MIA exhibition explores Finnish innovation in design

What if we selected our furniture the same way we shopped for food?

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ new exhibition on Finnish design presents some of the latest ideas from a culture that has a growing appreciation for home furnishings that are both local and sustainable.

“Finland: Designed Environments” looks at the explosion in Finnish design in the last 15 years, which draws from its strong modernist roots and adds a new layer of environmental awareness.

This chair by Samuli Naamanka is made with biodegradable and recyclable materials.
 Courtesy of the MIA

“Classic modernism of Finland has had a constant appeal because of its versatility and its elegant lines,” says curator Jennifer Komar-Olivarez.” I think that more people are appreciating this classic modernism,  and so that’s why these designs appeal – they fit into that aesthetic. They really aren’t meant to be in style for a short season; the Finns don’t really think that way.”

In the 1930s, Komar-Olivarez says, customers were supposed to buy pieces of classic modern furniture, live with them, and hand them down as heirlooms. She says that while there’s been a resurgence in elegant and natural forms, now designers are playing with notions of permanence and impermanence.

Many of the designs featured are made of compostable or recycled materials, and can easily be disassembled once they’ve outlived their use. Cardboard kids furniture replaces the need for plastic while chairs made from orange crates can be burned in the fireplace instead of tossed in a landfill.

Jopo is a shortened form of jokaisen polkupyörä, Finnish for “everyone’s bicycle.” The bike – ubiquitous on the streets of Helsinki – has been designed to keep it easy to afford, ride, and maintain.

The exhibition features not just chairs, tables and architecture but also bikes, clothing, electronics, and design ideas for better living.

Korean-born Finnish design student Seungho Lee created the “Beef Finland” project, using strategic design to look at the effects of the beef and dairy industries on health and the environment. He used graphic design to tell the story while offering steps to change national cultural systems.

Hannu Kähönen offers not a chair, but the simple plans for making your own chair from readily available materials. According to the MIA, “when you’re ready to part with the chair, [Kähönen] suggests that the wood can be burned for heat and the ashes spread as crop fertilizer.” There’s also a ceramic installation of oversized Chanterelle mushrooms, a prized Finnish delicacy.

“It’s like morels here, only there’s much more of them,” explained Komar-Olivarez. “People hide their favorite spots and so you need to know somebody and go with them. This is a culture that forages, and Finland supports ‘Everyman’s Right’ – you can forage on public land. It’s a sustainable food source for them.”

Komar-Olivarez says she hopes visitors to the “Finland: Designed Environments” exhibition will be inspired to look for more sustainable — and local sources — for all their purchases, edible or otherwise.