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What makes Finnish vintage design attractive is more than just the looks.
Arabia produced thousands of ceramic dish models and decorations in Finland during the years 1884-2015. Likewise Iittala, Nuutajärvi and Riihimäen Lasi glassworks have had a central position on Finnish dinner and coffee tables. Even nowadays Finns avidly buy discontinued, second-hand and vintage dish series. But why?
The Golden Age of Finnish Design came after the Second World War and lasted from 1945 to 1967. During this period, Finland rose from the post-war economic difficulties and social challenges into one of the most significant design countries.
During this period designers faced great challenges: After the war, Finland had to rehome 430 000 Finnish refugees from areas lost in the war. At the time, the total population was a little less that 3,8 million, so this meant rehoming almost 10% of the population. In addition, Finland was required to pay heavy war reparations. There was a great need to produce dishes for a large number of homes, during a time when resources were already scarce.
Urbanisation created additional challenges for designers: smaller homes and women’s increasing participation in work. The resulting limited storage and less time for domestic chores created a need for new more functional and technical solutions in terms of the storage, durability, and cleaning of dishes. The geometric forms in Arabia’s Kilta are a great example of this.
The idea driving Finnish Design was democratic idealism: providing equality, wellness, and beautiful daily items to the reach of everyone. Responding to these challenges proved fruitful, as the new practical designs were eagerly adopted by Finnish homemakers. Like diamonds forming under pressure, Finnish design was born as a solution to the greatest challenges.
Modern Finnish Design made its international breakthrough at the Milano Triennale in 1951, when Finland won six Grand Prix awards. The new dishes eagerly adopted by Finns, with their innovative designs and stylish solutions, were also clearly noticed abroad. From henceforth design represented Finland internationally, strengthening its image as a modern Scandinavian country.
The internationally awarded designers of the Golden Age of Finnish Design, including Kaj Franck, Tapio Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva, and Nanny Still, to name just a few, rose to near national hero status, and became role models for future designers. They gave birth to Finnish Design classics, that continue to be collected, exhibited, and have even been brought back into production.
Finnish Design was acknowledged with numerous international awards in the following decades. Winning designs, products and designers came from the Arabia porcelain factory, the Finnish glass factories Iittala, Nuutajärvi ja Riihimäen Lasi as well as other areas of design. In the 60s and 70s Finnish Design won awards including: the Gold Medal awarded to Birger Kaipiainen at the Montreal world exhibition 1967, the Lunning Prize for Scandinavian design awarded to Oiva Toikka in 1970, as well as the Gold Medal awarded to Peter Winquist at the Faenza Biennale in 1971.
In the 70s and 80s, European markets opened up to free trade, and the oil crisis increased production costs. Finnish design companies managed to improve production and materials, and to maintain the high quality they were known for internationally. Many small Finnish design companies also merged together, for example Nuutajärvi and Iittala became one in 1988. This trend has continued, and indeed today the most noted Finnish and Nordic tableware brands, such as Arabia, Rörstrand, Royal Copenhagen, Iittala, Hackmann and Fiskars all belong to the same company Fiskars Group.
Even though the production of the Arabia brand and large part of the Iittala brand were gradually shifted abroad, toward the end of the 20th century, these brands have continued to maintain their status among the top 10 most valued Finnish brands, according to the Economic Research, Marketing and Advertising -magazine’s annual poll.
One of the most important new design classics of the end of the 20th century, became the Moomin mugs. Moomin mugs have been produced since the 90s, based on illustrations and stories from the highly awarded artist Tove Jansson. Thanks to the international hit animation series, Moomin, popularised in the 1990s, the Moomin mugs gained instant and unprecedented success. Moomin mugs that were discontinued or produced in limited-edition became extremely popular collectibles. The prices of these second-hand and vintage mugs regularly reach far higher prices than new versions.
From a very young age, nature plays an important role in Finnish lives: it’s where we go to “charge our batteries”. Particularly for urban dwellers, with little or no immediate access to nature, it is important to be able to incorporate nature into our daily lives in one way or another. One opportunity for this is design inspired by nature, which fulfills this deep need almost by accident.
Particularly the strong nature-themed decorations and shapes of vintage design attracts us Finns. Nordic nature has always been a rich source of inspiration for Finnish designers. In glass design for example, the arctic ice formations inspired the creation of sculptural, organic and asymmetrical forms, such as Iittala’s Ultima Thule.
Decorations vary from simple coloured glazes to delicate hand-painted naturalistic patterns. Hundreds of patterns are inspired by the plants, colours and atmospheres of the Finnish landscape. They allow even busy city dwellers to feel connected to nature, while sitting at their coffee and dinner tables. The names of many series also invite us to think of nature. Just think of names such as Meri (sea), Anemone, Ruska (autumn colours), Flora and Fauna.
For us Finns hospitality is important. We love to make a special effort to set the table for celebrations and make our guests feel welcome. We arrange the table with dishes, whose decorations and colours fit the festive occasion. Beautiful dishes are a source of joy for the hostess of the party. Finns traditionally have a separate set of dishes reserved for special occasions, Sunday feasts, and visitors. In smaller homes where space has brought challenges, and limits the size of parties, a few well chosen vintage dishes can bring delight to the everyday and can be combined with the daily tableware to add a festive feel.
The most important family celebrations, as well as the sweet everyday trifles, are all spent together by the dinner and coffee table. Well kept and taken care of dishes pass from mother to daughter in faultless condition, and the styles and dishes connected with one’s childhood evoke warm memories. Although quality Finnish dishes have always been relatively expensive, Finns believe in investing in quality and making an effort to make the everyday beautiful. It’s common practice to gradually collect a dish series for one’s home, and traditionally these are also given as presents at special celebrations such as weddings, graduations or birthday parties.
Beautiful dishes are considered treasures of the home and a part of the style of one’s home. Thus, selecting dishes is considered an important part of Finnish interior decorating. Dishes are often chosen to fit the age of the building, therefore vintage is a natural choice for many. Trends in interior decorating and table setting change from decade to decade, but styles usually cycle back into fashion.
Currently is seems that 60s and 70s dishes are in fashion, with bold patterns and bright pop-culture colours. Many designs have become so popular that they have been brought back into production, as so called retro decorations.
Finns place great value on the original vision of the designer in creating the harmony between shape, material, and pattern. New productions of retro designs may differ from the original ‘made in Finland’ production. Because so many of the series found in Finnish homes are no longer in production, and in particular hand-painted series are no longer produced, Finns opt to buy these as good condition vintage. It is economical to buy second-hand additional pieces and replace broken items.
Clean nature is our greatest asset, and Finland is a world-leader in environmental protection and recycling. Environmental protection is one of the biggest issues in ethical consumerism. Already in primary school Finnish children are taught that one of the most important parts of ethical consumerism is to minimise one’s strain on nature.
From a nature friendly perspective it is sensible to use and buy vintage dishes, as the production of new dishes consumes a lot of natural resources. In addition dishes, particularly ceramics, are mainly non-biodegradable and non-recyclable waste. For this reason their life-span should be maximised.
Due to the environmental impact, the cost of producing a brand new dish is much higher than its actual price. A used vintage dish is often more valued and can even fetch higher prices than current production.
I wrote this article after a Japanese lady, visiting Astialiisa’s Helsinki store, asked me about “why Finnish people love to buy vintage dishes?” When I told her, she ended up buying tea cups and a bread plates from the Arabia Kosmos series made during 1962-1976, and continued to marvel at the good condition of these 50+ year-old vintage dishes. Although I had answered this question many times before, the question remained in my mind and I concluded that there are indeed very many reasons why we Finns love vintage dishes.
Whilst pondering the topic further I came to describe the history of Finland, as I feel that our history has influenced our design and the appreciation of it. Finns share the values represented in Finnish Design, which has been able to match our changing needs in our pursuit of happiness. The UN World Happiness Report 2019 by United Nations declared Finland as the happiest country in the world for the second year in a row.
Builders of the Future, Finnish Design 1945-67. Designmuseo, Helsinki 2012.
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