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Finland has long been considered the least flashy of the Nordic countries, overshadowed by design-savvy neighbours like Sweden and Denmark.

But as Helsinki steps into the spotlight as the World Design Capital for 2012, the country is showcasing its own innovative design traditions, with new accolades, including a cutting-edge design studio.

Classic names to look for
Born in 1898, Alvar Aalto is ranked by many design aficionados as the 20th Century's number one architect -- and not just in the phone book. It is estimated that Aalto designed more than 500 buildings during his career, of which around 300 were built (in Finland and around the globe).

Not content with just architecture, Aalto collaborated with his wife Aino on town planning, interior design, furniture and glassware design, You will have seen his work even if you did not know it was his: the curvalicious bentwood Paimio chair; three-legged stackable birch stools with rounded legs; the asymmetrical Savoy vase that cradles flowers in its many crannies.

Artek is the furniture and homewares store founded by Alvar and Aino, and it maintains their legacy today. But design in Finland is so much more than just Aalto. Other local design icons include:

  • Eliel and Eero Saarinen, a father-and-son pair of architects and designers. After moving to America, Eero designed the ultra-groovy Tulip chair.
  • Marimekko, renowned for its cheerful, colourful fabrics, made into clothing and home furnishings. The Unikko pattern (big bold poppies, traditionally in red) is the most recognisable design.
  • Iittala, a global name in covetable tableware and glassware, with textures and forms often gleaned from Finnish lakescapes.
  • Fiskars, the oldest company in Finland, managed to make an icon out of orange-handled scissors. Who knew?

What to see
The Finns' almost-mystical closeness to nature has always underpinned their design. If you prefer a scholarly approach to your master class in the uniqueness of the local craft (as opposed to, say, hitting the stores), start your familiarisation at the Design Museum, home to a permanent collection entitled “Finnish Form”.

If architecture is more your thing, stop by the curvaceous Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. More than a decade after it opened, quirky Kiasma (designed by American architect Steven Holl) still stands testament to modern Helsinki.

From Kiasma, you are not far from the Finlandia Talo, a design masterpiece from Alvar Aalto built between 1967 and 1972. The concert hall is accessible on guided tours -- or better yet, snare a ticket for a concert in order to admire Aalto's incredible attention to detail.

Where to shop
Helsinki's harbourside kuappatori (marketplace) is the perfect place for mooching around in search of local culinary delicacies as well as tourist-oriented handicrafts and souvenirs.

Esplanadi Park runs west of the kuappatori, with popular strolling streets Eteläesplanadi and Pohjoisesplanadi on either side. Along here you will find the flagship boutiques of established Finnish classics like Marimekko (Pohjoisesplanadi 33); Iittala (Pohjoisesplanadi 25); Artek (Eteläesplanadi 18); and nearby Stockmann department store (Aleksanterinkatu 52), where seemingly every Helsinkian buys everything…

For something less mainstream, make a beeline for Punavuori, Helsinki's design neighbourhood, southwest of Esplanadi. It is dotted with whimsical little shops, vintage stores, galleries and workshops of young designers.

Design District Helsinki is a loose confederation of innovative design shops spread through the central area, particularly between Esplanadi and Punavuori. Keep an eye out for the black-and-white sticker in the window of these places.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Helsinki’s innovative design scene’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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