Friday, 30th November 2018 – Helsinki, Day 2
Friday started slowly, and we spent some time enjoying breakfast in the hotel (I’m told it’s been voted Finland’s best breakfast and though I can’t verify that, it is a very good breakfast indeed and is improved further by being included in the room rate, as is often the case in Finland) before heading out to the Tourist Information Office to pick up a Helsinki Card.
This was not as easy as you might have expected (and was certainly not as easy as we might have expected), because we arrived at the Tourist Information office only to find it isn’t there any more! After a certain amount of head scratching we went into the designer clothing shop that has replaced it and asked if they could shed any light on where it had gone. Turns out it is no longer on the Esplanadi but is over in the main railway station, a kilometre away.
We set off in that direction, and eventually found it inside the station. We’d only ever seen the station from the outside, but it’s equally impressive inside and out. It was opened in 1919, the architect being Eliel Saarinen, and was, I’m told, chosen by the BBC as one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations. I would certainly not argue with that claim. It’s glorious.
The tourist information office is in with the ticket shelters, and the nice helpful people there were able to tell us what the Helsinki Card includes in winter, but couldn’t actually sell us one. For that we needed to go to one of the nearby hotels. This was taking on an air of days of old and our first dealings with the Finns, back in the late 1980s, where there would often be passes for us to get into motor races if only we could figure out where exactly the person who had them would be and when!
Outside they were setting up the ice rink for Christmas, and there was a street food van bearing a couple of really awful puns in English, proving that you don’t have to be a native English speaker to play games with the language.
In the Hotel Seurahuone lobby we finally ran to earth someone who could sell us two 72-hour cards, and so we bought those and a selection of postcards advertising the Finland Line service that used to run from Hull to Hanko and later to Turku, and that was administered by John Good & Sons, the company my Dad worked for most of his working life. It’s over 10 years since he died, but it still hit me hard while at the same time made me delighted to have found these cards.
Anyway, armed with a Helsinki Card each we headed out to go and get some coffee, before going walkabout in the city. We decided we needed to head for Fazer to start buying up chocolates for ourselves and our friends, but on the way we got side tracked by Stockmann‘s splendid Christmas window displays. There were a number of small children with their noses pressed against the glass, so I’m guessing someone gets delegated to polish the glass regularly, but once we had a look as well we could see their point! It wasn’t trying to sell anything specific, and was just wonderful fun, including the rather bizarre squirrel on a zip wire that kept going up and down.
From Stockmann we made our way past a number of shops that were tempting – but not that tempting – and dived into the Fazer Cafe for a warming cup of coffee, a chocolate and a look at the wonderful things on sale in there. We’d be taking quite a lot of it back with us, but not right at this point. Neither of us were keen on dragging bags around with us while sightseeing.
We had a short planning meeting over the coffees, and decided we’d go over to the old covered market, via a lot of the shops listed in the design walk we’d picked up in the tourist information office. Mostly we didn’t go in, most especially we avoided going into the Iitala shop because we knew we’d end up buying something we shouldn’t, and that we’d struggle to get it home in one piece thereafter. We did read up on the history of some of the better known names in Finnish design, and we did also swing past the site of the main Christmas market, which was due to open on Saturday. A smaller market of about a dozen stalls was clustered around the base of the Havis Amanda fountain (currently empty of water for the winter months and absent the seagull on her head that seems to be there at other times of the year) and was already open. I bought a cashmere hood that I probably don#’t really need, but that I really liked, and we nosed around the other stalls briefly, including the very Finnish food stall.
After we’d finished, we followed the walk along the Esplanadi and Aleksanterinkatu, enjoying the details of everything we found, including the animal plaques on the street corners. Apparently these represent a naming system introduced by the Swedes, which provide names for the different blocks. When this area of the city had to be rebuilt following a major fire, the architect Johan Albrecht Ehrenström planned the replacement to be in the style of Gamla Stan in Stockholm, where the blocks were numbered, and the more important blocks were named after their function (for example Senaatintalo). Blocks with no specific function were named after animals. This practice started in 1820 and ran through until at least 1900, and then in 1994 the tradition was revived, with signs like the ones we saw being added to buildings on Aleksanterinkatu and Esplanadi.
We were startled to note that there were actually a couple of stalls in action on the summer market square. Given how cold it was this was somewhat unexpected, but presumably people have to get their vegetables somewhere. There were also a couple of optimistic gulls hanging around like juvenile delinquents looking for trouble, displaying an affected nonchalance that I suspect would vanish like ice in the sun if they spotted an unguarded cinnamon bun!
We walked back towards the area behind our hotel and headed for the Design Museum, which is somewhere we’d hoped to get to on previous visits and failed to do so. This was well worth the trouble (and included in the Helsinki Card). We began downstairs in the section labelled Utopia Now – The Story of Finnish Design which has been in place since the start of 2017 (to celebrate the centenary of Finland’s independence) when the museum completely renewed its main display area to present “the integral role of design in the evolution of the Finnish welfare state”. It also contained some design processes that resonated with me as a technical author, and which I will use to beat my colleagues about the head with.
There are some very famous pieces on show, displaying the iconic names of design in Finland, including some really stunning items, this coffee set appealing to me enormously.
There’s much to like and a great deal to see, including the display of Fiskars scissors that is behind the ticket desk.
Upstairs was a really fascinating exhibition about an architect, artist and designer I shamefully knew almost nothing about, Josef Frank, who moved from Austria to Sweden in the 1930s. He was apparently most interested in public housing and housing estates, and was against the idea of large blocks of housing, preferring what he referred to as settlements, with low level functional forms. No content with just designing houses, he was also a designer of furniture, furnishings, fabrics, wallpaper and carpets, and painted as well. He must have been quite exhausting to live with, but the results are beautiful, human scaled houses…
As well as glorious fabrics and furniture.
We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to touch the fabric samples too, because it’s not often you are encouraged to touch anything in a museum! I think I’d also happily live in one of his “fantasy” houses, preferably this one.
There were also photos of some summer villas in Falsterbo, in Sweden that he designed. The final exhibition is downstairs in the basement, and displayed the work of the winner of the Kaj Franck Design Prize 2018, the interior designer Tapio Anttila. His designs seem to be big on curves, and use a lot of wood to good effect. I was much amused by the whimsical cuckoo clock.
And to prove that sometimes it’s the simplest designs that are the most effective, there is this magazine rack, which I think is genius. It’s clever, effective, and minimal, and I’d really like one!