EAGLE St.- to Index

FROM HISTORICISM TO MODERNISM: FINNISH DESIGN 1900-1950’S

By Raymond Notley

Studies in Finnish design history are preoccupied with nationalism and modernism. Both of these attributes are interwoven with folklore and an admirable ethnocentrism. Over all is the thick veil of the Finnish language. Taking all this together, one is, as a foreigner, presented with a palimpsest of reverential nationalistic references and a national iconostasis of revered objects created by a pantheon of design deities. Is Britain similarly all Morris, Christopher Dresser, Brangwyn and Mackintosh?1

This lecture disregarded language, as well as the interpretation of secondary information, and examined visual primary sources. Such imagery is a universal truth whether it be painted, drawn or photographed.

The richly-illustrated catalogues of Finnish industry2 from the 1870s onwards are mines of information and minefields of misinformation. There was historicism as well as plagiarism. Manufacturers were the most eager explorers of each others’ catalogues, and blatant copying was not just a Finnish phenomenon. Through the pages of industry can be seen the Swedish domination of product nomenclature in the late 19th century, which changes to a more international stance from around 1905. There are references to German, American and English "styles". Sets of "Swedish" tableware called Oskar, for example, are replaced, by 1915, with designs labelled Kullervo and Suomi.

Art Nouveau, broadly speaking, can be said to be the abandonment of worn-out ideas and the beginning of a fresh new modus vivendi which varied in appearance from country to country3. Scandinavia, at the turn of the century, was pre- occupied by growing nationalism and gaining independence. Viking revivals abounded in Norway and Denmark, with some French influence which was, however, strongest in Swedish ceramics4. In Finland there is little evidence of this organic, neurotic Art Noveau from France or Belgium. There is, however, an input from Germany and Austria, in particular a strong influence from the Vereinigte Werkstätten and Jugendstil in Munich5.

Typical Finnish furniture emporia catalogues from 1900 to 1920 provide a bewildering conglomeration of historical references. The most popular furniture was copied from English "cosy homes" or "Queen Anne meets Louis Quatorze having done a bit of shopping at Hampton Court en route" styles. There was nothing Gustavian and nothing Russian. What gradually emerges however is furniture with a purpose. Finnish-type furniture with a tense, pure linear style came from Germany6. Finch at Iris was decorating pottery in a free linear manner. Arabia issued Karelian, "Fennia" decorative ceramics.

It is visually evident, and very strongly demonstrable, that it was Aalto in the 1930s who broke the chains of the Finnish 19th century, with his "new art" based on the fluidity of Finnish topography transmuting rationally into natural abstraction. The famous transformations of the late 1890s, by Obrist, of natural forms into embroidered meanderings have parallels with the designs and products of Aalto from the 1930s. Art Nouveau or Jugendstil was short-lived and was dead by 1910. What was originally a flowering of national variations on the idea of the "new" was moulded by Aalto into a national style, which by its universal truth became not merely "new" but modern in international terms. It absorbed like ideas from other sources into the synthesis we can call Finnish modernity. This peaked at the Milan Triennale of 1954 7. It can be called a new art form, a total look, or an attitude, and is indeed the Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art that was first argued and exemplified at the turn of the century. Finland is, or rather was, very happy with it. Is Aaltoism just another form of historicism? A national post-mortem is currently in full swing. Is Finnish style finished?


  1. Further reading: Michael Collins, Towards Post modernism - Design since 1851, British Museum, London, 1987.
  2. The Academic Bookstore in Helsinki has an excellent stock of these in reprint form.
  3. Further reading: Stephan Tschudi Madsen, Sources of Art Nouveau, Da Capo Books, New York, 1976.
  4. Alf Wallander working for Röstrand in particular.
  5. Providing the Jugend adjective applied to the "new" end of Helsinki.
  6. Evidentially from Peter Behrens, to Richard Riemerschmid and Henry van der Velde. Further reading: John Heskett, Design in Germany 1870 - 1914, Trefoil Books, London 1986.
  7. Further reading in Iittala Milanon Triennaaleissa - Iittala in the Triennales of Milan, exhibition Catalogue, Iittala Glass museum, 1987 and Arabia museum, 1992.
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