Open house weekend 2012

King’s College, The Maughan Library


I have always looked forward to the annual Open house weekend in London, last year, I managed to book and visit some amazing places like the Lancaster House, Commonwealth Institute ( before the renovation to turn it into the new Design Museum) and the Oak room at the New Riverhead etc. This year, due to an exceptional high demand, the website crashed as soon as booking began and then it was turned into a ballot system.


Royal Courts of Justice


Is there a reason for this sudden popularity this year? Is the public more interested in architecture? Or maybe people are just taking advantage of another free event? Whatever the reason, I think the organisers need to consider hosting this more than just once a year!



Luckily, besides the popular ones that required pre-booking, there were still many interesting and historical places that were open for all. I had always wanted to visit the Royal Courts of Justice and this gave me an excuse to go for the first time ( without looking too much like a tourist), as well as the nearby Maughan Library ( part of King’s college).


Golden Lane estate near Barbican

Interior of a flat at the Golden Lane estate


I was fortunate enough to get a successful application through ballot system, which was a tour of a flat at the Golden Lane Estate, another place where I had wanted to visit for a long time. This 1950s council estate is Grade 2 listed and has been much sought after in the recent years. This modernist style estate reminded me very much of Alvar Aalto‘s house in Helsinki that I visiteda few weeks ago, esp. the functionality of the interior and the use of light. The estate also have facilities such as leisure centre, nursery, pub, shops, tennis courts and even a community website that keeps the residents updated on events within the estate. If I have to interpret David Cameron‘s “big society”, I assume this would be close to his ideal “society”.

My friend and I also took the opportunity to visit the nearby Guildhall school of music and drama, going backstage and watching the students rehearsed for their upcoming play. It was great fun.

I simply cannot believe we will have to wait another year for this event to repeat!


Guildhall school of music and drama


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…



Deloitte Ignite 2012

This year’s Africa weekend at Royal Opera House


It’s probably hard to believe this but many exceptional arts and cultural events in London are actually free, and the annual Deloitte Ignite at the Royal Opera House is one of them. I have been to Deloitte Ignite for the past few years and it never ceases to amaze me how the Royal Opera House manages to evolve and stay on top of its game throughout the years.

Yinka Shonibare curated the ‘Africa weekend‘ this year and it was full of activities including African films ( showing outdoor), club night and various concerts. I missed most of the days events but managed to see the memorising and meditative performance by Angola-born Portuguese inventor and musician Victor Gama in the evening.


Instrumentos, contemporary musical instruments designed by Victor Gama


Gama‘s inventive and beautiful musicals instruments: Instrumentos ( see above) are sound devices and installations designed and built as a process of music writing and experimentation with form, design, sound and music. Each instrument looks like an art piece and the sound was so crisp and pure that it completely took my breath away.

I also love the balcony view outside the cafe on the top of the Opera House, it is great to people-watch from above while the sun sets over Covent Garden. This is one of loveliest and least touristy spots in Central London and I hope it will continue to stay that way.


Film screening at the Piazza