are saluting a female passenger in a boat called the Prinsessa Armaada—a gift I'd stow away for my own prinsessa. The signature on the bottom read "TW, Iittala-48."

Tapio Wirkkala. Who else?


Helsinki is a perfect walking city with an unspoiled, prewar quality that makes its vanguard design seem all the more unexpected—and wonderful. Contrary to what some of my Modernist junkie friends had told me, there's also plenty to buy. I shipped most of it and recommend you do too. The only casualty was a glass bowl from the gift shop at Eliel Saarinen's house. I mailed it myself, and it arrived in a thousand pieces. A small price for not having to stuff a duffel bag filled with Arabia china into the overhead compartment.

Sokos Torni Hotel 26 Yrjönkatu; 358-9/131-131, fax 358-9/ 131-1361; doubles $163 A 154-room hotel that's had much of the character renovated out of it.
Palace Hotel 10 Eteläranta; 358-9/134-561, fax 358-9/654-786; doubles $190. Also recently redone, this 39-room hotel retains some of its Mod Squad feel.

Meteori Cafe Lasipalatsi, 22-24 Mannerheimintie; 358-9/611-475. A small cybercafé and bookshop.
Savoy 14 Eteläesplanadi; 358-9/176-571; dinner for two $125. An Alvar Aalto—designed interior.
Pravda 18 Eteläesplanadi; 358-9/681-2060; dinner for two $38. A hip bar designed by Finnish up-and-comers Teppo Asikainen and Rane Vaskivuori.
Mother 2 Eerikinkatu; 358-9/612-3990. Insectoid-themed brainchild of Finland's bad-boy designer Stefan Lindfors.
Soda 16-20 Uudenmaankatu;358-9/612-1012. A hot bar that attracts young nightcrawlers.
Kosmos 3 Kalevankatu; 358-9/647-255; dinner for two $57. Traditional Finnish food. A haunt of politicians and literary lights.

Stockmann 52 Aleksanterinkatu; 358-9/624-179. Helsinki's main department store. Aalto designed the bookshop.
Bisarri 9 Annankatu; 358-9/611-252. Specializes in mid-century Finnish glass.
Artek 18 Eteläesplanadi; 358-9/613-250. Legendary furniture and design shop whose founders included Alvar Aalto.
Marimekko Kämp Mall, 31 Pohjoiesplandi; 358-9/686-0240. Towels, sheets, mugs, trays, felt pillows, shower curtains—all with the Marimekko look.
Arabia 135 Hämeentie; 358-204/3911. This outlet store has all the great china.
Liike 25 Yrjönkatu; 358-9/646-265. Women's clothing and accessories by young Finnish designers.
Helsinki Buy & Sell 5 Annankatu; 358-9/612-1698. Retro-modern furniture and objects.
Skanno 4 Kluuvikatu; 358-9/612-9440. Contemporary furniture and design under the Skanno label.

Museum of Art & Design 23 Korkeavuorenkatu; 358-9/622-0540. Here you can see who made Helsinki the center of high-concept design.
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art 2 Mannerheiminaukio; 358-9/1733-6500. Permanent and temporary exhibitions.
Lasipalatsi 22-24 Mannerheimintie. A Functionalist mall with a movie theater, a cybercafé, and numerous restaurants.
Hvitträsk Luoma, Kirkkonummi; 358-9/4050-9630. Eliel Saarinen's recently restored house, a 30-minute drive from Helsinki.
Finlandia House 13E Mannerheimintie; 358-9/40241. The massive white meeting and concert hall designed by Alvar Aalto.
Church in the Rock 3 Lutherinkatu; 358-9/494-698. A Lutheran church built in 1969 and quarried into the bedrock of Helsinki.
Yrjönkatu Uimahalli 21B Yrjönkatu; 358-9/3108-7401. Helsinki's most impressive public baths.