Originally published in Finnish Modern Design: Utopian Ideals and Everyday Realities, 1930–1997, edited by Marianne Aav and Nina Stritzler-Levine. New York: Bard Graduate Center, 1998. 29–51.

From the exhibition: The Other Modernism: Finnish Design and National Identity.

Purity and function—these evocative terms have almost become synonymous with Finnish design. In Finland today, there is a tendency to emphasize the internationalism of Finnish design, and reduced functional forms are often singled out for their “universal” appeal. The popular and influential modernist rhetoric of “more beautiful things for everyday use” relates Finland to Scandinavia and evokes a design culture ennobled by the democratic ideal.1

The “Design in Scandinavia” exhibition, which toured North America from 1954 to 1957, strengthened the image of a common Nordic culture; this was underscored in 1961 when the Swedish critic Ulf Hård af Segerstad, in his book Scandinavian Design, called the introduction “Four Countries—One aesthetic Culture.”2 The fact that differences are seldom emphasized in discussions of Scandinavian design is perhaps due to a wariness over nationalist tendencies, but also to the political and economic interests of the Nordic community. It was more effective to market the idyllic picture of an unspoiled North as a common culture. Minimizing the differences was imperative for Finland: by becoming part of the Scandinavian postwar project to aggressively market design abroad, Finland could benefit from established Danish and Swedish trading relations. Moreover, a cultural alliance would help Finland to establish its position on the western side of the Iron Curtain.3

This essay examines Finland’s “design identity,” focusing on conceptions about the objects, not on inherent formal qualities of the objects themselves. Most importantly it considers the prevalent discourses of “Finnishness” that were so crucial in the creation of a national design culture in the 1940s and 1950s. Such an analysis reveals the particular role given to Finland in the context of international design as well as in Nordic culture. It also evokes an “antinormative” view of modern design, replete with nationalist, romanticist, even anti-Functionalist overtones, which may seem out of place in a discussion of modernism. These seemingly anachronistic features are, however, of utmost relevance to a better understanding of Finnish modern design and more generally to the cultural and ideological distinctions all too often overlooked in the history of modernism.

Cultural Difference and Invisible Hierarchies

The Finns have for years been poor and subservient, neither have they ever had the means to be traditional in that sense [as the wealthy Swedes], but they have kept their traditions alive in an indomitably strong and mystically deep soul, their Volksgeist, which under tough living conditions has given them strength and never lulled them into a sense of self-satisfaction. Although their color tones and harmonies are nearly all somber and serious, here and there among the darker tones a more powerful radiance can be discerned. This is special and strange, far distant from our gentle Danish palette, yet we seem to recognize it, just as we love it in Finnish music, in the works Sibelius and the artist Järnefelt have given us. Unending, sighing spruce forests, uninhabited skerries and deep lakes, the setting sun glowing on becalmed waters, all this we recognize in these works….4

This characterization of Finnish applied arts written by a Danish critic in 1940, is telling in its patronizing portrayal of Finnish culture.5 The review is about Finnishness: austere conditions and natural landscapes. Design tenets such as form, function, or methods of production do not figure into this type of contextualization. Finnish design was successful abroad precisely because of its Finnishness—its authentic, original, essentially exotic, quality. And this, in turn, is how the Finns learned and accepted to present their design abroad.

In writing about Finnish ryijy rugs in 1941, Åke Stavenow, editor of the Swedish design magazine Form, praised the daring compositions, powerful colors, “the mysticism and fragrances of nature.” He also stressed the suggestive atmosphere, which “actually had nothing whatever to do with textiles.”6 A similar reaction was expressed by Swedish glass and ceramics designer Tyra Lundgren, who commented that “this Finnish talent for capturing the imagination of a foreign audience is by no means directly related to objective quality, but it forces the viewer to internalize his or her own experience.”7

These statements reveal the experiential subjectivity characteristic of the interpretation of modern Finnish applied arts. The suggestive content of the works was repeatedly stressed. These few excerpts also show that the critics were intrigued by a difference they recognized in Finnish design, which caused them to repeat a preconception of Finnishness in one article after another. Form and function were clearly not the issue.

The strong identity of modern Finnish applied arts can be recognized in the critics’ tendency to draw parallels between design and the fine arts, music, and poetry. Swedish critics favored references to the national heroes of Finnish art such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Tyko Sallinen, or Wäinö Aaltonen; as a “color art” ryijy rugs in particular were frequently compared to the master paintings.8 These comparisons reveal conventions in art and design criticism, but they were also strategies for enhancing the artistic value of the applied arts. The romantic repertoire of concepts favored by design critics also included religious metaphors. Finns were presumed to display in their crafts a “religious” outlook stemming from pantheism and paganism. In a 1946 article published in Denmark, for example, the sustaining factor in the Finnish applied arts was ascribed to a “pagan or at least a Gothic view of life.”9

In the 1940s, Lundgren, who was also a critic and essayist, frankly described the national differences between the Nordic countries. She stressed the pathos and “primitive instinct to identify with nature” which “is more clearly noticeable in the Finns than in [the Swedes], because as a race they have only partially been freed from the natural state.”10 Lundgren continues:

As a people the Finns have a unique strength, a primitive artistic drive with which they charge their work. It is a strange mixture of witchcraft and backwoods melancholy, glowing colors and gray poverty, paganism, a yearning for beauty and an enduring strength. Their sense of form does not stem from classical antecedents, nor is it based on shapes developed by man over the millennia. Their archetype is the primitive nature around them, forms which could be carved from wood with a puukko knife, dictated by feelings and instincts alone.11

When writing about glassmaking, Lundgren explained the differences through what she considered to be racial features and characteristics. She compared the “flaxen-haired, muscular glassblowers from Småland” at the Swedish glasshouse Kosta to the Finns who, “despite the docility of their race,” had shown themselves to be slow and plodding in their work. Finnish glassblowers, according to Lundgren, lacked intuitive and free expression although, paradoxically enough, these same features characterized the general Swedish image of Finnish artist-designers.12

The Scandinavian critics’ choice of words was influenced by a tangle of cultural stereotypes, the unraveling of which reveals a view of the Nordic ideological climate as well as the conventions of critical discourse. A German tradition is reflected in conceptions relating aesthetic subjectivism and Einfühlung with national character. According to art historian Wilhelm Worringer, for example, art in Northern Europe was characterized by mysticism and intuition, the “Northern pathos” was due to an instinct for art that was distinguished from (Italian) classicism.13 It was characterized by a yearning for “redemption,” an “ecstatic will to form” and longing for primitivism.14 The other Nordic countries in particular recognized these features in the Finnish applied arts, as they were perhaps nostalgically looking to Finland for a pristine “authentic Nordicism.” At the same time, however, the position of the “eastern primitive” in the Nordic cultural hierarchy was indicated.

In the 1940s, words such as “painterly” and “colorist” were favored to identify the work of Finnish designer-craftspeople. As the Scandinavians saw it, Finns created through instinct, not knowledge. Design reviews speak of a nature-culture dichotomy in which the untouched or original is differentiated from that refined by culture or civilization: Finnishness was primitiveness. Finnish designers represented “a race only partially freed from the natural state” who “still feel a part of the forest, earth, moss, grass …”15 or they were “like children of nature … ignorant of past achievements.”16 Design in Finland was thus not conceived as a conscious “form culture” of calculated proportions, instead it was envisioned as an innocent and childlike play with materials.17

There were also gender connotations in the articulation of Finnish difference: a virginal “Maiden of Finland” was seen in the objects—unrefined and irrational (feminine), matter in contrast to form. The very ideal of vitalism that characterized the Finnish applied arts was metaphorically feminine, an “imitation of the earth,” of creation as in nature.18

This merging of primitivism with a gendered attitude can be detected in the way the Swedish critic Gustav Näsström characterized the work of Toini Muona, a leading artist at the Arabia factory:

Muona’s stoneware shows a stubborn opposition to the regular roundness of the thrown form. It is said that during her lunch breaks she wanders around, scraping lumps of clay with a teaspoon, and in this way many of her forms have taken shape. Some of them are crooked vases with dents on them, others are small tilting plates and bowls like oyster shells or upturned mushroom caps with tattered broken edges, meshlike patterns scraped or engraved on their surfaces.19

Näsström’s depiction of a carefree Muona—the girl potter—scraping away at a lump of clay is an image of unconscious creation in which formal innovation is replaced by childlike curiosity. The aesthetic (innovative) element in the ceramist’s work was left vague, as part of the mystique of intuitive creation and of the Finnish child of nature.

In view of the exoticism that informed critical discourse, it is hardly surprising that Finnish designer Aune Siimes’ delicate porcelain jewelry of the 1940s conjured up in the mind of an Oslo critic “the barbaric negro ornaments made from the teeth of a predatory beast!”20 The image of primitive, unconscious creativity was appropriated by the male master designers of the 1950s. Tapio Wirkkala, for example, was admired in Italy as a rugged uomo naturale, who was reputed to eat flowers and wrestle with bears in the morning.21 In the design process Wirkkala talked of “seeing fingertips,” conveying to an “other world,” through which form was created intuitively.22 The vitalist-transcendentalist overtones that inform Wirkkala’s identity as a designer help us understand why the time he spent working for Raymond Loewy’s design office in the United States in the mid-1950s remained a brief and unsuccessful experiment. At Loewy’s office, Wirkkala was given the task of drawing the dashboard and handles for a car, as part of a precise and differentiated industrial design process. A craftsman at heart, he did not feel at home in this mechanized design culture. As Edgar Kaufmann explained, “Throughout his work Wirkkala is as unmechanistic as possible—a true romancer of the far North.”23

The designer Timo Sarpaneva on the other hand explains: “My grandfather was a shaman, he chanted spells and set bones as was done in the olden days…. I am just that kind of primitive being. I am also awfully childish…. This is my strength.”24 This creator of ultramodern objects continues to identify himself with the exotic Finnishness that characterized the field in the early years of his career. The idea of a “naive,” unconscious creative process was an essential aspect of the discourse which brought Sarpaneva’s objects into the public consciousness.

These examples show how national mythological components, romantic aesthetic discourse, and personal biography merged in the charting of a modern (Finnish) artist type in design. The Germanic concepts of Volksgeist, Kunstwollen, and Nordic pathos recur in writings about Finnish design. The French philosopher Henri Bergson’s antipositivist vitalism, in many ways a reversion to the romantic tradition, was also absorbed into contemporary design discourse.25

The origins of the artist image given to Finnish designers can be traced to the early romanticist Friedrich von Schlegel, who posited that true creativity occurs in a naive (unconscious) state. The related tendency to exaggerate the inexplicable aspects of works of art is found in the theories of expressionism. According to Paul Fechter (Der Expressionismus, 1915), for example, excessive conceptualization and the conscious valuation of form/design was against the “holy spirit” of art.26 The tradition of “something in me creates” equates to the unwillingness of Finnish designers to explicate and thus, perhaps, trivialize the creative process.

The critical reception of Finnish design in Scandinavia greatly influenced the Finns’ conception of their own national design culture. In the catalogue for the joint exhibition of Finnish fine arts and design “Modern Art in Finland: An Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture, Graphic and Applied Arts” that toured Great Britain from 1953 to 1954, the Finnish curator Jaakko Puokka summarized the idea of Finnishness in design, in what is now recognizable tautological rhetoric: “The Finns interpret the world in terms of feelings and instincts rather than visually, and this is how our art should be interpreted.”27 He also stressed the lack of traditions and, needless to say, the importance of the northern climate and nature. These preconceptions were then appropriated in several British assessments, even somewhat artificially: for example when the narrow forms of vases were seen to derive from rugged nature itself, where flowers grew too sparsely to be gathered into a bouquet; or when the engravings on Finnish glass objects were linked with a Lapp tradition of carving ornaments on reindeer horns.

Although Scandinavian exhibition reviews were replete with almost unanimous praise of Finnish textiles and ceramics, between the lines there is a condescending attitude toward “little Finland.” In a review of the 1941 exhibition Ny Finsk Konstindustri (New Finnish Applied Arts) at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm the Swedish critic Gotthard Johansson pointed out how the Swedish king had assiduously studied “all the talented and beautiful things which diligent Finnish fingers have created,”28 the tone was naively patronizing. Concealed behind the admiration for the accomplishments of war-torn Finland was a hierarchical order; the Swedish and Danish reviews were expressed vertically, from the point of view of a traditional normative quality.29 In 1946, while introducing the press to the collection of Arabia ceramics to be exhibited in Denmark that year, Kurt Ekholm, the factory’s artistic director, noted: “With good reason we fear the criticism of our [Danish] hosts…. Alongside these traditional artists we, the Arabia artists, are like children playing with clay.”30

The repetition of metaphors of youth and innocence in the Scandinavian reception of Finnish applied arts implied a fresh creative force, but it also indicated Finland’s position in the Nordic hierarchy. Instead of unqualified praise there was talk of promise. However, most of the artists in question had already reached one apex in their careers and created what are now recognized as modern classics of the Finnish applied arts. The Finnish “otherness” stressed in the Scandinavian discourse implied restraint. The associated “racial” concept appeared as a metaphor, lending the sanction of “natural order” to expressions of difference and distance. This prejudice comes remarkably close to the antiquated attitudes of Western nations toward non-European peoples, attitudes which today are understood as part of a Western system of restructuring the cultural other.31

The idea of race that appears either directly or indirectly in writings on the applied arts reflects the nineteenth-century notion of the Finns as a “lower” Mongol people, prevalent in Scandinavian encyclopedias in the first half of this century.32 It is perhaps surprising that the racial concept should reappear in design criticism during the Second World War, despite the gruesome realities of National Socialist racial policies.33 There were, however, also positive connotations mixed into this concept of race. In the field of the applied arts as elsewhere, Finns were perceived as a “Noble Savage,” concealing behind a reticent and clumsy exterior such positive attributes as tenacity, honesty, and profundity. The Finnish primordial force was defined from the point of view of “civilization,” but within the context of modernism this primitiveness could be admired. The ennoblement of the savage was influenced by the intense sympathy felt for “brave little Finland” during the war.

A review in Form, by the English critic Frank Austin, of the joint-Nordic exhibition “Nordiskt Konsthantverk” held at the Liljevalchs Konsthall in Stockholm in 1946, showed that the exotic quality of Finnish design was not merely a Scandinavian fabrication. Austin began his appraisal of the Finnish section and its ryijy rugs, whose “almost exotic emotional expression” dominated his impression of the exhibition: “This intensive Nordic upsurge of emotion coupled with a strong empathy with nature gives the Finnish section its particular character. Even the love of the Nordic people for spring can be found in these fair rugs, whose brilliant colors are like the sun on a moss-covered rock or the surface of water, but an even stronger Nordic feature can be seen in other rugs which, in the twilight evoked in their dark and mystic color, are reminiscent of the mossy forests.”34

Austin had a clear picture of the characteristic nature of Finnish design. Its origins evidently lay in a feeling for nature:

It is not so much a question of literally using natural forms as the rare ability of the Finns to use fortuitous natural shapes or those that result from specific stages in craft production. The same emotion that causes an artist to create something beautiful out of a hollow birch root, the same instinct that says what shall be stressed and strengthened, what is to be removed and what is to be retained…. And finally you get … a glimpse of the religious mentality you always come across with people living in close contact with nature, and which gives to Finnish works their unique character.35

Such insights drew from cultural stereotypes, but it would be cynical to dismiss them as mere rhetoric. The Finnish textiles had a more expressive feel about them and a greater color intensity than the Swedish ones to which they were consistently compared. The unconventional Finnish interpretation of traditional ceramic forms with their rich glazing made Swedish ceramics appear contrived and academic. When new glass by Tapio Wirkkala and Gunnel Nyman were introduced at the “Nordiskt Konsthantverk” (Nordic Applied Arts) exhibition in 1946 at Stockhosm’s Liljevalchs Konsthall, the theme was a familiar one that had been borrowed from ceramics and textiles: reduced outlines (hinting at natural associations), whose aesthetic nuances were concealed in suggestive material effects.

It is worth noting that the Swedish and Danish response to Finnish design was somewhat different from that of Norway with its more outspoken enthusiasm. In Norway, Finland became a model alongside Denmark and Sweden. The Norwegians were astonished to discover an artistic elegance and joie de vivre in Finnish design, instead of the heavy ponderousness normally associated with Finnish national character.36

In his writings Knut Greve, director of the Foreningen Brukskunst (Norwegian Society of Craft and Design), showed how Norway identified itself with Finland as a “young” applied arts culture in the Scandinavian hierarchy. According to Greve, the emphasis on individuality was a natural way for Finland to differentiate itself from the “over-cultivated” national styles of Denmark and Sweden. The traditions of these neighboring countries had not managed to sap the spirit of experimentation in Finland; instead, uninhibited creative innovation and freedom had been allowed to flourish. Greve felt that Norway had much to learn from this independence and freedom.37 As early as 1941 he had written with great enthusiasm:

When we look at young Finland, we observe an entirely different national character, which blows not like a fresh wind but more like a gale through Nordic cooperation. We do not yet know what this strange country has to offer, or how deep an effect it will have on the other Nordic countries. But what we have seen up to now reveals a talent which shows that under normal conditions it will be Finland that will soon take the lead in the Nordic applied arts …. Finns have not the methodical nature of the Swedes, but on the other hand they are free of their inhibitions. Their many great talents have had more freedom. They have broken out with a violent force, reminiscent of the Norwegian renaissance of the last century.38

An Everyday Culture?

The Finnish applied arts had an ambivalent relationship to the “everyday wares” philosophy propounded by Nordic democracy, and its design culture was long tainted by an artistic elitism.

The crucial question of the role of craft within the field of design as a whole had been discussed in Finland since the turn of the century, and in the 1920s it received a new impetus from the Swedish vackrare vardagsvara (more beautiful things for everyday use) rhetoric. The concepts of “socializing taste” and “more beautiful things for everyday use” became popular even in Finnish applied arts circles. The ideological basis for this discourse in Finland was tenuous, given the prevalent nationalist cultural atmosphere, with its desire to identify the country as a virile independent state. One-of-a-kind handcrafted standouts were favored for their representational quality, despite calls for more socially oriented policies by the outspoken group of “functionalists” such as the architects Alvar Aalto and P. E. Blomstedt, and art critic Nils Gustav Hahl. The alliance of art and industry was carried out differently in Finland than in Sweden: until 1946 there were only two full-time professional designers working in the Finnish glass industry, and at Arabia, the leading ceramics factory, a small number of dinner services aspiring to the ideals of modernism was designed between 1936 and 1948, despite the fact that the factory employed six to ten full-time “artists.”39

After the 1945 Arabia exhibition in Stockholm at NK department store, Åke Stavenow published a polemical critique in Form. In an otherwise highly appreciative review, Stavenow questioned the estrangement of Finnish artists from the design of utility goods.40 Kurt Ekholm responded in a written statement, defending the elitist identity of the Arabia factory: “That our free-working artists have thus far achieved such a high level, as Scandinavian criticism has unanimously shown, is based solely on the fact that they have been free to devote themselves to their art, without being forced to labor in the weed-invested garden of household wares.”41

Many of the pioneers of modern Swedish design were originally trained as painters, and for them the applied arts meant willfully foregoing their artistic “freedom” in favor of idealistic “beautiful everyday goods.”42 The vast majority of Finnish artist-designers were trained in the craft aesthetics, unfettered by the mission of social reform. Cultural stereotypes could be useful, even in defending this “handicap.” An apt cultural humility is expressed in Kurt Ekholm’s 1947 article concerning Finnish utility goods (or lack thereof), in which he stated that “an intellectual attitude does not come as naturally for us than the Swedes and Danes.”43

Stig Lindberg was one of the Swedish designers whose response to Stavenow was published in Form. “Oh yes,” he wrote, “the ideal ceramist is production manager, social reformer, architect, adman, salesman, technician and clerk. This is something we have made quite sure of here in Sweden. But we should also raise our hats to the Danish and Finnish ceramists who do not need to be anything else other than excellent artists.”44 Lindberg illustrated his ironic piece with a drawing of an artist standing on a pedestal—a bohemian sniffing a flower and listening to a shell—with a placard around his neck proclaiming “Social Struggle.”

Finland’s specific role in relation to Functionalism could also be seen in exhibition design. This became more pronounced when the Nordic countries appeared together, as, for example, in the 1946 exhibition “Nordiskt Konsthantverk.” Tyra Lundgren reviewed the exhibition in the Danish design journal Nyt Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri. The Danish section, she wrote, possessed a “maturity and grace,” so that when you stepped into the Finnish section “you were hit by an emotional and riotous force of color, a sense of romanticism, which instantly transferred the visitor into that mixture of original pathos, primitivism, nature worship, endless thirst for color and equivocal natural lyrical form ideals that gives Finland its distinctive image.”45 The exhibition marked the international debut of pivotal works such as Wirkkala’s “Kantarelli,” Gunnel Nyman’s “Calla,” Arttu Brummer’s “Finlandia,” and Alli Koroma’s “Nymphea Alba.”

The theme and title of the Århus joint exhibition the following year was “Vårt Hjem” (Our Home), but there was no sign of “home” in the Finnish section; the exhibition consisted of essentially nonfunctional one-of-a-kind objects.46 Hans Lessen proclaimed in Nyt Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri: “There is no doubt whatever that the Finnish section is the high point of this exhibition.”47 It was, according to Lessen, distinguished by purely aesthetic exhibition design, “abstract” in its expression. Lessen described the effect as an “explosion of artistic talent,” in which “a complete fusion of technology, colors and materials” had been realized.48 Svend Erik Møller came to a similar conclusion, writing, “Above all, the Finns are the most interesting, as their form of expression is entirely different than the other Scandinavians. Their objects possess an incredible explosive force and even though this may result in a slightly unfinished form, Finnish design with its eastern touch offers a rich source of inspiration to the rest of us.”49

Finnish design exhibitions in the 1940s expressed what can be called poetic materialism, a worship of materials through intense colors and vibrant forms. They proclaimed the antithesis of war, a joie de vivre, and an escapism tempered by vitalism—“dreams of stars and negro girls, and all the splendors of the jungle,” as one Danish critic wrote.50 This eclectic richness strengthened the image of Finnish originality in relation to the other Nordic countries.

In the early 1950s the cult of abundant vitality was replaced by asceticism and the theme of “dematerialization,” the accentuation of the immaterial and open space. Individual objects, however, still revealed the ideals of the 1940s, as for example the organic forms of Toini Muona and Tapio Wirkkala or the ryijy rugs by Eva Brummer and Uhra-Beata Simberg-Ehrström with their glowing color schemes.

If the everyday was conspicuous by its absence in exhibitions during the 1940s, it was brought back in the following decade as a sublime mirage: exclusive craft objects were allowed to merge with everyday Finnish reality in the perceptions of the international public. In fact few of the select objects were to be found in middle class Finnish homes.

At the ninth and tenth Milan Triennales (1951 and 1954), Swedish concretism and pragmatism were again paralleled to Finnish spirituality and lofty aesthetics. The character of Tapio Wirkkala’s exhibition design is analogous to the general nature of the applied arts in Finland: due to nationalistic undertones and postwar reconstruction idealism, design was not thought to have a material content but a spiritual one as well, and its goals were at least as much cultural as they were commercial.

Wirkkala’s controlled design for the tenth Triennale of 1954 created a unified image of Finland: the enlarged photograph of a national landscape—the lake region of central Finland—communicated a “Nordic” serenity, a feeling of wide open space. It provided a picturesque dimension, while serving as a contextualizing backdrop for the ceramic and glass objects, which in themselves represented subdued and modern form ideals.51 As Ragna Ljungdell of the Swedish-Finnish Hufvudstadsbladet wrote, “Wirkkala’s glass objects and Sarpaneva’s cosmic dreams of the same material were but a powerfully glowing condensation of the elements of the Koli-scenery across the room.”52 Another Finnish journalist suggested that the photograph might be too domineering, but in the end finally gave her approval, as it was “proof of our artist’s love for our land and our nature, from which they refuse to part even when coming out to the world.”53

The Finnish section at the tenth Milan Triennale was one of the most suggestive, again revealing that “mixture of primitive daring and incredible elegance, which always differentiates Finland from the rest of Scandinavia.”54 Arthur Hald wrote in Form that the Finnish interior imparted the most “powerful national impression,” through its exclusive character, artistic force, and “Finnish individualism.”55 Hald singled out Wirkkala’s exhibition design for its experiential quality: it was a space in which one could “spontaneously see and experience.” Hald’s choice of words is revealing: he talks of Wirkkala as the “aesthetic dictator” of the Finnish section and of the uncompromisingly strict selection of exhibits. “Finland is Best,” proclaimed the Danish Politiken newspaper, lamenting that the Danish section had not followed the same strict aesthetic selection criteria as the Finns.56

Wirkkala’s strategy for the Milan Triennales of 1951 and 1954 was cunning: to hide the economic realities of postwar Finland behind a veil of aestheticized “poverty,” humility, and asceticism. The exhibitions created an illusion of everyday objects and of Finland—a sublime representation of the Finnish everyday.

In the 1950s, foreign characterizations of Finnish design still contained religious overtones. Former references to pagan folk beliefs gave way to the refined piety of the “aesthetic gospel” (as the Scandinavian triumph was appropriately called). The pagan pathos did not disappear altogether, it had just been made respectable.

In 1954 the Swedish critic Ulf Hård af Segerstad aptly described Timo Sarpaneva as: “above all an artiste, an exclusive artist. Disregarding any suggestion of usefulness he allows the material to conceive its own shape, as a kind of art of aesthetic birth giving.”57 Sarpaneva’ s persona appears to be fashioned in terms of its difference to Scandinavian intellectualism. In Hård af Segerstad’s words, Sarpaneva’s design process is envisaged as a mixture of unconscious creation and religious nuances.58

In 1955 Sarpaneva was commissioned to design the Finnish section at the “H55” exhibition in Helsingborg, Sweden. Consisting largely of rigorously selected craft objects, the Finnish display was arranged as an eloquent “still life,” a portrayal of aesthetic humility unobtainable in the realm of everyday life. An anonymous British critic is said to have claimed that every morning he went first to the Finnish section to say his prayers. The other Nordic stands were criticized for “trudging along in their 1930s’ functionalist woollen socks.”59

Avoidance of the commonplace as well as contempt for commercial pragmatism was central to the public image of the Finnish applied arts. The relative absence of Finnish furniture designs also reflects this tendency. Modern Finnish furniture had been prominently displayed in exhibitions abroad during the 1930s, but it soon lost its representative role in the depiction of a Finnish design culture to other types of objects, particularly glass and ceramics.60 It was difficult to associate the popular rhetoric of vitalism with furniture, nor was an expressive or spiritual emphasis viable in its design. Alvar Aalto’ s designs, considered abroad to express a distinctly “Finnish” quality, were rarely exhibited in applied arts exhibitions in the 1940s and 1950s—his designs were now déjà vu and his marketing project was considered individualistic. In the 1941 exhibition “Ny Finsk konstindustri” at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, for example, Aalto’s absence was explained by the fact that the architect “hadn’t had time to compose any novelties” for the exhibition.61 Such “novelties,” however, were abundant in the field of handcrafted textiles, ceramics, and, after the war, glass. It should be stressed that the wartime was somewhat paralyzing especially for glass. Textile and ceramics managed to create wonderful craft pieces despite shortages. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s it was accepted that furniture was not Finland’s forté: the Finns wanted especially to avoid an unflattering comparison with Denmark. In 1947 Arttu Brummer, head of the furniture design department at the School of Applied Arts in Helsinki noted reluctantly, “‘taste’ in the field of Finnish furniture was clearly underdeveloped.”62

From Discourses of Otherness to Aesthetic Protectionism

The “Finnish feeling for nature” is perhaps a myth, but like most myths, it is simultaneously true and untrue.63 Not even the most progressive modernists were immune to the predominant design discourse. When the designer Kaj Franck was asked in 1959 about the strength of Finnish design, the devoted modernist replied without hesitation: “Someone dwelling in the North, especially a Finn, has lived, and still lives, in the midst of nature. He feels under his feet the softness of sand, the path and blades of grass, the hardness of the rock and the smoothness of stones. His sense of color has developed from the colors of moss, leaves and earth, and his sense of form is derived from nature’s own shapes.”64

When Finnish design gained international recognition in the 1950s, it was nevertheless necessary to soften the sharper edges of this earth-bound exoticism. The nationalist rhetoric continued to be linked to marketing, playing its role in modifying the ascetic forms of the new tableware. In Franck’s case, for example, the “conservativism” of his novel designs for Arabia, was stressed, alluding to the authentic Functionalism inherent in the indigenous vernacular tradition. Rarely was any reference made in Finland to Franck’s interest in Japanese, Swedish, or German design culture.

In the exhibition “Modern Art in Finland: An Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture, Graphic and Applied Arts,” the status of Tapio Wirkkala’s laminated plywood sculpture was elevated above the works of the sculptors Wäinö Aaltonen and Carl Wilhelms, not because it was modern and beautifully streamlined, but because “the essence of the vast Finnish forests is richly expressed in the complex and living lines revealed in the wood laminations,” which were thought to express “2000 years of the Finnish preoccupation with wood.”65

The Finnish designers work was also marked by an awareness of the “purity” of Finnish taste, and foreign influences were readily condemned. The reluctance to follow Swedish models, for example, played an essential role in the reform of the ceramics and glass.66

Throughout the 1950s Finnishness was a value which had to be kept from excessive external influence. At the 1950 annual applied arts exhibition in Helsinki, Kaj Franck criticized the “all too easy ‘west winds’ and Lombardian breezes in furniture.” To Franck’s disdain “a dressed-up and frivolous Scandinavian Forties” was gaining a foothold.67 In 1957 the Finnish critic Annikki Toikka-Karvonen credited Marita Lybeck’s “Koto” tableservice with “being so thoroughly Finnish in appearance … if only [the buying public] has a sufficient sense of style so that its ruggedness … is not stifled by pretentious urban sophistication or American-style colors.”68

In writing of the Milan Triennale in 1957, Toikka-Karvonen proudly pointed out Finland’s distance from the impersonal chic of international design. Toikka-Karvonen claimed that many of the exhibition pavilions repeated the same ideas, manifesting a “stiff dry prickliness, amoeba-like slackness and confused compositions.”69 Another contemporary critic Kerttu Niilonen was amazed by the forms shown in an exhibition of Italian ceramic design in Helsinki “which we Finns feel to be peculiarly sloppy, like lumps of pastry, quite alien to the medium.”70 Finnish design identity found its place somewhere between the “elegant and degenerate artistry” of the Italians and the practicality of the Scandinavians.71

At the Sources of Otherness: Antinormative Tendencies in Design Ideology and Pedagogy

If a single spokesman were to be chosen for the Finnish interpretation of modernism—a discursive focal point in which the factors of otherness are condensed—then Arttu Brummer is the most compelling choice. He was a major influence in the Finnish applied arts, an interior architect, glass designer, critic, and teacher of design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Helsinki from 1919 onward, becoming its artistic director from 1944 to 1951.72 With the exception of Kurt Ekholm and Friedl Holzer-Kjellberg, who trained in Sweden and Austria respectively, virtually all the artist-designers mentioned in this catalogue were Brummer’s students.

The craft-oriented pedagogical tradition which Brummer personified could be described as vitalist and antirationalist. Its origins lie in the educational reform inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement and adopted in Finland by the architect Armas Lindgren in 1902.73 Many features link Brummer to the pioneer generation of National Romanticism: like his own teachers, he stressed forms that were traceable to nature but which had been “shaped through the free play of the senses.”74 According to his students he was a “biological” person who inspired them to seek their knowledge of morphology from Finnish nature.

Usko Nyström, another Finnish architect of the National Romantic generation, wrote in Kotitaide magazine in 1911 when Brummer was a student at the Central School of Industrial Arts: “Free variation, far from arbitrariness, which does not shun apparent irregularity and to some extent incompleteness, is the basic requirement of all vital living art.”75 He defined a handmade object as a “living individual being,” which if excessively (mechanically) worked changed into a “stiff and cold dead object.”76 Nyström’s words presage the aesthetics of vitalism for which the Finnish applied arts later became famous. Almost forty years later Kaj Franck wrote: “An object designed for use should not appear finished or polished. Its imperfect state is a message to the user, an impulse to thought and action.”77

Arttu Brummer invested in his students a powerful belief in individual creative expression; the applied arts were not really distinct from the fine arts, neither were there boundaries between the different branches of the applied arts.78 The ideal was authenticity and intuition, the unspoiled drawing of a child was an example of genuine creativity. Brummer sought from his students an emotional expression that was enigmatic and subjective. His design ideology was also impregnated with religious overtones.79

Moreover, Brummer’s aesthetics were tinged by the hidden agenda of nationalism. In the 1940s he recognized the same romantic characteristics that were evident in Scandinavian design criticism: “… if our craft art has given its best, revealed what is deepest in us, it has exuded a Gothic glow and pathos.”80 The desired link to tradition was found in National Romanticism and the heritage of the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela. In an article written in 1933 Brummer portrayed the image of authentic Finnishness, characterized in the inimitable primordial force of the child of nature:

Even if trends in taste change, it is the intuition in Gallen-Kallela’s works that most affect us … that unexplainable impression left by a vital, feeling man in his creations. This heritage left by Gallen-Kallela and Lindgren to the decorative arts is so precious, that no contemporary movements, such as standardization, must be allowed to stifle it. We must not sell our speciality cheaply …. [When our textile art] is admired at foreign exhibitions, it is undoubtedly because of the primordial force of the creator, this child of nature, interwoven in the warp and weft, which can never be taken away from us and which others try in vain to copy…. As the life of our applied arts continuously broadens and acquires a commercial nature, we must gently nurture this shy offspring of the formidable forests and fragrant meadows.81

Brummer’s writings defended individual emotional creativity against objective Functionalism, but at the same time it was colored by a strong, unifying national art project.82 Brummer’s words bring us back to Wilhelm Worringer who stressed the profundity of Northern man and art in contrast to Southern superficiality. Interestingly, in his evaluation of Functionalism Brummer was apt to point out its foreign origins; in writing about Alvar Aalto in 1932 and Kaj Franck in 1950, he pointed out a decorativeness “akin to French taste.”83 The notion of Frenchness had pejorative overtones.

In 1949, on the other hand, Brummer wrote enthusiastically about the textile artist Laila Karttunen: “Her works appeal … especially in their racial authenticity, their national mood.”84 Six years earlier Brummer had explained: “In her creations Karttunen represents Finnishness at its purest; she if anyone has both a clear eye for color and a rich collection of forms, and she is free from all superficial affectations or aiming at being the last word.”85

Brummer’ s use of the term “racial purity,” in connection to a woman artist, appears to mean everything humble and untarnished. In the 1920s Brummer had declared: “We should not strive for Finnishness in itself, but relentlessly and boldly for racial purity.”86 To explain what he meant he took an example of the “negro peoples” who had managed to avoid racial intermixing, and in which an “original, if not a particularly high spiritual life had developed.”87

Beyond Functionalism

It is perhaps all too easy to marginalize Brummer’s seemingly anachronistic craft ideology in relation to “modernism proper”; here, too, it would be more pertinent to talk of alternative modernisms. In light of the functionalist-traditionalist polarity personified in Alvar Aalto and Brummer, the latter is seen in an unreasonably reactionary light. Brummer in fact clearly defended the role of innovative craft in modern society, co-existing with industrial design. According to Brummer, craft, unlike industrial design, was capable of producing something “defiant, novel, confronting conventional taste,”88 in short, something modern. The fundamental difference is that Brummer’ s thinking was based on the qualitative values of craft aesthetics.

Brummer’s ideas also contained “functionalist” elements, such as the principle of truth to material89 and the idea of “organicism,” of recognizing contemporary needs in objects. Like the functionalists, Brummer understood the social imperatives associated with industrial production: the factories should employ the finest artists, and the least expensive object should be afforded the best design. “L’art pour l’art—that’s lard, pure lard” was a catchphrase he used when warning his more idealistic students not to lose sight of the principle of utility in their designs.90

A basic form stemming from function was, however, too easy a solution; what an artist brought to that form was essential. To Brummer, asceticism was at its best the “highest expression of beauty,” but when misunderstood it came dangerously close to spiritual poverty.91 Brummer, in fact, viewed Alvar Aalto’s designs as “aristocratic creations” that did not serve the real needs of the people.92 As regards Aalto as an exemplary model, Brummer politely dismissed this possibility: “Prof. Aalto’s approach is so completely original that out of respect for artistic copyright it cannot be emulated.”93

Brummer’ s most passionate ideas appear in a lengthy article published in 1933 commenting on Functionalism.94 In it Brummer aimed at enhancing the position of his field, from an “applied” decorative arts status (subservient to architecture).95 He opposed all kinds of hierarchies, whether they were dictated by the “free” visual arts or architecture:

Craft circles should thus not oppose the correct aims of the new wave of architects, but neither is there any need for our craft to capitulate to the tenor of architecture. The way our decorative artists express their feelings has, perhaps, been laughed at, but it is precisely the emotional content which is so prominent in our applied arts…. Intuitive erotic-emotional craft arts belong to that mysterious world, which up till now has been thought to be the realm of fine art…. The highest expression of creativity is that an object is conceived as the artist’s own credo, his own conviction, as the result of a yearning for beauty.96

According to Brummer, the appeal of craft derived from an intuitive feeling for material, form, and narrative or symbolic themes, an empathetic impact on the senses, even the sexual instincts. A work should, therefore, not be overly designed as it is refined in the subjective experience of the receiver. And Brummer, if anyone, was a master of “empathetic seeing”—charismatically imparting his experience to others, such as his students, in awe of the metaphorical eloquence of his discourse.

Brummer wrote that in the face of industrial production the individual “capitulates into becoming a machine,” whereas craft production belonged to the realm of the emotions, unaffected by expediency. In Brummer’s emotion-oriented humanism, the attitude to industrialism was anachronistic, especially in regard to the modernist cult of the machine. What is significant, however, is that both attitudes, the machine cult as well as the craft ideal, were romantically tinged. To Brummer, the machine had “invaded the field of the crafts” and in assessing the ostensible achievements of the machine, “a belief in the medieval personification of the devil is awakened. Much lyrical ‘torch-bearing’ is required if you wish to see in the smoke, heat and ear-splitting din of an iron foundry anything other than conditions unfit for human beings.”97

The objects Brummer admired belonged to art culture: “We could imagine spiritual life as a mass, like a piece of soft clay. When it is pressed by the democratic hand, it spreads over the resisting surface, but simultaneously becomes flatter.”98 This daring defense of elitism was likely to irritate the “functionalists,” especially when Brummer delighted in sprinkling his aesthetic language with social metaphors. According to him,

due to economic circumstances, the spiritual life of the greater population of Finland is not so refined that its spiritual hunger would yearn for the creations of art…. It is within the nature of democracy to require that culture expands, but not that it attains great heights. Art, however, is quite the opposite in requiring exaltation, freedom from the earth’s crust, and the concentration of capital in ever fewer hands is to its advantage…. I am increasingly inclined to feel—however much support the democratic way of thinking wins—that it cannot eradicate the caste system, which in fact is an absolute law of biology …. If we completely renounce the aristocratic concept of society, we shall have to renounce many of the emotional factors that still characterize our decorative arts.99

Brummer’s overt elitism may seem shocking to today’s reader. His words should, however, be read in the context of contemporaneous expressive ideals, or as an aesthetic rather than sociopolitical attitude. Of course in Brummer’s case, aesthetics were harnessed to the political agenda of national representation. Brummer proclaimed: “Above all in our country, where conditions are meager and poor, the social environment may dampen all spiritual life, making absolutely sure that no one is allowed to raise his head above this millimeter-high dwarf folk. And yet it is precisely among us Finns that this will to form grows. We yearn for a life that would be exalted and worth living, indeed we long for heroes and hero worship.”100

Thanks to international successes and the attendant media coverage, many of Brummer’s students became just the heroes he had envisioned. Unfortunately he did not live to witness the enormous respect they enjoyed, for the real success story of Finnish design began a few months after Brummer’s death in 1951, when first critics in Switzerland and Italy, and soon those in Great Britain and the United States, were ecstatic over the distinctly Finnish blending of the primitive and the sophisticated. The “Brummerian” tradition with its nationalist and antimodernist overtones had become sublimated into an internationally acceptable humanism:

There is, in the Finnish grasp of applied art, a constant evasion from the machine-made precision of outline and volume, and a return to the presence of the maker in the life of the object, with all the fancies and the unforeseen vibration of his creative fingers …. So it is in the applied arts, rather than in the legitimate ones, that we should look for the most advanced aspect of Finnish art—and this is a serene humanist outlook. In this age of the machine Finnish artists reassert the human presence in their work …. And by their awareness of present-day sensitivity, they confer true value to what might have been only a pitiful instance of idolatry of functionalism.101

The Finnish art historian Altti Kuusamo has written: “Culture, wherever it is located, is equally distant from nature, even in so called peripheries…. We present nature with the gift of culture and it receives this gift, insisting to call it nature.”102

“Nature” in Finnish design was not merely a matter of appropriating forms such as the mushroom-like shape of Wirkkala’s vase called Kanterelli: it was also created by a seemingly naive naturalism, linked with the nature of the Finnish people, the imagined Volksgeist or spirit of the Finn. The (self) marginalizing logic of the “national nature paradigm” was inseparably linked with Finland’s cultural otherness. The model exoticism that established itself in Scandinavian reception inspired Finnish designers to recognize, utilize, and further enhance their special “Finnish” character, in the design process as well as the presentation and verbalization of the objects. The rhetoric of otherness, when stripped of its most embarrassing attributes, strengthened the Finns’ view of their national design culture and its marketability in an international context. The romantic associations favored in design discourse were highlighted by the strong and persistent presence of individual crafts, which had an essential role in the creation of the public image of Finnish design.

Paradoxically the notion of freedom from tradition (Finnish youthful “innocence”) was emphasized especially in the 1940s, while in the 1950s engagement with a reinvented “tradition” was stressed: authentic, honest functionality, deriving directly, as it were, from the primitive log cabin. This demonstrates the strength and durability of the national rhetoric: it flexibly transformed itself from romantic vitalism to constructivism, adapting itself to the changes in design ideals of the 1950s.

The “natural-organic” form also provided a shortcut to formalist avant-garde: understood in international circles as an expression of “national” aesthetics, the ryijy rugs, ceramics, and finally the glass objects—modern and sculptural, yet softened by associations with nature—crept as if unnoticed into the realm of modernist abstraction. Reference to national elements worked to legitimize the experimental new forms. This was true both in Finland and abroad: for Finns, the national content evoked feelings of security and pride connected with cultural continuity and independence, while abroad it emphasized exoticism, a classified “otherness,” lending individual content to an alternative modernism.

Although the exoticism was subdued and the “racist overtones disappeared soon after the Second World War, the virginal quality of Finnish design—its unspoiled (if not naive) purity, humility, and innocence—continued to be stressed in foreign assessments. This was part of a search for innocence, “epic wisdom” as it were, characteristic of the nostalgic strain of modernism: Finland was among the peripheral rural areas singled out as a source of aesthetic authenticity. Finnish design could symbolize an escape to an Edenic state of purity and harmony with nature, providing an alternative to the dominant mechanistic paradigm of a modern world marked by accelerated industrialization and urbanization. This was also a reflection of the primitivist theme inherited from the romantic-expressionist tradition. A potentially agrarian way of life and a mythical unspoiled relationship with nature worked together to compensate for the lack of “high culture.” Primitivism, even backwardness, was translated into a national virtue. This phenomenon was tightly linked with the antirationalist, “aesthetic protectionism” that provided an ideological structure for Finnish applied arts education.

It can be said that Finland’s modern design identity came into being through a dynamic of sadomasochistic identification—as Julia Kristeva might describe it—a dynamic of “belonging and not belonging.”103 Finland strove to be part of the Nordic community and of Western Europe, yet it remained characteristically “other.” Finland became an industrial nation, modern and mobile, while obstinately clinging to the backwoods; to an image of unspoiled innocence.

© Bard Graduate Center, Harri Kalhal.

I would like to express my gratitude to Nina Stritzler-Levine, for the generous and insightful comments that were instrumental in producing an English-language version of this essay.