Helsinki is different by design

Helsinki's Arabia district is a creative community home to 100 public art works and the...

Helsinki's Arabia district is a creative community home to 100 public art works and the 130-year-old Arabia porcelain factory, and museum. (Courtesy Visit Finland)

Diane Slawych, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:26 PM ET

Design, the Finns like to say, is embedded in everyday life. Or at least it is here.

Few would argue the country, with a population of just 5 million, has produced a disproportionately high number of creative professionals who make their living in the design industry (about 1,000). These include Kaj Franck (1911-1989) who designed the undisputed classic Scandinavian dinnerware, Teema, to architects such as Alvar Aalto (Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, Essen Opera House in Germany), and Viljo Revell, who designed Toronto's City Hall.

For those who appreciate innovative design, Helsinki is a perfect destination. And this year is a particularly good time to visit, as the city has been selected World Design Capital 2012. Many events are planned but whether you visit this year or later, there are lots of design-oriented attractions to explore.

A good introduction is the guided two-hour Design Walks arranged by Helsinki Expert (helsinkiexpert.fi), or pick up a free Design District Helsinki map from the tourist office and guide yourself to places that interest you most. The map encompasses 25 streets and more than 190 design-focused attractions in categories such as fashion, jewelry, galleries, bars and restaurants, and hotels. Some highlights:

Design museums

With design playing such a prominent role in every aspect of daily life, it's only natural Helsinki should have museums devoted to the subject. Two good starting points are the Design Forum, a showcase for contemporary Finnish design, and the Design Museum, where you can discover more about the history of Finnish design. Located in a neo-Gothic building dating to 1873, the museum has the country's largest collections of Finnish glass, ceramics, textiles, jewelry and furniture.

Look for Iittala's Teema tableware, of which millions were sold, and works by some of the big names in Finnish design: Akseli Gallen-Gallela, Alvar Aalto, Tapio Wirkkala and Timo Sarpaneva. New this year is Design Gallery 12, a series of exhibitions and events on current themes and developments in domestic and international design. Fans of building design, meanwhile, may want to visit the Museum of Finnish Architecture.

For music lovers

The new Helsinki Music Centre, which opened in 2011, is a gorgeous modernist building designed by Finland's LPR Architects. The exterior compliments, rather than competes with, surrounding landmarks including Parliament House, the National Museum of Finland, and Finlandia Hall, while the interior draws upon nature -- stalls in the main concert hall are inspired by logging patterns on Finnish rivers. Particularly appealing is the way the 1,704 seats are arranged nest-like around the stage.

The new home of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the centre fits the "Open Helsinki" theme of the World Design Capital 2012 -- glass walls allow passers-by to see in, and long opening hours year-round encourage visitors to wander in anytime, even if not attending a concert.

Arabia district

The Arabia district is a creative community and a "living residential laboratory." Helsinki's requirement that new construction also devote 2% towards public art, has resulted in the installation of 100 works, 22 of which are listed on a free map from the tourist office.

"We want to show how art can be part of the everyday living environment," says Sari Snellman, project manager of Art and Design City Helsinki.

While there, visit the 130-year-old Arabia porcelain factory, museum, gallery and factory outlets.

Transportation

Though Helsinki is a walkable city, there are two fashionable ways to get around town if you want to give your feet a rest -- take a taxi, which is likely to be a Mercedes (not a Finnish car, but an example of the city's design-centric focus), or hop on a Jopo -- the sturdy practical Finnish-designed bicycle. Hotel GLO Helsinki, offers guests free use of these gearless bikes. I rode around the city on one, admiring the architecture of buildings such as the Central Railway Station, a striking Art Nouveau structure, designed by architect Eliel Saarinen in 1919, which includes an arched facade guarded on either side by two lamp-holding granite figures.

See VisitHelsinki.fi or designdistrict.fi.

Design Year events

Most events take place in June and September in Helsinki and neighbouring cities of Lahti, Vantaa, Kaunianen and Espoo (home to Nokia headquarters). Highlights in Helsinki include:

-- Design District Week, which actually only runs June 7-10, kicks off with Late Night Shopping, when stores will be open late, then continues with theme days, guided walking tours, meetings with designers, street events, and ends with a design bazaar on Saturday

-- Helsinki Design Week 2012 -- international designers gather to explore, among other things, ways in which design can benefit cities and society. Sept. 6-16.

-- Kamppi Chapel of Silence -- the award winning innovative timber structure will function as a retreat and be open daily from early morning until late at night.

-- Made in Helsinki -- the exhibition at City Museum, June 12-Sept. 1, will feature Helsinki products and manufacturers from the 1700s to present day.

-- A focal point for activities will be a new pavilion designed by Aalto University students, which is being built in the courtyard between the Design Museum and Museum of Finnish Architecture. From May 12 to Sept. 16 it will be the venue for meetings, talks, workshops, dancing, design flea markets, and movie nights.


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