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Bibliographical reference: Jan Michl, "[Book review of] Marianne Aav and Nina Stritzler-Levine, eds. Finnish Modern Design: Utopian Ideals and Everyday Realities, 1930-1997. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, 411 pages."
Scandinavian Journal of Design History, vol. 9 : 1999, 134-139.

A review of
Finnish Modern Design
Utopian Ideals and Everyday Realities, 1930-1997


This is an important though an editorially half-baked volume. It was published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name held at the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York February-June 1998, and organised in collaboration with the Museum of Art and Design in Helsinki (now Designmuseo), which provided over half the exhibited objects. This, together with the fact that (probably) all authors are Finnish, presumably explains the collaborative editorship of the book: both editors are directors of exhibitions at their respective institutions, Marianne Aav at the Museum of Art and Design in Helsinki and Nina Stritzler-Levine at the BGC. The book has two main divisions, a longer one featuring ten black-and-white illustrated articles about Finnish design followed by a shorter one referred to as the exhibition catalogue. The following review refers only to the book, as the present reviewer missed the exhibition itself.

The book is important for several reasons. In its first part the editors have succeeded in producing a collection of ten up-to-date essays discussing many aspects and most of the fields of Finnish design over the past hundred years or so, all of them furnished with an extensive end-note apparatus with ample bibliographical material, and written (presumably) by a younger generation of writers on design. The second part of the book, the exhibition catalogue proper, presents technically excellent photographs in colour of all the 140 exhibited objects, followed by what the editors call a "Checklist of the Exhibition", gathering bare data about each object (design year, material, size, manufacturer, and present owner). In addition, the book features a much needed, and excellent, section containing the histories of 26 Finnish companies, written by Hannele Nyman, each of the entries complete with bibliographical references of its own.

There are many editorial problems, however. They begin with the focus of the whole project. The book�s subtitle, Utopian Ideals and Everyday Realities, 1930-1997, appears to suggest that there is a definite theme which the editors aim to elucidate and around which the contributors to the book have gathered. However, the editors provide no explanation of the meaning of the subtitle, which turns out to be more of a loose hint at some of the issues mentioned in some articles than any kind of focal point. Nor is there any attempt to bind together the diverse themes and issues discussed in the articles by editorial means, for example by commenting on the contributions in the introduction or by prefacing each individual article.

Further confusion is created by the mysterious "1930�1997" in the subtitle, which appears to suggest that for some reason the book covers only the last 70 years or so of the 20th century, from the 1930s to the present. But almost all of the book�s articles discuss developments starting at the turn of the century, and often much earlier, while only two of them bring the story up to the 1990s. No rationale for this discrepancy is given in the introduction.

A probable explanation of the incongruity is that as it was decided that the book was to double as an exhibition catalogue, it simply "inherited" the title of the BGC exhibition, where the oldest object on show was a 1929 Aalto side chair, and the most recent a 1997 brooch. The conflict between the title of the exhibition and the contents of the book was apparently ignored. (This unresolved exhibition fixation probably explains why we do not find any entry on the Nokia company, the present flagship of Finnish industry, in the section on company histories referred to above: the reason, it seems, is simply that there were no Nokia objects exhibited.)

The absence of a proper focus also shows in the passive, somewhat mechanical arrangement of the contents structure. The first four contributions are grouped sequentially together, because, in the words of Stritzler-Levine, they address "the issue of modernism and cultural identity", while the next five articles deal with "different areas of the applied arts in Finland"; the last article is described as discussing "the reception of Finnish design in the United States" and figures obviously in a category of its own, concluding the book. This introductory explanation does help to give the reader at least some sense of a meaningful structure (first reflections, then histories), but as there is no further discussion of either this arrangement or of the articles themselves, it fails to impart any persuasive sense of unity to the book as a whole, and the reader will probably suspect that the structure is rather arbitrary. One can certainly wonder about how reasonable it is to offer the reader reflections about Finnish culture and design before the articles presenting the more factual developments in furniture, glass, metal, textile and ceramics.

On the whole one feels that the editors did meet a minimal demand for bringing order into the collected contributions, though without providing any palpable focus for the volume. This is a pity, not least because several articles (most of all the concluding text by Hildi Hawkins, called "Finding a Place in a New World Order") in fact suggest a possible unifying theme. Here I think of the intense determination of Finland in the years after the Second World War and throughout the fifties, to use and sustain the country�s achievements in design as a way of redefining the political and cultural identity of the nation. The success of this pragmatic approach of Finnish decision-makers to the potential in their design culture is certainly a striking, perhaps unique, feature of the history of design in the 20th century. If we agree that design history should be a study of problems rather than a study of a subject matter, one way of imparting a focus to the whole book could have been to start with Hawkins� article, which discusses this theme most explicitly, and via editorial comments to draw lines backwards and forwards in time - and to conclude with the reflective articles.

Admittedly, the problems such as lack of focus, sequence of articles and alternative focusing, are moot points. We encounter, however, at least three more tangible problems. The first is the editors� failure to provide a list of contributors to the book. When the exhibition itself is commented upon by the BGC Director Susan Weber Soros in her Foreword, a large number of staff members, including the security and maintenance personnel, are mentioned by name and function and thanked for their contribution to the exhibition . This is both fitting and humane � but it is the present book, not the exhibition that was meant to last. Although the authors of the book are duly thanked, too, the reader is left completely in the dark about their background, the institutions to which they belong, as well as their research record, not to speak of their age (and their gender, since far from all Finnish first names give outsiders a clue in that respect).

The second problem has to do with the book�s bibliography which, though fairly extensive, seems to have been done in haste, and as far as completeness is concerned, must be considered unreliable. No editorial information is provided about the choice criteria of the 390 plus titles. It appears that they were all extracted, somewhat mechanically, from end-notes in the ten articles. This probably explains why the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky�s book Watermark, which is about Venice and was mentioned in an end-note to the first article of the book, came to be included in the bibliography too. At the same time, important titles are missing, in spite of having been mentioned in the end-notes. For example four English-language articles by Pekka Korvenmaa referred to in his text on furniture design are lacking. It would have been a good idea to divide the bibliography into at least two categories: one for titles published either in English, or with English summaries, and the other for those in Finnish only. Also the English equivalents of the Finnish titles should have been provided in a more consistent manner than is the case. At any rate, in a volume of this size and length it is reasonable to expect that all important books on Finnish design published in English to date, and preferably also articles, should be included. One is grateful for what is there, but there is no doubt that a unique opportunity for providing the English-speaking public with a dependable bibliography on modern Finnish design has been, sadly, lost.

The third major shortcoming, and the concluding sign of the half-baked editorial quality of the volume, is that it was left without an index. This absence, of course, makes an operative retrieval of facts, issues, terms and names contained in the articles incomparably more cumbersome and reduces the usefulness of the book. This is, again, a great pity considering the amount of work invested into the volume.


All these shortcomings of course, do not by themselves reduce the value of the individual contributions. Let me now comment shortly on these in the order in which they are presented in the book.

The first essay by Jari Ehrnrooth on the "Ambivalence of Finnish Culture", and to some extent also Harri Kalha�s following text on "The Other Modernism: Finnish Design and National Identity", discuss an intriguing, complex and elusive problem. If I understand it correctly, the problem can be said to arise whenever we intend to produce more of something we have come to value for its not having been intentionally produced; i.e. when we want to institute something that is essentially a by-product. Naturalness, spontaneity, authenticity, primitiveness, modernity � or Finnishness � can be mentioned as examples of such by-products. The problem could, somewhat facetiously, be called a problem of pretending not to pretend, and it has been a recurring dilemma for us modern people probably since the advent of Romanticism. There are apparently scores of daunting issues related to this dilemma, such as for example: Is Finnishness, the quality of being Finnish, a kind of quality which all Finns impart to everything they do? Or is it rather that not everything Finns do is of necessity marked by Finnishness? And, are some Finns perhaps more Finnish than other Finns? Or can the true Finnishness be produced only by those who are not really aware of being Finns? And why is the kind of Finnishness generated by those who are unaware of their Finnishness deemed better than that produced by those whose who are keenly aware of being Finns? And so on and so forth. Both authors address similar questions, Ehrnrooth reflecting in a more freewheeling fashion, while Kalha talking more on the particulars of the Finnish design discourse of this century.

Both Ehrnrooth and Kalha have succeeded each in their own way in producing some interesting ideas on the problem, but both of them also make the reader�s life miserable by their kaleidoscopic way of presenting their findings. In the end one is very much at a loss as to the concrete results of their deliberations. Jari EHRNROOTH in his ruminative essay manages to mortify the reader already in the first paragraph when expatiating about "objects [which] neutralize the semiotic ambivalence between emptiness and density." (17) Although not typical as such, the sentence is still indicative of the author�s preference for ambushing readers instead of preparing them for the many intriguing themes and perspectives that he produces in the course of the article, but also of his propensity rarely to dwell on a theme long enough to unearth more than a promise of a new insight. Out of the blue, for example, he introduces the notion of "first degree" and "second degree" cultures (19) which seem to be central to his topic. However, he drops it as quickly as he brought it up, only to return extensively to it several pages later as if it were a well-explained and well-understood concept. The religious perspective which he brings in towards the end remains essentially ambiguous, as it is difficult to understand whether he is entirely serious or whether he is perhaps only speaking in a figurative, or possibly tongue-in-cheek, manner. Other concepts, like "communications purgatory" (21) "dialectics of the unattainable" (22-23) are also presented like attractive dishes with compelling smells with which the waiter passes by and which we are allowed to glance at, but which never land on our table so that we can relish them. Although sometimes witty, this highly spirited, somewhat late-nightish reflection is at any rate not suitable as an opening essay.

The main problem in Harri KALHA�s long article (17 pages of text plus 6 pages of notes) is his apparent inability to reduce to a manageable number the issues he is eager to discuss. The result is that the reader is left in considerable confusion, often being uncertain about what is actually being discussed at any particular moment, and what are really the author�s conclusions. One of the few unequivocal statements in the article is the author�s claim that what is called the Finnish feeling for nature "is perhaps a myth, but like most myths, it is simultaneously true and untrue." (39) Perhaps the article illustrates the perils of attempting to produce a shorter autonomous article out of a much larger earlier text. I would like to comment briefly on Kalha�s contention there was a special, or "other", kind of modernism in Finland, one represented above all by the Arts and Crafts traditionalist and educator Arttu Brummer, a kind of modernism that was nationalistic, striving to express the essence of the Finnish nation, or its "Finnishness". This modernism professedly contrasts with the kind of modernism that became synonymous with Finnish design and was characterised in Kalha�s words, by "purity and function ... internationalism .. reduced functional forms ... �universal� appeal" (29) and an aesthetic culture in common with the rest of the Nordic countries. But one wonders whether it is really necessary to postulate a distinct Brummerian kind of modernism simply because, as Kalha puts it, "Brummer�s [traditionalist] ideas also contained �functionalist� elements, such as the principle of truth to materials, and the idea of �organicism�" (42). Maybe it is the Romantic ideal of authenticity, apparently as common to Arts and Crafts ideology as to Modernism proper, which makes it possible to (mis)take Brummer for a modernist sui generis.

There is no editorial explanation for the reason why Taisto M�KEL��s article on "Architecture and Modern Identity in Finland", in itself an informed and informative piece of writing, was included in this volume. True, besides giving a historical outline of the development of Finnish architecture in this century it also discusses, in an able manner, the question of modern national identity related to national-romantic, rationalist, classicist and functionalist positions in architecture. But as the author keeps fairly strictly to architecture proper, and since architectural design was not a part of the exhibition, its presence in the present volume is questionable, especially when the volume does not offer a proper historical presentation of the Finnish industrial design.

Susann VIHMA�s article "Objects of Everyday Life: Aspects of Finnish Design Since the 1980s", touches in its opening chapter on what the author calls "the nature myth" in Finnish design - similar problems to those in Ehrnrooth, though her treatment of the theme brings little in the way of enlightenment. Although less dense that Kalha�s text, Vihma�s article suffers just like his from addressing far too many issues, in addition to a somewhat shaky structure and a meandering kind of writing. Paragraphs often open with one theme, only to end up with another, or if they don�t they fail to offer any conclusion. Nominally the article, "examines contemporary Finnish design and design culture since 1980s, focussing on design literature and criticism, as well as specific objects." (83) But it turns out that its theme is mainly the so-called product semantics, that refreshing design theory that emerged on the international scene in the late 1980s. The theory drew attention to the fact, ignored by Modernists, that products are perceived not only as aesthetic objects but also as carriers of various meanings - no matter whether the designers are aware if it or not. The product semantics theory was launched by several German-American, Ulm-educated industrial designers and came to be widely known within design-education circles thanks largely to the University of Industrial Arts in Helsinki (UIAH), which in the late 1980s and early 1990s arranged a series of major international conferences around the theme. Strangely, the author says nothing about the American background to the product semantics wave of the 1980s. Stranger still, the Finnish conferences and the important volumes of the proceedings published in their wake are not mentioned at all, either in the text or in the notes (and as a consequence they are not included in the final bibliography either). Instead, the author delves into finer points of the product semantic theory itself, and although the discussion is interesting, it is certainly misplaced in the present volume. The concluding discussion of three product areas from the product semantics perspective is disappointingly tame. Again, one has a feeling that the text is a cut-and-paste adaptation from some earlier materials, with seams clearly showing.


The historical presentation of Finnish design begins really only with page 102, and it is here the reader will find articles of substance, in terms of both historical facts, observations, and insights.

This historical section opens with Pekka KORVENMAA�s article on the "Opportunities and Ideals in Modern Furniture Design in Finland". This is a firmly structured, controlled, informative and well-written text. Korvenmaa discusses in turn the emergence of the furniture design profession, the furniture industry and its market, wood, metal and plastic as furniture materials, the designer-client relationship and the changing ideals of the profession. The article includes a consideration of several individual designers that is very well integrated into the discussion of larger issues. The carefulness of some of the author�s stylistic characterizations should be also stressed. He is obviously not entirely happy with the blandness of aesthetic categories such as "modern" or "modernist" and often develops formulations of a finer discerning power, as when he describes a furniture line as "conceptually modern, though not necessarily modernist in its outer appearance" (122) or when he speaks of "the overall domestication of modernism" in the 1930s (121), or when he writes that "[t]he lamination technique which Aalto developed ... enabled the production of ... bentwood chairs that conformed to the aesthetics of international modernism." (109) On the other hand, he also employs, as do several other authors in the volume, somewhat problematic terms such as "progressive design" or "progressive furniture". These are necessarily ambiguous expressions, as "progressive" is a term tainted by its partisan, originally pro-modernist connotations, antonymous to the term "regressive". Even if many of the authors, including Korvenmaa, seem to use it as a stylistic rather than ideological term (meaning "opposite to the traditional") I suspect that, unless an author happens to be an unreconstructed modernist, "progressive" remains a misleading label. Part of the merit of the present article is that it is written explicitly with an eye on an international public (Korvenmaa points out, for example, that "Lahti became the center of furniture industry similar to Grand Rapids in the United States"). Also in the bibliographical references in his end-notes section he explicitly aims at listing the key English-language texts on the subject. As already mentioned, too many of them, for some unknown reason, never made it into the final bibliography at the end of the book. The text is in addition blemished by several uncorrected misprints and, embarrassingly, what look like leftovers from deserted editorial interventions. (120-121)

Kaisa KOIVISTO�s article on the "National and International Aspects of Finnish Glass" singles out and discusses, in a manner similar to Korvenmaa, problem clusters which give the article a palpable structure, and which she manages to combine admirably with a chronological presentation. This article, too, is a very well written, matter-of-fact, forthright assessment of the Finnish course of development, refreshingly free of promotional formulations. It contains a wealth of information on the political, economic and technological aspects of the glass history, as well as on the key personalities and ideological and aesthetic discussions of the time.

In her article "Simplicity and Materialism in the Design of Finnish Jewelry and Metalwork" Marianne AAV, the Finnish co-editor of the present volume, takes a broad look at the history of the trade. Starting with the discussion of the role of the Russian capital St Petersburg in the 18th and 19th centuries in the development of Finnish goldsmith trade, she proceeds to present a many-sided, informative overview of the development of the goldsmith and jewellery trade in the 20th century up to the eighties. In the last chapter she discusses, though only briefly, the design of metal household utensils and touches upon the emergence of Finnish industrial design, making partly up for the missing chapter on that area. The theme of industrial design is not arbitrarily introduced here, since, as she points out, in Finland after the Second World War education in industrial design developed from within the metalworking department at the Helsinki Institute of Industrial Art (the present UIAH).

One of the sorely missing elements in the book is an overview of the more than 100 years long history of the above-mentioned UIAH, nowadays called the University of Art and Design, which, as all writers agree, has been the most important Finnish educational institution for applied arts and design. Mercifully, Leena SVINHUFVUD in her article on the development of "Finnish Textiles en Route to Modernity", provides some relief in this respect. When stressing the key role of the UIAH and its Textile Art Department in the development of Finnish textile art, she provides a brief overview in one of her early notes of the changes in the school�s official name over the years, and adds a number bibliographical references to the literature discussing the history of the school. (A brief informative piece on the orientation of the school in its various periods can be found also in the very first note in the following article on ceramics by Aav and Kalha.) Svinhufvud�s article concentrates in general more on the institutional framework than the individual personalities, giving a very useful review of Finnish professional institutions of applied art, all of which, according to the author, were closely associated with the UIAH. She provides a good discussion of themes such as textile design for serial production, the status of the artists, markets for textile art, the relationship to folk traditions and later developments towards autonomous textile art, although the structure of the article is less than lucid, and the level of the accompanying contextual information is uneven. While some parts are written with a foreign readership in mind, others appear to address insiders only. An example of this is the fairly long section devoted to what the author subtitles as "The Finnish Ryijy". While the term ryijy comes to be employed some 70 times in the fairly detailed discussion which follows, its niceties tend to be lost on the reader as the meaning of the term is never explained, and no background information on its apparent folk art origins is provided � although one manages to gather that a special kind of rug is being discussed. If the ryijy is considered a phenomenon that warrants an exclusive use of the original Finnish term then a good explanation is certainly imperative (including perhaps a hint about the pronunciation of the word).

The penultimate article is devoted to a discussion of the historical development of modern Finnish ceramics. Marianne AAV and Harri KALHA, both of them earlier contributors to the present volume, open their joint article "Finnish Ceramics: From Everyday objects to Art" with this characteristics of the trade status: "Twentieth-century Finnish ceramics has been dominated by two major institutions: the Arabia factory, and the University of Art and Design, [both in] Helsinki." The authors start with a historical overview of the UIAH-based training of Finnish ceramists over the years, but it is the activity of the Arabia factory and the work of Arabia designers which dominates their concerns. The article is well structured, and just as all preceding articles dealing with design history proper, richly informative and equipped with an extensive end-note apparatus. The only two minor blemishes are that the article does not provide even a brief overview of the Arabia factory history, nor does it refer to the excellent Arabia entry in the section on the company history at the end of the book. In addition, while only few of the discussed ceramic objects are illustrated in the article, there are no references to the colour illustrations in the catalogue section where many of them are in fact depicted.

As mentioned earlier, the theme of Hildi HAWKINS� article ("Finding a Place in a New World Order: Finland, America, and the �Design in Scandinavia� Exhibition of 1954-57") could have been made into a focal point of the book, and I regret its appendix-like placing, for the reason suggested above. It is an admirably lucid and brilliantly informative piece of writing, clearly conceived with a non-Finnish public in mind. Hawkins gives both the world political and "design political" background to the Finnish design success of the 1950s, being forthright about the things Finnish in a manner similar to Korvenmaa and Koivisto. She shows persuasively the choices opened to Finland after its tragic participation in the events of the Second World in the light of its enforced cession of Eastern Karelia to the Soviet Union, war reparations paid to Moscow and the subsequent precarious political existence on the borders of a totalitarian superpower. She discusses briefly the fascinating Finnish figure of the multilingual Olof Gummerus, the expert promoter of Finnish design, whose prime quest according to the author was to mould the international perception of Finland as a part of Scandinavia, unequivocally on the Western side of the Iron Curtain. The author�s examination of the background to the idea for the 1950s "Design in Scandinavia" exhibition, which had toured twenty four United States museums, and of two ideologically competing American design magazines which both happened to support Finnish design, is enlightening. She concludes with a short reflection on "Political Success through Design" where she argues that although the success of the "Design in Scandinavia" exhibition was a result of a public relations exercise, it was based on the genuine appeal of Finnish design itself, an appeal which "lay in its blend of the modernist avant-garde and traditional qualities. [It was] through its closeness to nature as inspiration, as much as through its pure, abstract forms, [that] Finnish design endeared itself to a wide range of critics and consumers, from the most provincial to the most cosmopolitan, from the political left to the political right (...). "


In conclusion we can say that despite all the deficiencies mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that the present book will substantially contribute to dissemination of a better knowledge as well as a better understanding of Finnish modern design.

* * *

Your comments to the above review, or to the book itself, are welcome: michl.nor[at]
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Other books reviewed by Jan Michl (online):

S. V�kev�, ed. (1990) Product Semantics '89
S. Vihma, ed. (1990) Semantic Visions in Design
P. Lloyd Jones (1991) Taste Today: The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design
G. Widengren, ed. (1994) Tanken och Handen: Konstfack 150 �r

Other online articles IN ENGLISH by Jan Michl
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