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The Design Journal

VOLUME 14, ISSUE 1 PP 136140

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Book Review

Finnish Design: A Concise History by Pekka Korvenmaa


The Design Journal DOI: 10.2752/175630610X12877385838966

Helsinki, Finland: University of Art and Design Helsinki, 2009, 336pp. Paperback ISBN 978-951-558-295-9. 48.

Kjetil Fallan
In the Nordic countries, design history as a distinct field of study is experiencing a period of expansion and revitalization. New scholars are studying new material in new ways, and often with an international outlook both in terms of theoretical per spect ives and to an increasing degree publication strategies. While this bodes well for the future, little has thus far been available in English and published with international distribution. Looking beyond the design pornography offered by aestheticizing coffee table books and hagiographic exhibition catalogues, even survey books of Nordic design aimed at an international public are few and far between. In general, national survey histories are often published in native languages, primarily with domestic audiences in mind. Some are translated into English most are not. Also, national survey histories represent a notoriously difficult category, and the broad strokes and quick pace it requires

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are effective deterrents in a scholarly environment dominated by micro histories and theoretical musings. All the more pleasing, then, that Pekka Korvenmaa has taken on the challenging exercise of writing such a book and publishing it in English. Finnish Design: A Concise History presents the history of Finnish design from around 1870 to the present. Rather than basing the chronological demarcation on political milestones like the 1809 separation from Sweden or the 1917 independence from Russia, the starting point of the narrative is chosen because many of the major institutions that would form Finnish design discourse were founded in the 1870s. While this choice is not self-evident and unproblematic, it has the merit of facilitating a history of design that stands on its own rather than becoming a reflection of the nations political history. Bringing the account all the way to the present makes sense in that any other chosen halt point would seem arbitrary, but historicizing ones own present is no easy feat. Nevertheless, contemporary design discourse in Finland is of great interest, and there is no way better to understand it than in light of its history. For this reason, and others, the book offers a somewhat more comprehensive analysis of the period stretching from the Second World War to the present than it does of the earlier period. The book is structured chronologically, in eight chapters, each discussing relatively well-defined periods. The first concerns the late nineteenth century and presents the founding in the 1870s of major institutions like the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design, the Museum of Applied Art and the Craft School, and outlines an emerging applied art community. The second chapter deals with the period leading up to Finlands independence and explores the entanglement of nationalism and internationalism in design culture. Chapter 3, on the inter-war years, focuses on the relation between tradition and modernity. Chapter 4 explores the role of design in the makeshift conditions of wartime and in the early post-war reconstruction efforts. Chapter 5, tellingly entitled The Great Rise, chronicles the remarkable international fame and commercial success of Finnish design in the 1950s and 1960s. Chapter 6 tells the heterogeneous history of the 1960s and 1970s, tracing developments such as the professionalization and dispersion of industrial design, the changes in consumption patterns resulting from growing affluence, and the increasing concern about issues such as social responsibility, ecology and heritage. Chapter 7 outlines the apprehensive approach to postmodernism in Finland in the 1980s as well as the crucial developments in the telecommunications industry. The eighth and final chapter boldly outlines major trends in the immediate past and present, giving due attention to factors such as the grave economic recession of the early 1990s and how design became an integral part in the macro-political strategies for recovery, and the growing interest in design management and branding.

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Korvenmaa argues that the first part of his timeline the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are already well researched and can thus be treated more concisely in the present context. While it is true that extensive research has been done on this topic, only a small portion of it is available to an international public, and it is therefore essential that this material is not omitted from or treated too cursorily in the first English language survey. Luckily, the author exaggerates his disclaimer, and the period in question is given due attention as far as one can expect from a survey history. A national survey history naturally raises questions about nation alism and design. The intimate links between these concepts in Finland is a well-rehearsed theme, especially in English language accounts, the conventional position being that the late nineteenth century represents an awakening of both nationalism and design and a resulting quest for national formal expressions in design. While there certainly is some truth to such claims, Korvenmaa does a good job in qualifying these myths by demonstrating that the overwhelming majority of objects ... of the late nineteenth century were based on adaptations of leading historical styles created in accordance with international examples (p. 28). The Finnishness for which Finnish design would later receive recognition abroad was in fact facilitated only by the incorporation of international currents a trait it shared with other national design discourses. The book is characterized by certain recurring themes and distinguishing traits. One of the topics to which Korvenmaa returns again and again is that of design education. One explanation for this is the peculiar situation that Finland until recently had only one higher education institution training designers, making this school all the more important in forming design discourse. Founded as The Craft School in 1871, it became the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1886. Reformed and renamed as the Institute of Industrial Art in 1949, given a four-year curriculum and taken over by the state in 1965, it achieved university status in 1973 under the name University of Art and Design Helsinki. Educational aspects are always significant and rewarding subjects of design history, but the Finnish case outlined here becomes even more pertinent and interesting in light of the dramatic changes currently under way in Finnish design education, in which the University of Art and Design Helsinki has merged with the Helsinki School of Economics and the Helsinki University of Technology to form the Aalto University, officially opened earlier this year. Another subject that is treated relatively comprehensively is exhibitions, both domestic and abroad. These discussions provide insight into how Finnish design has been staged, promoted and perceived, and fall in line with the increased attention to various forms of mediation arenas and processes in international design history at the moment. The consumption sphere of design culture,

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however, does not figure prominently in this book. Whereas con ceived changes in consumer behaviour are mentioned from time to time, any substantial examination of design as consumer culture is absent but then again it would be impossible to cram all aspects of design culture into a survey history, and the priorities made are sound enough. A commendable feature of the book, which sets it apart from many of its kind, is that whereas the usual suspects of famous designers, manufacturers and products are duly presented and make up the bulk of the book, Korvenmaa reminds us time and again that this is only part of the picture, that the material culture that forms design historys subject matter actually is dominated by what he calls a mainstream of anonymous products (p. 59). That being said, this mainstream is rarely explored beyond the level of being mentioned in passing. A slight shift of balance, here, between the iconic and the anonymous would have made for a more surprising and engaging account. Nevertheless, it is invigorating to see a survey history of Finnish design that does not limit itself to beautiful objects for the home, but also includes tractors, toilets, trucks, telephones and televisions, and treats industrial design in the broader sense properly. A similarly refreshing trait is that the modernist ethos, which has permeated design historiography especially in more popular accounts like survey histories is, although not eradicated, then certainly moderated and complemented. Again, the heroic figures and products of modernism dominate, but the omnipresence of non-modernist design in our material culture is at least mentioned and illustrated by a few examples. Korvenmaa writes: The slow stream of tradition still continued alongside modernism and that Therefore, the image of the applied arts of the 1930s is richer than some have wanted to see it in retrospect (p. 129). In the same vein he remarks how the 1940s were marked by romanticizing trends emphasizing comfort and enhancements of everyday life (p. 157). Recognizing such phenomena is essential for the academic credibility of design history, and the author should be commended for his efforts, although he could at times have done more to qualify and question the image that the international public had of Finland as an Eldorado of modern architecture and design (p. 194). Despite the obvious limitations of the survey format, the book is well contextualized. The history of Finnish design is presented as firmly embedded in broader political, economical, technological, social and cultural processes. This helps distance this book from the introversion and superficiality that may easily gain the upper hand in publications of this kind. Survey histories have their limitations, but Pekka Korvenmaa has succeeded in the difficult task of presenting the rich history of Finnish design both briefly and boldly.

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Biography
Dr Kjetil Fallan is Associate Professor of Design History in the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas at the University of Oslo. He is the author of Design History: Understanding Theory and Method (Berg, 2010) as well as numerous articles published in journals including the Journal of Design History, Design Issues, Enterprise and Society and History and Technology. His edited volume Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories is forth coming with Berg (2012). Fallan also serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Design History.

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