Design Treasures in the City

Rut Bryk: Kaupunki auringossa
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The design city of Helsinki contains a hidden trove of creative wonders in public spaces that can be visited free of charge. These works date back to the golden age of Finnish Design from the 1950s to the 1970s and attest to a respectful as well as very direct relationship with design. Design solutions have been used to decorate the City Hall, a department store, as well as door-posts.

Birger Kaipiainen's relief at Stockmann

Helsinki's oldest department store Stockmann has kept strong ties to Helsinki’s  design community over the course of its 150-year-old history. In addition to having a design department showcasing top makers, the department store even hosted the city's Design Museum during the war years. Birger Kaipiainen (1915-1988) created a large-scale relief on the ground floor of the department store by the Mannerheimintie entrance. The relief was a commissioned gift from Stockmann's personnel when the department store turned 100 in 1962. The relief represents Kaipiainen's typical ceramics topics of pearls, birds, flowers and fruits. Kaipainen's lush, colour-filled and even exotic style drew inspiration from fairytales, Italy, as well as Karelia, a region of Finland lost to Russia in the war.

Rut Bryk's relief at the City Hall lobby

The interior of Helsinki's City Hall was given  its present streamlined look in renovations that lasted from 1965 to 1970. The original Classicist style was a 1833 design by the architect C.L. Engel. The Modernist architect Arno Ruusuvuori was hired to update the look and feel of the space. In addition to spatial design, Ruusuvuori selected works by contemporary artists to decorate the space. One of the biggest works was a wall relief by ceramics artist Rut Bryk (1916-1999). Bryk's style in the 1940s often focused on figurative topics such as Madonnas, birds and butterflies yet in the 1970s, her line of work crystallised into strict geometric shapes. The title of the ceramic wall relief in the City Hall lobby is City in the Sun. Keen-eyed onlookers can spot a map of Helsinki in the shimmering white piece. In its centre, colourful squares, triangles, circles and dots turn into a glistening sun disc.

Paavo Tynell's light fixtures at the Hotel Vaakuna

The most prestigious address of its time, the Hotel Vaakuna, was due to be completed just in time for the 1940 Helsinki Olympic Games. Due to the war,  the sporting event was delayed until 1952 and the hotel's construction efforts were also put on hold. The hotel was finally inaugurated on the eve of the Games. Paavo Tynell (1890-1873) was hired to design a large number of light fixtures for the hotel's rooms, lobby, and the luxurious top floor restaurant. Tynell's brass lights were masterpieces of artistic forging with their decorative wirework and punctured details. The reading lights found a place by the lobby armchairs, chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and the romantic wall lights resembling decorative ribbons are still in their original places. The restaurant floor's numerous different lights – the most striking of these the chandeliers with their bell-like parts hanging in the so-called Sun Cabinet – are all original. The restaurant floor's lobby has a unique brass table decorated with animal motifs. It was designed by Tynell's wife Helena. Tynell designed many light fixtures for spaces in Helsinki. He is one of the internationally highest selling Finnish designers in auction houses today.  

Alvar Aalto's door handles

The sharp-eyed architecture fan can identify an Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) building by its door handles. Handles became Aalto's trademark in his architectural designs in the 1950s. They were manufactured at a workshop called Valaistustyö where also Aalto's metallic light fixtures – called Valetut – were made. The bronze door handles were both sturdy and elegant. Looking at them from the side, one can recognise shapes familiar from the famous Aalto Vase. Aalto's door handle pairs are highly sought-after collectibles and they have reached the status of independent artworks. The English auction house Philips sold a pair for 17,500 pounds, or around 24,000 euros. In downtown Helsinki, Aalto's door handles can be spotted in, for instance, the Erottaja parking garage, the Sähkötalo building, the Finlandia Hall, and the Aalto residence in Munkkiniemi.

Michael Schilkin's relief on the facade of the Helsinki School of Business

How the Russian journeyman tailor Michael Schilkin (1900-1962) ended up as a designer at the Finnish ceramics house Arabia is a great story. While sailing with his sailing club in the 1920s, the crew accidentally entered the Finnish waters of Lake Ladoga. Through this turn of events, Schilkin ended up in Helsinki where he began his ceramics studies. Schilkin is best known for his sympathetic small-scale animal sculptures. As his career progressed, his focus shifted towards larger tile works. The ceramics piece entitled Merchants was completed on the front facade of the Helsinki School of Economics in 1950. The colourful scene depicts different practices and symbols of trading. Its central topics are commerce, saving and internationality. The middle part of the work shows the Greek god of trade, Hermes. A chain of people forms a global ring symbolising different continents: North America, Europe, Africa, Australia, South America and Asia. The relief was produced at the Arabia factory in Helsinki, where Schilkin also worked. The commission by the School of Economics invited several well-known Finnish designers to participate in the project, such as Olli Borg, Maija Heikinheimo and Ilmari Tapiovaara.  

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The design city of Helsinki contains a hidden trove of creative wonders in public spaces that can be visited free of charge.