From March to September this year, Finland will participate in the XXII Triennale di Milano for design. The Finnish exhibition is organized and designed by Aalto University teachers and students, from the exhibition design (Monica Romagnoli, Saara Kantele, Ville Kokkonen and Tuomas Siitonen) to curation (Kaisu Savola and Guy Julier) to graphic identity (Adina Renner and Qin Yang).
In the spirit of the Triennale as an international showcase for creativity, Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture will open its virtual doors to the world in coming months, presenting people at the school working in fields related to Paola Antonelli's theme for the Triennale, Broken Nature: Design takes on human survival.
Does the world need any new chairs, any new drinking glasses? The question is intended to provoke, but Kaisu Savola laughs and elegantly brushes it aside. Clearly, it is not glasses or chairs she wishes to talk about.
“People have expectations when they go to a design exhibition,” she says. “They expect to see beautiful things. Or at least the latest technological gadgets. Objects made by somebody important.”
Wearing a stylish monochrome dress, Kaisu Savola could be one of those Important People. Or as she calls them, hero designers, without a trace of malice. By heroes she means the best known Finnish industrial designers: Tapio Wirkkala, Ilmari Tapiovaara, Kaj Franck, Alvar Aalto. “In a sense, they really were heroes,” she says. “They were extremely talented and prolific, and they gave Finland exactly what it needed at the time.”
What it needed at the time, according to Savola, were new things. New products for a country ravaged by war and deprivation. Chairs of course, and glasses, but also new houses and lamps. Simple, yet well-made and beautiful things to provide sense of comfort and well-being. Luckily, Finland’s designers had been trained to create precisely the things the country needed, and from 1945 on, that is what they did.
After losses to the USSR, what Finland also needed was international recognition to match its undiminished sense of national pride – which is where Milan enters the story. In its heyday in the 1950s, the Milan Triennale was the most significant event for design in the world. It followed in the footsteps of the World Expo, inviting contributions by countries, who in turn entrusted the curation process to a famous designer or architect.
“The Triennale is an enormous cultural institution, and Finland has a long history of success there,” says Savola. Finland made a name for itself at the Triennales of the 1950s and 1960s with designers such as Aalto, Wirkkala or Tapiovaara receiving prizes and attention from abroad. One could argue that it was on the success of drinking glasses and chairs that the international reputation of Finnish design was built. Indeed, Milan was the place where much of the international press first came into contact with Nordic design.