Designmuseo – Helskinki Finland

the Designmuseo - Finland
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Classic Designs » Essays » Designmuseo – Helskinki Finland

The history and purpose of Designmuseo Finland

“That’s a museum piece” or “that’ll end up in a museum” are familiar expressions. They are used to refer to objects or things which are no longer believed to be up to date or relevant. 

On the other hand, if a work of art or an object ends up in the collection of New York’s MoMa, for example, the artist or designer considers it well worth mentioning in his or her curriculum vitae. 

A museum’s image in respect of designed products may be either positively or negatively charged. It’s a place to get into, willingly or unwillingly. The commercial dimension of craft or design museums also adds to this dualistic aspect of museums, leading to a situation that is far from always clear. 

A look at the history of the Designmuseo gives one an idea of the variegated motivations that have been behind the acquisition policy of craft and design museums as well as their exhibitions. 

Designmuseo is the only museum in Finland that covers the field of design comprehensively. Its activities embrace a broad spectrum of design, from crafts to industrial and graphic design. 

Designmuseo started up in its current building in 1978, but it had already had a long and colourful history by then. Its history was entwined with events of fundamental importance to the “grand story” of Finnish design, and to this day it has also retained a solid and active link with the national trend in the sector. Also, the museum has always been the focus of expectations with a supporting role in the “grand story” of Finnish design. 

On the same ideological foundation as the Victoria & Albert Museum, which derived from Henry Cole’s Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the Museum of Applied Arts (today’s Designmuseo) based on a liberal economic policy was started in Finland on the initiative of the University of Helsinki’s Professor of Aesthetics Carl Gustaf Estlander.

The idea was for Finland to have a collection of models, partly for educational purposes in support of the School of Arts and Crafts established two years previously, and to disseminate, through examples of good design, awareness of design among the public in general and in particular among artisans.  

In other words, to found a kind of shrine of industry and a permanent global exhibition. Since its inception, the activities of the Designmuseo have been closely linked to stimulating interest in the aesthetic aspects of the industrial arts. 

On the other hand, the dynamic activity in the sector was a consequence of both Finland’s rapid industrialisation and the spread of nationalist ideas in Finland. The trend was amplified in a small country which was seeking a sovereign position in the community of nations. 

The Designmuseo’s first collection was acquired at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873. This year therefore constitutes a natural starting point for the systematic expansion of the museum’s possessions. 

Acquiring a collection at the Vienna World’s Fair was seen as so important that a newspaper advertisement was placed to appeal for funds direct to the public. 

The collection comprised 732 objects and they were largely chosen on the basis of the materials used. Because of the shortage of funds, it was necessary to settle for what was in some respects a very modest set of objects, and more than 300 items were received as donations, although the collection represented a very broad spectrum of materials and techniques, embracing objects of glass, faience, porcelain, wood, lacquer, metal and stone as well as examples of bookbinding.

In 1875, the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design was founded to maintain the activities of the school and museum. The museum separated from this in 1990, becoming an independent foundation receiving annual support from the state of Finland. 

The collection was expanded at the world’s fairs after Vienna, and gradually other ways of systematically increasing it were also started. The collection was displayed to the public for the first time in University of Helsinki premises in 1874. Since then, the museum’s history has been tinged by moves from one place to another. 

Professor Estlander’s original intention was to put all subdivisions of the visual arts in Finland under the same roof, embracing both the collection and education. This was achieved when the museum, together with the National Gallery and the School of Arts and Crafts and the Academy of Fine Arts, opened in 1888 in a building known as the Ateneum in Helsinki city centre.

This cohabitation of arts institutions lasted for a very short time for the Museum of Applied Arts. A shortage of space forced it to move out of the Ateneum in 1912, and it continued to live a wandering life until 1954, when the collection was placed in storage. 

In the postwar decades of the 1950s and 1960s, the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design, whose functions included the promotion of Finnish design in the international arena as well as maintaining the museum, concentrated on export exhibitions which clearly supported the needs of industry and underpinned the image of Finland as a modern, Western, industrialised state. 

In 1978, the museum began a new lease of life when, as a result of resolute work by the then Managing Director of the Finnish Society  of Crafts and Design, Professor Herman Olof Gummerus, it got new premises and reopened to the public.

The constant moves from place to place had naturally affected both the museum’s work on exhibitions and its systematic additions to the collection. However, it may be seen that the choice of Finnish design as a high priority for collecting as it gained in strength was a clear decision in the collection policy. 

The history of the industrial arts in Finland is reflected in the museum’s collection, so that certain subsets stand out: among these are the early stages of Finnish industrialisation, the national awakening of the turn of the 20th century, the crafts-oriented decorative objects of the 1920s, the breakthrough of modernism in the 1930s, the rise in output and international success following World War II, the techno-optimism of the 1960s, the recovery of crafts in the 1970s, and in recent decades the multidimensionality of design and especially the rise in prestige of industrial design. 

Today the museum’s collection is comprised of about 35,000 objects. The museum also has an extensive archive of more than 40,000 drawings and over 100,000 photos, plus a digital register with details of a thousand Finnish designers. 

The collection naturally spotlights the strong sectors of Finnish industrial arts, such as objects from the Iittala and Nuutajärvi glassworks, the output of the Arabia porcelain factory, furniture, textiles and drawings from the Friends of Finnish Handicraft, and Marimekko’s printed fabrics and fashions. 

The museum’s collection also includes noteworthy sets from individual designers, such as a collection of objects and drawings by Timo Sarpaneva, silver objects by Academician Bertel Gardberg, textiles and drawings by textile artist Dora Jung, and a collection of ceramist Kyllikki Salmenhaara’s work. 

The great challenge to the museum in recent years has been to digitise the collection files to simplify handling; this has now been eighty per cent completed for the collections of objects. 

Finland’s image as a pioneering country for design is largely based on the success of its design in the postwar period and on the reputations of a handful of “designer-heroes” such as Alvar Aalto, Tapio Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva, Kaj Franck and Eero Aarnio. 

In the past few years, however, there has been a tendency among both designers and the state authorities to consider the significance of design more broadly, both in general terms as a source of improvement to the quality of people’s lives and as a form of added value in industrial competitiveness. 

On the basis of this debate, in 2000 the Finnish Council of State approved a design policy programme. The goal of the Design 2005! Programme is to boost competitive edge by improving design education and research and by linking design with the development of the national innovation system. 

The role clearly defined for the Designmuseo, to preserve and display the history of national design, is both a strength and in some senses a weakness. 

The museum has gained an exceptionally strong collection and expertise in the field of Finnish design, but its international collection has not grown to the same extent as is the case with museums of the same type in other countries. 

Efforts have been made to close this gap through energetic exhibition work, which have displayed international trends in design on a broad front from both historical and contemporary perspectives.

On the other hand, the emphasis on Finnish material differentiates Finland’s Designmuseo clearly from its international colleagues, which have become perhaps excessively homogeneous in what they provide. 

The design policy programme also defines the main foci of the various organisations in the sector. On the basis of the programme, the Designmuseo has summed up its own operational targets for the future as follows: to preserve, display, document and research Finnish and international design culture; to spotlight the social and cultural impact of design in cooperation with other parties promoting design, industry and the designer community; and to produce exhibitions of Finnish design for international tours. 

In practical terms, what this means, in addition to activities associated with augmenting traditional collections and arranging exhibitions, is to bolster the importance of outreach projects and to pay particularly close attention to a young public and to museum pedagogy. 

In connection with this, the museum opened a new exhibition section in 2000, the Design Studio, which is both an exhibition and a workshop. In addition to this, the museum has launched an EU project within the framework of which visits to schools by designers are arranged and schoolchildren themselves are encouraged to design objects. 

In the world of products, business today is done largely through images, and design has continued to grow in importance. Designers and their ideas and products move easily from country to country, becoming a form of common capital. 

On the other hand, it is important, for the maintenance of global cultural multidimensionality, to understand and support the national features of the material culture and environment. From the northern perspective of Finland, Designmuseo seeks, from this baseline, to expand its collection and to interpret the history of design and the phenomena of today. 

An energetic programme of exhibitions examining design-related phenomena in an original way and from different angles, combined with a clearly delineated collection policy, will hopefully underpin the Designmuseo’s position as a cultural institution with something to offer in the future and as a place people will enjoy themselves and where objects will not “end up” but “get into”. 

marianne aav 

Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.