Discovering Finnish Design: Where Art, Nature, and Innovation Converge
Here at Studio Botanica, we are inspired by new cultures, environments, and the people we meet along the way. In saying that, we recently explored Finland’s cultural treasures and dove deep into the Nordic country's thriving design scene. In this upcoming blog post, we'll recount our adventure, from our stay at the Ahlström family estate in Noormarkku, home to the Alvar Aalto-designed Villa Mairea, and later experiencing a week of innovation and enjoying Helsinki.
Our foray into the Finnish design scene followed a trip in April to the 2023 Salone del Mobile in Milan, where we met with our friend Niclas Ahlström, the Co-founder of Finland-based furniture manufacturer Made by Choice. After hearing his stories about Finland’s design history – and fast forward four months of staying in touch – we jumped at the invitation to experience Finland as Niclas described it during our time in Milan.
Discovering Villa Mairea: A Journey into Modernist Design
After arriving in Helsinki, our journey started with a trip to Noormarkku – a historic village about 3 hours north of Finland's capital. After settling in, Niclas took us on a walk through the grounds of Noormarkku and up a softly curving driveway, which led us to a sun-bathed Villa Mairea nestled amongst the swaying pine forests. Completed in the autumn of 1939, just before the Winter War, Villa Mairea was commissioned as the home for Maire and Harry Gullichsen, a progressive couple with a strong affinity for modernist ideals who were also lovers of applied arts and architecture. Considered to be some of Finland’s most famous architects, Alvar and Aino Aalto, who shared a close friendship with the Gullichsens, undertook a fiercely radical and forward-thinking approach in designing the villa and its interior, with the final result being a rebellious testament to modernist design that challenged the status quo of 1930s architecture.
Upon entering the home, we were immediately taken back by the light-filled open space that greeted us with lush indoor greenery, bamboo shelving, cozy reading nooks, and exquisitely detailed beech paneling on the ceiling and walls. What we found impressive was the feature staircase that leads from the living room to the upper floors and how it plays an eye-catching role in promoting the forest landscape of the villa. Adding to its charm were the large supporting vertical wooden poles painted in black and wrapped in rattan that support the ground floors' curvaceous timber paneled ceilings. We were inspired by how this gave the space rhythm and how it was complemented by slatted glass windows that beam sharp angular slithers of natural light across the ceiling, walls, and the entire ground floor.
The presence of a Japanese spirit and details can be attributed to Aalto's ability to assimilate ideas and influences into his synthesis process. Rattan and custom wooden furniture with a notable Japanese influence found throughout the home are surrounded by an impressive collection of artworks such as Massimo Campiglis Ritratto di Singora (1931) and Juan Gris’s The Yellow Guitar (1926). In the home’s dining room, Ferdinand Leger’s Etoile Polychrome (1952) commands its place on the wall. The masterpiece sits beside a series of ceramic plates by Pablo Picasso stored in a glass cabinet next to a collection of Finnish and Italian glass art. A glimpse across the room and a mobile by Alexander Calder discreetly hangs above the Villa’s entryway. Without question, and as lovers of modern art, having the rare privilege to view such incredible works in a private home is a memory we will cherish forever.
What sets Villa Mairea apart is Aalto's organic design philosophy. Rejecting modernist architecture’s rigidity, it’s clear that Aalto embraced fluid forms and organic shapes that mirrored the irregularities found in nature. This is evident in the villa's undulating ceilings, curved walls, and how each space in the home is seamlessly connected. Using natural materials, such as timber poles, gives the structure context within its environment and exudes a confident sense of timelessness.
Villa Mairea is something we’d only seen in design books, but now we got to experience a private tour of the home with some of the Nordic countries' top designers. The marriage of nature and modernity deeply inspires Studio Botanica, and the rare experience has impacted how we think about architecture and design today. Our visit to Villa Mairea was an exploration of radical modernist design that inspires us in every way as we explore and develop our design language.
To conclude, we considered the entire experience something you must pinch yourself to believe. Having the opportunity to stand inside a house designed by Alvar Aalto and share a direct connection to its history and the Gullichsen family through our friend Niclas Ahlström – is a memory that won’t ever leave us. Thank you for this rare and unforgettable experience if you're reading this (we will be back).
Harnessing Nature’s Power: Where Innovation and Sustainability Meet
A short walk away from Villa Mairea, located on a meandering stream on the premises of Ahlström’s family estate, sits an integral part of their family’s entrepreneurial history, known as The Makkarakoski Sawmill. In operation for more than 200 years, the structure pioneered Finnish wood production during the 18th and 19th centuries.
As true believers in nature and building products from natural materials–especially wood products–we found it fascinating to discover the sawmill’s complex mechanical engineering that was years ahead of its time. Vaulted timber ceilings with glimpses to the mighty river outside that once powered the sawmill evoked our imagination. With that, scenes of fast-moving belts and turning cogs came to mind as freshly milled timber was quickly processed by workers over the iron lathes, painting a vivid picture of how the sawmill operated as the first sawmill of its kind in Europe during the 1800s. Initially, the flowing water from the river transported wooden logs downstream and powered the sawmill through a large mechanical waterwheel. As technology progressed, its design was repurposed, transforming the water’s energy into electrical power.
Today, the sawmill (now a museum) is not used to process wood anymore, but the water wheel is still turning – producing enough sustainable energy to power the entire family estate and its surrounding buildings, making it a prime example of how historical industrial infrastructure can be adapted for modern sustainability. This ingenious blend of history and environmental consciousness left a lasting impression on us, reinforcing our commitment to incorporating sustainable practices into our design work, drawing inspiration from the harmonious relationship between nature and technology that we witnessed at the Ahlström family estate.
Curiosity, Skills and Hard Work: Exploring Finnish Product Design at Aivan
During our weekend in Noormarkku, we had the pleasure of meeting Saku Sysiö of Aivan. An Industrial Designer by trade, Saku Co-founded Aivan – a multidisciplinary Finnish design studio focused on solving complex challenges since 2007. Currently, Aivan’s Head of Products, Saku, invited us to their Studio for a personal tour after spending a weekend together discussing all things design and realizing our shared passion for well-built products.
Aivan’s studio is in the historic Henry Ford building in Helsinki’s port area, an old factory building in Hernesaari, South of Helsinki. After walking along the shoreline paths to meet Saku, we were welcomed into their studio and stunned by the vastness of space upon entering. Clean lines and neutral colors contrast the rough metal crane structures along the ceiling, providing a glimpse into what this factory must have looked like in its early days. Massive glass windows face outwards to the waterside – bathing the room in natural light for Aivan’s 70-strong team of makers.
As we walked through their studio, surrounded by drawings, material samples, and life-sized prototypes of new product innovations, we were fascinated by the tools and infrastructure that Aivan uses in their industrial design and naval architecture projects. From 3D printing rooms to spaces dedicated to prototyping naval designs, Aivan's team masterfully balances the integration of engineering, full-stack development, and cutting-edge technology with the meticulous art of design. Their workspace serves as a testament to the seamless marriage of creativity and precision that defines their approach.
After the studio tour, Saku treated us to lunch by the picturesque coast, where he generously shared his insights into their future product designs and his experiences as a celebrated designer. Our encounter with Aivan was not just a studio tour but an immersion into a world where innovation, craftsmanship, and design converge seamlessly, leaving us inspired and ready to embark on our own creative journeys.
Meeting the Creative Talents Behind Helsinki's Design District
The Helsinki Design District is a creative neighborhood in Helsinki, Finland, known for its concentration of design-related businesses and activities. This dynamic neighborhood emerged in the early 2000s when a group of visionary entrepreneurs and creative individuals recognized the potential of creating a dedicated space to showcase Finnish design talent and culture. It has grown to encompass various streets and areas in the city, including parts of Punavuori, Kaartinkaupunki, and Kamppi neighborhoods. The district's primary mission has been to promote Finnish design, showcasing the rich design heritage of Finland while also providing a platform for emerging designers and established brands. It hosts design events, festivals, and cultural initiatives, making design an integral part of Helsinki's identity and lifestyle. Today, the Helsinki Design District continues to evolve, attracting a diverse community of designers, artists, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts who appreciate its dynamic and creative atmosphere.
One of the creative talents that is contributing to the district’s thriving design scene is Annaleena Hakola–a third-generation furniture maker and entrepreneur who’s tirelessly worked scaling the family business from their home base in Jurva into a globally recognized Finnish furniture label. We had the pleasure of meeting Annaleena in Noormarkku and were inspired by listening to her stories and learning from her experiences as a Creative Director and businesswoman.
Walking into Hakola’s showroom in Helsinki’s Design District is like stepping into a different world – rounded sofas wrapped in bright and colorful textiles and bold geometric patterns accentuate the clean lines of the furniture. The atmosphere in the boutique felt welcoming and friendly – the showroom was filled with refreshing pieces. One can imagine how their designs create charming, comfortable, and cozy spaces where you can unwind and take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
The collection encompasses a wide range of products, including sofas, chairs, tables, pillows and character-filled home furnishings. Renowned for their commitment to quality and sustainability, Hakola often use eco-friendly materials and production methods in their designs.
If you’re in the design district, we encourage anyone interested in Finnish furniture design to visit Analeena and the team at Hakola.
From Design Inspiration to Lasting Friendships: Our Unforgettable Finnish Experience!
After an eventful time in Finland, we look back with a smile on our faces – a journey full of experiences, new perspectives on design, and inspiring conversations. Helsinki welcomed us with an open and friendly atmosphere. Known for its icy Nordic winters, the Finnish people radiated a genuine warm friendliness. From the locals we stayed with–thank you, Henri–to the ones we met in cafes in the many places we visited, everyone was eager to enjoy a conversation and share their tales with us.
Our trip started with a journey into the past, introducing us to the inspiring realms of Villa Mairea, a bastion of modernist design, and the sustainable Sawmill powered by natural resources. What inspired us most was Aalto’s and the Ahlström family's progressive and early consideration of conscious sustainability – values that emanate in their artistic history today.
At Aivan, we discovered a shared commitment to their “curiosity, skills, and hard work” philosophy that cultivates an environment where innovative ideas can thrive. Sharing an honest conversation and listening to Annaleena’s recount of Hakola’s history, an entrepreneurial success story that has preserved a family legacy and gained its place in the archives of Finnish design history, deeply resonated with Studio Botanica’s mantra.
We’re grateful that through our love for designing and making furniture, we met many talented Nordic designers who shared their time and expertise with us during our trip. Throughout our adventure, we couldn't help but be moved by the profound connection Finns have with nature and their ability to forge genuine friendships. As we shared a toast with newfound friends, we were reminded of the simple yet enduring lessons: always stay curious, keep an open mind, seize opportunities, and above all – cherish life's little moments without taking yourself too seriously.
Thanks to all our new friends whom we met along the way that made it even more unforgettable. See you soon!
Silvio & Luke