A tableau of wise designs and whimsical details: Postcard from Helsinki, Finland
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A tableau of wise designs and whimsical details: Postcard from Helsinki, Finland

Writer and avid traveller, Reetika Khanna's keen observations of all things design come together in a series of postcard entries from quaint quarters across the world.

by Reetika Khanna Nov 05, 2019

Credited with the origination of singular phenomena and products like ice skates and Fiskars scissors, saunas and SMS (short messaging system), Molotov cocktails (firebombs) and Angry Birds (popular video game), Finnish design is a canny homage to its "form follows function" axiom — with a generous sprinkle of moxie! 

  • Denizens and visitors soak in the scenery of Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Denizens and visitors soak in the scenery of Helsinki Image Credit: Peter Porter
  • One can hear the calming water sounds and rustling wind, but no sounds of traffic | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    One can hear the calming water sounds and rustling wind, but no sounds of traffic Image Credit: Peter Porter
  • Variegated facades of buildings in Helsinki | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Variegated facades of buildings in Helsinki Image Credit: Peter Porter

Rebuilt in the detritus of war, Helsinki's original edifices like the neoclassical, green-domed, Lutheran Cathedral and the red brick Uspenski Cathedral remain anchored in this coastal city, while modernistic structures flood around them. Indeed, I found the city's skyline to be dotted with towering cranes astir with urgent purpose.

  • The neoclassical, green-domed Lutheran Cathedral | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    The neoclassical, green-domed Lutheran Cathedral Image Credit: Peter Porter
  • View of the Uspenski Cathedral from Market Square| Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    View of the Uspenski Cathedral from Market Square Image Credit: Peter Porter
  • Where the preserved and the prevailing meet| Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Where the preserved and the prevailing meet Image Credit: Peter Porter

Sustainability and recycling are cornerstones in every new project. The city aims to reduce emissions by an impressive 60 percent over the next decade, and to be carbon neutral by 2035, all the while fostering kinship amongst its denizens in the digital age. Perhaps there is no better example of Finland's progressive sensibilities and bonhomie than Helsinki's newly-minted Central Library Oodi. Warm wood melds with clear glass and lustrous steel to create a unique ecosystem that cultivates discovery and forges human connections through books, music, theatre, sport, food, and engaging with the elements.

  • Oodi Helsinki Central Library | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Oodi Helsinki Central Library Image Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo
  • Inside Oodi Helsinki Central Library | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Inside Oodi Helsinki Central Library Image Credit: Maarit Hohteri

Much like the Oodi, modern apartment homes are efficient and ergonomic with intuitive and charming use of otherwise dead spaces - like the hollow beneath stairwells. Think of Harry Potter's room in his aunt Petunia's house, designed by Antoni Gaudi! Or better yet, by Finland's very own creative maverick, Alvar Aalto, famed for his holistic approach to architecture that put a beating heart in every element of housing - from the grounded structural frame to smooth patinas, and accouterments like glass vases.

  • An inviting setting on the upper deck of a well-appointed yacht | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    An inviting setting on the upper deck of a well-appointed yacht Image Credit: Peter Porter
  • Sibelius Monument is a cluster of over 600 steel ducts crafted to resemble a sound wave made of organ pipes| Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Sibelius Monument is a cluster of over 600 steel ducts crafted to resemble a sound wave made of organ pipes Image Credit: Peter Porter

In 2014, Helsinki was awarded City of Design status as part of the Creative Cities Network established by UNESCO. The city's Design District is a vortex of unique ateliers, galleries, boutiques, and cafes. Engaging with artists and designers at work makes for an interactive theater of the creative process in play. Mirthful Moomin characters - shaped like jolly hippopotami with a belly full of laughs - based on a popular cartoon series are as ubiquitous on household wares like coffee mugs and aprons. As are the bright poppy flowers and bold dots of the world-famous Finnish lifestyle brand Marimekko. Iconic design house Iittala's presence too is evident in practical and pleasing tableware in eateries and homes.

Mirthful Moomin character - shaped like jolly hippopotami with a belly full of laughs| Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
Left: Mirthful Moomin character - shaped like jolly hippopotami with a belly full of laughs Image Credit: Peter Porter
Blooms and benches along the city's many promenades | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
Blooms and benches along the city's many promenades Image Credit: Peter Porter

What the elements don't offer during the cold months, the chipper Finnish conjure with a hearty flourish. There are an estimated two million saunas spread across the country's countless islands. Allas Sea Pool situated near the famous Market Square, replete with berry stands, and brick-a-brac vendors selling kuksas (wooden cups) and puukkos (traditional hunting knives), is an urban oasis with saunas and restaurants overlooking the Baltic Sea. Further south, the pyramid-shaped Loyly with its layered wood facade is a hotspot for locals and tourists, especially by nightfall.

  • Entrance to ALLAS Cafe | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Entrance to ALLAS Cafe Image Credit: Peter Porter
    Casual seating inside the ALLAS  Cafe| Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Casual seating inside the ALLAS Cafe Image Credit: Peter Porter
  • View of the sea by nightfall from the Loyly rooftop | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    View of the sea by nightfall from the Loyly rooftop Image Credit: Peter Porter
  • Corner facade of the famous seaside sauna and restaurant Loyly| Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Corner facade of the famous seaside sauna and restaurant Loyly Image Credit: Peter Porter

A charming waterfront cafe housed in a quaint red hut is the perfect vantage point during regattas season when the weather reflects the warmth of the Finnish spirit. In summer, residents congregate at a pier to rid their carpets and rugs off the musty winter grime, while making merry in the glorious sunshine! I sat at one of the picnic tables between the washing stations and sturdy drying frames, and tried to imagine a summer-cleaning-Finnish-shindig!

  • Prime property - seaside homes at Helsinki | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Prime property - seaside homes at Helsinki Image Credit: Peter Porter
  • Quaint cafe frequented by regatta fans | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    Quaint cafe frequented by regatta fans Image Credit: Peter Porter
  • In the heart of a courtyard | Helsinki | Finland| STIRworld
    In the heart of a courtyard Image Credit: Peter Porter

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About Author

Reetika Khanna

Reetika Khanna

Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer with an eye for style and a palate for adventure. A former flight attendant, she honed her writing skills at Emory, and Georgetown University, US. She has worked with ELLE as a Senior Features Writer, and as an Associate Features Editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. Khanna, who likes to document her travels around the world, is currently working on her second book.

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