The Nordic House by Alvar Aalto

the nordic house  the nordic house

the nordic house


I am a big fan of Finnish Modernist architect Alvar Aalto‘s work ( you can read my previous entry on him here). Although most of Aalto‘s buildings are located in Finland, he did build a few outside of Finland in his later years, and The Nordic House in Reykjavik is one of them.

Opened in 1968 by the Nordic Council of Ministers, The Nordic House is a cultural institution that supports cultural connections and activities between Iceland and the other Nordic countries.

The unadorned white building has a slanted wooden roof that resembles the mountain row in the background. And once inside, you can see Aalto‘s signature traits everywhere as all the furnishings, lamps and furniture were designed by him. The extensive use of wood can be seen throughout the building, and every design detail was well-thought-out by the designer.


the nordic house

the nordic house  the nordic house

the nordic house  the nordic house  the nordic house

the nordic house  the nordic house


The institution houses a shop, a bistro, an exhibition space, auditoriums and a library with over 30,000 items in 7 Nordic languages (though not in Icelandic). I think the building’s most notable feature is the bright and spacious library. The large windows above the bookshelves and the skylight windows enable natural light to penetrate inside, while at the same time reaches the split/lower level in the middle. What a marvellous design!


the nordic house  the nordic house

the nordic house

the nordic house

the nordic house  the nordic house

the nordic house

The interior of the library and bistro overlooking the wetland


The acclaimed Aalto bistro serves fresh, local and healthy produce in a cool setting overlooking the wetland with a pond and mountain backdrop. There is even a binoculus by the window where you can enjoy the view and observe the ducks swimming in the pond.


The Nordic House is located at Sturlugata 5, 101 Reykjavík.

Beef 2012 by Seungho Lee

This blog post is long overdue… I told Seungho that I would write about his award-winning MA project after my Helsinki trip, but it has taken me all this time to get round to it!

I have been corresponding with Seungho from About:blank via emails since I started stocking their notebooks. Hence, it was wonderful when he suggested to meet for dinner when I was in Helsinki for the design week. Sometimes, it can be awkward having dinner with people who you have never met before ( even though my instinct was a positive one), and luckily, my instinct was right.

The evening went by almost too quickly, I spent an thoroughly enjoyable evening with Seungho and Hyunsun discussing design, Asian culture, Finland, vegetarianism, wastage and even politics ( we touched on many subjects that are usually ‘banned’ from dinner conversations)!


Seungho’s project was on display at the Helsinki design week


It is always exciting to meet like-minded people, but even more so with designers or creatives who share the same design philosophy and ideals. To our surprise, we quit meat around the same time, yet we would face situations that are hard to get out of because of pressure from our families. I can’t call myself a vegetarian because I still eat seafood, but for the last few years, I have chosen to stop purchasing or cooking meat at home.

An interesting part of our discussion was about the way people view “design”, since many misunderstand design as only something tangible rather than an attitude, vision, process, activity or philosophy. Seungho‘s “Beef 2012” project for his Creative Sustainability master’s programme at Aalto University demonstrates that design can be beyond aesthetics and functionality.


Beef Finland 2012 (Finnish sub) from Seungho Lee on Vimeo.


Traditionally, designers are viewed as problem solvers whose job is to improve or influence people’s lives through a means of communication. Yet as we have seen in the past two decades, the word “design” has been overused and now the market is full of “designer” products that are trend-driven and egocentric, of which many solve problems that are non-existent in the first place!

When we are faced with global crisis like climate change, shortage of natural resources, deforestation, over-consumption and wastage; we need more designers to think beyond pleasing themselves and take responsibility in their design attitude and thinking process.

As the economy in the West is shrinking, it is also a time for reflection and re-evaluation. Luckily, there are an increasing number of design firms, architects and designers ( like Ideo, Shigeru Ban and Seungho) who are trying to make a difference and create awareness to problems that need to be addressed immediately.



What a Company!

Secrets of Russia at the Kiasma contemporary museum of art

I first saw Aamu/heard of Company at the London design festival two years ago and was really intrigued by her and Johan‘s work. Last year, their Reddress was exhibited at York hall during the London design festival ( see my first blog entry here), which was one of the most stunning installations of the festival.

In Helsinki, I went to their Salakauppa/ Secret shop ( it’s actually not so secretive!) and the couple happened to be there ( it turned out that their staff was sick that day). Soon I started talking to them and ended up having a very interesting but random conversation on Russia, Finnish, Asians and Bethnal Green!


Salakauppa/ Secret shop and Aamu


Aamu and Johan are not only warm and genuine, they are also one of the most creative and quirky designer team working today. At their shop, I bought a booklet called ‘Secrets of Helsinki’ (with cute illustrations), which documented their journey seeking the manufacturers and makers still working in Helsinki today. This journey also inspired them to launch a new range of products that are being sold at their shop.

Meanwhile, at the Kiasma museum of contemporary art not far from the shop, there is the Camouflage exhibition ( until 7th October) exhibiting their ‘Secrets of Russia’. They told me that they made a similar journey to the countryside of Russia seeking manufacturers and makers, and they came up with a limited-edition of Russian-inspired products for the exhibition.

I love their enthusiasm and respect for traditional crafts and techniques, yet they are also able to inject their own humour and quirkiness into the products making them truly one of a kind.


Cute Russian-inspired products


If you happen to visit Helsinki, a visit to their shop is a must!

Salakauppa/ Secret shop: Postikatu 1, Helsinki



Finnish graphic design

Bold graphics can be seen everywhere in Helsinki


Not many people are aware of the amount of graphics that surround us in our everyday lives. Yet walking down the streets, we are constantly absorbing messages ( consciously or not) from adverts, signage and banners, there is just no escape.

In Helsinki, it is even harder to NOT notice the graphics because they are so bold and colourful! Beautiful graphics and fonts can be seen everywhere, which reminds me of how London used to be, sadly, it’s no longer the case.



Illustrations and textiles are also prominent, thanks partly to the strong textiles industry. Apart from the iconic Marimekko, there are Johanna Gullichsen, Kauniste and Elina Helenius etc ( perhaps less well-known outside of Finland), just some of designers who are shaping the industry.



To celebrate the graphic design or typography in Helsinki, Napa Gallery has published a map, Font walk where visitors can download, explaining stories behind individual fonts and facades in the city centre. I didn’t have enough time to follow the route, but I did absorb the strong graphical environment whenever possible. If only I had more time…



Here are a few other contemporary Finnish graphics design studio/shops:

Polkka Jam – vintage-style patterned products

Muovo – graphical patterned products

Sanna Ja Olli – produces hemp textile products



The world of Alvar Aalto

Finlandia Hall (1967-71) and the interior of Academic bookshop (1966-1969)


I still remember how impressed I was after seeing ‘Alvar Aalto: Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban‘ exhibition at the Barbican back in 2007, as I am a fan of both architects. Hence I couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Alvar Aalto‘s studio and house in Helsinki, even with the rather steep tickets prices (€17 for one and €30 for both).

After a 20-minute tram ride from the centre, I arrived in the quiet residential area of Helsinki. I stopped a local for directions to Studio Aalto, but she said she had never heard of the place, though she did eventually direct me to the correct street.

I knew I had found the studio when I saw a few Japanese tourists waiting outside. We had to wait outside for the first guided tour to finish, then more Japanese tourists came out… Did Aalto ever think that his house and studio would become THE tourist attractions for the Japanese in Helsinki? I thought it was rather amusing that the local wasn’t even aware of his studio in the area!



As one of the most important Modernist architect of the 20th Century, Aalto‘s influence is hard to miss in Helsinki even though the city’s architecture is a mixed bag of Art Nouveau (Jugend), Neo-Classical, Nordic Classicism, Functionism and Modernism. At the studio, there are still sketches and a model of Aalto‘s proposed city plan (1961) for Helsinki which was not fulfilled by the City Council.


Studio Aalto (1955)


Apart from architecture, Aalto was also well-known for his furniture, lighting and glassware designs. Walking around his studio and house, it was hard to believe that everything was designed so many decades ago. There was a sense of timelessness, everything was simple, durable and functional. The use of light was a key element of his architecture, and this was evident at both his house and studio.


Aalto house (1934-36)


If you are a fan of architecture, then I recommend a visit to both his studio and house ( which are a few streets apart) for their guided tours, but if time is limited, then you can always visit his other sites in the city centre.


Housing for National Pensions Institute ( 1952) and Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters (1959-62)


For more information on Alvar Aalto, his studio, house and museum, check out the official website here. You can also download their free Aalto site App to your phone and plan your own self-guided tour.



Helsinki design week 2012

Pavilion, the main hub for the design week and the Lahti: Biennale ‘13 pavilion


Helsinki must be the ‘hippest’ city to visit this year, not only it is celebrating its 200th anniversary as the capital of Finland ( from Turku), it is also the World Design Capital 2012. Before Helsinki, there were Turin in 2008 and Seoul in 2010 ( which I also visited for the first time), and in order to qualify, the city has to demonstrate that it is using design as “a tool to improve social, cultural and economic life”.

I have never been to Helsinki before, so I thought a long weekend visit to the city during its annual design week would be inspirational. And I was not disappointed, in fact, I love it so much that I almost want to move relocate myself ( perhaps only during the summer seasons)! I like the size of the city, it’s not so big so you can easily walk around or hop on and off the trams ( which are very frequent). I love the greenery, the friendly people ( including strangers who would smile at me on the streets or in museums), the architecture and most of all, the quality of life and how design is integrated into people’s daily lives. The word ‘design’ is not an alternative term here ( for many people, they always relate this word to ‘fashion’ somehow), it is very much appreciated and a way of life. It is all about the details, quality and craftsmanship.


Celebrating ‘designs’ on the streets of Helsinki


With so many events and exhibitions going on, it was hard to pack everything in just a few days, but I managed it pretty well even though I was exhausted at the end of each day! I encountered so many interesting things and people, which I will have to blog about separately, but here are some of the photos from my truly inspiring trip…


Events & exhibitions all over town including the very packed weekend design market

At the Old custom warehouse

Stools installation at Stockmann department store;  a giant ‘heart’ and an ex-bus stand at the Cable factory


To be continued…



Converse x Marimekko

I have a soft spot for Converse even though they are not the most comfortable shoes! My fashion ‘dilemma’ has always been whether to go for something I really like but not at all practical or something that is just functional or practical. I have gone down both routes, these days I try to find a middle ground.

Summer sales started last month and I had been too busy to shop, but thanks to online shopping, I spotted these Converse x Marimekko shoes on Net-a-porter... and as a fan of Marimekko prints, I just couldn’t resist the temptation!

The Unikko poppy print is Marimekko’s most popular and recognizable pattern created in 1964 by Finnish designer, Maija Isola. It’s such a classic design, bold but not too girly. I love the shoe bag too!

I think I have fallen back in love with Converse again…