Freitag, 14. September 2012

The Travelogue, Part XXXIV - Finland: Patina Value

Sometimes Finland reminds me of how the Germany of the 50's was described to me. High social security, mostly locally run businesses where the owner was a father figure and employees were loyal, where economy and national identity formed a romantic alliance. Stuff was re-used, not thrown away, because it was made of quality. While Finland gradually becomes more globalized and Finns do not work in the same company for 25 years anymore or can count on even finding a job within Finland, attitudes seem to be slower to change. Finnish corporations have long adapted to "international" methods of hire and fire and cheap labour, but still Finns seem to reward them with the same amount of loyalty (both as workers and as customers) as in the old days. Not few of my friends buy Nokia phones out of principle, and will not quit whatever job they have "because they have been there so long already". Company loyalty is also often the deciding factor in progressing in the ranks of the company, rather than skill or expertise, much to the dismay of my more ambitious expat friends.

The same recognition of perseverance is given to objects. Helsinki must have as many vintage shops and antiques dealers as it has bars. Where the majority of the Western world moved away from collecting old oaken furniture and pocelain vases in favour of flashy new designs in plastic and steel, Finland still is willing to fork out a premium for all things old and sturdy. This extends well beyond furniture. Military paraphernalia and vintage cars are also very popular, and people can regularly be seen parading their acquisitions around town. According to a Russian antiques dealer I met, Finns are the most avid collectors of 20th century warfare remains before even the Americans. The biggest supplier of military paraphernalia (both old and new) in Europe has its home in Helsinki and makes very good profit.

Varusteleka military supply interior

Aside from a appreciation of sturdiness it might be the country's very young history that prompts its inhabitants to collect objects laden with historic significance. There definitely is a desire to create some sense of national tradition and heritage, which even shows in Finland's very own architectural style.

Finnish Jugendstil

Helsinki National Theater

Commonly associated more with its lithographic examples, such as Alphonse Mucha's flowing female forms, Jugendstil (or "Art Nouveau") is perceived to be a playful and light art movement. In Finland it took a more nationalistic note. Finnish Jungendstil is still extravagant and expressive by Nordic standards, but takes much inspiration from traditionally Finnish ideals. Solid, sturdy shapes, ornamented with symbols of nature and characters from the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. The style is reminiscent of fairy tale castles and idealized medieval architecture - just with a more bulky, rough twist of Finnish weather.

If continental art nouveau is a steed with flowing mane then Finnish Jugend is a venerable brown bear, maybe not as fluid and graceful but equally beautiful and impressive. This fusion of ornamental style and longing for a distinct national identity has created (in my humble opinion) the single most interesting historic attraction in Finland. I would even considering going as far as saying that this artistic movement and its remains are the most interesting thing to see in Helsinki, before Suomenlinna fortress or the Rock Church. If you are looking for something uniquely Finnish, a walk around town is all you need.

Eira, Helsinki

Recycling Culture


But the obsession with things old and time-honored is not one that passively dwells on the past. One of Finland's angles on the future is recombining the venerable into the modern. Sustainability is not just a buzzword here. Good quality items can be used by many and for a long time, and Finns are not afraid to buy second hand. There is a truly commendable ambition to recycle and reuse, and unlike more consumption-orientated societies such as Britain, there is no stigma attached to doing so. Even relatively well-to-do inhabitants have no qualms about finding their latest Sofa at a recycling center if they happen to fancy it. Helsinki's sports probably the world's classiest second hand shops, with high quality items all the way through, and I have completely lost count of the myriad of flea market events going on in this town.

UFF, one of the many second hand chains

Finding inventive ways to repurpose old items is something of a national sport, and some of Finland's most popular designers make the majority of their design from reused materials. The official pavillion of the Helsinki Design Capital 2012 is entirely made from recycled materials. If you want some more examples, have a look at my friend Outi's fashion recycling blog, which's high view counts show that this aspect of Finnish culture well hits the nerve of the time.

Helsinki design capital pavillion