Beyond the “Nordic style” –– how Finland makes good design available to all

In my years of hearing “Nordic design” frequently thrown around outside of Nordic countries, often in fields like product design and interior decor, the term refers to the kind of simplicity in forms, with an emphasis on function and quality materials.

That is not that far off based on what I heard and saw in Finland. Tuija Aalto-Setälä, Brand Manager of Fiskars Corporation, Finland’s largest Scandinavian lifestyle company, said: “functionality is very much in the core of Finnish design.”

From university libraries to service homes, whether on the street of Helsinki or in any regular Finnish apartment, anywhere I looked, I could spot designs with a great deal of consideration and care for users, making them that much more functional, and if I may, heartwarming to use.

Dining chairs in a Finnish service home are equipped with handles and wheels, making it easier for elderly to pull out and move around.

Meanwhile, I’ve come to associate “Nordic aesthetics“ with the taste of the affluence. It urges to go beyond the very instinctual pursuit of materials. When most people around us strive to “have more” in life, the Nordic chimes in and reminds everyone “more isn’t always better. Better is better.“ (Plus, some products that brag about their “Nordic style“ are indeed above average price.)

My first week in Helsinki challenged the notion that good designs are inherently costly, and made me see how for almost everything, we can dream of and potentially adopt better designs accessible to the masses.

Finnish design philosophy mirrors many stereotypical Finnish traits, which I’ve quickly confirmed and come to adore through few interactions with the locals. Finns are a humble bunch. Their straightforwardness delivers no-nonsense. They are, including many kids we met, acutely aware of their positions in relation to nature and their surroundings. Last but not least, they use “thank you (or kiitos in Finnish)“ generously, and mean it every time they say it.

Similarly, good Finnish designs strip away the excess. They are not flashy to the eyes, often leading us to underestimate them. Designers behind these designs lower themselves and look at their users from the bottom up, not top down.

You may never notice the reflective cover for the Helsinki travel card until it becomes apparent why they decided to use this material. In long, dark winter months, this reflective material makes it easier for drivers to identify passengers’ cards.

On top of all that, we were introduced to the Finnish idea of “collectivism,” which in short means individuals are part of a larger collection, and no one should be left out from it. This perception is rooted in the past when resources were scarce. It also helps to explain the many phenomena the country’s known for, including high gender equality, how happy the country is based on the indexes, and of course, the belief that if we design something, everyone should be able to use it.

I worked at a social enterprise in one of the poorest countries in the world. It aims to bring good, affordable design to farmers, many of whom are in poverty. No matter where you are in the world, this idea is a challenging one. Finland is no exception. But Helsinki has shown me the possibility where good design is not just luxury for selected few. And maybe, just maybe, one day we can replicate that model, not just the “Nordic style,” all around the world.

When I arrived in Helsinki, I quickly noticed that almost all of the water pipes are neatly placed in a just wide enough groove cut along the wall of the buildings, as opposed in most countries, these pipes would rest above the wall and protrude out.

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