Artek, Marimekko, Arabia and Iittala are just some of the Finnish design classics that are known around the world. Finnish design is clean, simple and straightforward, and it is often inspired by nature. Minimalism, functionality and equality are the cornerstones of Finnish design. Finnish fashion, furniture and utensils are made to be used and not just to be admired from afar. Classics can be found in most Finnish homes.
Design gems from the past can still be admired in Helsinki's oldest restaurants. Elite, Kosmos, Lasipalatsi, Savoy and Kolme Kruunua are among those special places where you can still sense the atmosphere of the era in which they first opened their doors. For a long time, going out to restaurants in Helsinki was something mainly done by the upper classes and artists.
Helsinki's restaurant culture flourished after Prohibition, which had been introduced in 1919, and was repealed in 1931. Alongside the more exclusive Kämp and Kappeli, more accessible restaurants, bars, tea houses and coffee rooms began to appear. The style trend that characterised the 1930s – and to a large extent Finnish design – subsequently lived on.
Restaurants in Helsinki continue to pay close attention to their interiors. While classic design continues to inspire many restaurants, impressive contemporary design can also be enjoyed. Fine examples include Nikari furniture, artisan handmade glass and pottery, and works of art by young artists
Soothing functional surroundings at Savoy
When talking about classic Finnish restaurants, rakish and honest functionalism comes to mind. When the new restaurant was being planned alongside the Esplanade Park in 1937, the architects chosen for the project were none other than Alvar and Aino Aalto, the biggest names in their profession and representatives of the functionalist style trend. This was the golden age of Aalto architecture: other famous designs from the same period include the Paimio Sanatorium (1933) and Ville Mairea (1939).
The sparse and functionalist interior of the Savoy really soothes the mind. The preference of the Aaltos for the organic forms and minimalism of nature highlights the utility of the items and space in an interesting way. The clean-lined interior blends well with the natural materials favoured by the architect couple.
Following a change in ownership, the restaurant underwent a renovation in January 2020. The decor and cuisine still respect the original spirit of the place, and Artek's classic Polo-striped fabric, Aino Aalto's armchairs and Alvar Aalto’s Golden Bell pendant lamp can still be admired.
Small details that had been neglected over time were refurbished by the help of the design house Artek, the Alvar Aalto Foundation and the Helsinki City Museum. Executive Chef Helena Puolakka brought an international flavour, and a major renovation was planned by Ilse Crawford, a London-based designer who specialises in restaurant interiors and has her own office, Studioilse.
Combining the new and old at Nolla
When it closed in 2014, the classic restaurant Kynsilaukka left a gap in the restaurant scene of the city centre. In 2019, the premises were revived by Carlos Henriques, Luka Balac and Albert Franch. Their restaurant Nolla promotes the circular economy and zero waste, as its name suggests (Nolla = Zero).
The restaurant was designed by the Nolla team together with architect Uros Kostic. The old white and red floor together with the light yet sturdy furniture form the basis for the modern décor. In collaboration with the art gallery Lokal, the walls have been adorned by nature-inspired ceramic art of Arni Aromaa and a Finnish design rug by Kustaa Saksi, that was purchased straight from the designer, that exudes warmth. The tableware is a suitable combination of Arabia’s classic Ruska series and light contemporary ceramics by Leena Juvonen and Liisa Kaunisvirta.
One of the restaurant’s unique interior design elements is also the heart of its operations: the composter known affectionately as “Lauri”. Most of the ingredients delivered to the restaurant come in reusable containers that are returned to the supplier.
Front of the house and kitchen staff all wear matching Finnish design uniforms: front staff wear shirts by Tauko with aprons by Tauko and E. Laiho, while kitchen staff wear Pure Waste t-shirts. All the napkins are made from natural materials. The chairs and tables are designed by Regular Company in Croatia and made by Bosnian company Artison. The Innofusor lamps in turn are designed by Maija Puoskari.
Compelling contemporary design at Bona Fide and Way
The restaurant Bona Fide is full of colour and fun. The interior was designed by artists Emma Sarpaniemi and Iiris Riihimäki, who were inspired by the idea of a treasure hunt, playfulness and intuition. Hanging on the kitchen door and on the wall next to the second window of the hall are Riihimäki’s own paintings, which she made during the renovation and which have remained as part of the décor. Keittiön oveen ja salin toisen ikkunan viereiseen seinään tehdyt
Glass fruits and flowers that purchased from a flea market provide their own camp feel to the interior. The sofas are upholstered in grandmother-like floral patterns, and a mirror the shape of a Tetris piece adorns the wall.
According to Riihimäki herself, the food prepared by Bona Fide’s chefs and owners Eeli Kaasinen and Ilpo Vainonen represent the same kind of playful aesthetics as the décor. The restaurant’s third owner, is the sommelier Johan Borgar. Kaasinen and Vainonen selected the tableware, which includes 1980s-inspired glass ice cream bowls, as well as light and simple Arabia's 24h-tableware that showcase the food.
Intriguing design can also be enjoyed at the Way Bakery, which serves not only delicious bread but also wine. The place was opened by the Michelin-starred restaurateurs behind the restaurant Grön, in 2018. The minimalistic interior was designed by Joanna Laajisto and represents a harmonious mix of minimalism and small yet significant details.
The floor pattern is a nod to the 1910s as well as the original architecture of the building. Stainless steel industrial countertops accentuate the quality products and ingredients, and a narrow mirror stretches the entire width of the room in symmetry with the long wine rack. The tones and forms of the paintings by Tuukka Tammisaari elude to the bakery’s offerings. Even the menu is a work of art designed by Aliina Kauranne, Illustrator of the Year in 2020. Blue-tinted pottery by London-based Ana Kerin is also used.
The functionalist heritage is still present in Helsinki’s new restaurants, simply reworked by young designers into something diverse and new.
Interior architect and lecturer at Aalto University Esa Vesmas, Lauri Kähkönen, Emma Sarpaniemi and Iiris Riihimäki from Way Bakery, and Julia Pankkonen from Nolla were interviewed for this article.