Design city

Cape Town soon begins its reign as World Design Capital 2014. A visit to Helsinki, the 2014 capital, reveals what this accolade promises for SA.





Business Day


February 2013


Judy Bryant / supplied

Dazed and confused appears to be a common state of mind about Cape Town’s selection as World Design Capital (WDC) 2014: dazed at the accolade and its promised potential, but confused about what it really offers the average South African.

“Are we going to do something about the unfinished freeway on the foreshore?”  is a common refrain. (Actually, yes, the City is working with UCT students in the Engineering and Built Environment Faculty to explore creative ways to finish the freeway and improve city access.)

The concept of a WDC is fairly new – The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) awarded its first accolade to Turin, Italy, for 2008; Seoul, South Korea, followed in 2010; and Helsinki, Finland, basked in the glory last year. Cape Town beat short-listed Dublin and Bilbao, on the basis of bridging a divided city under the slogan of Live Design, Transform Life.

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Helsinki was only designated as Finland’s capital 200 years ago, yet was ranked by British lifestyle magazine Monocle as the 2012 second-best city in the world to live in.  So how did a small agricultural country, sandwiched between Sweden and Russia, rise from poverty to global design fame?  And what does this accolade promise for us, 20 years into democracy next year?

Fast-forward on a KLM Cape Town –Schiphol- Helsinki flight, to the Hotel Helka – my first lesson in the subtlety of Finnish design. The rather musty reception area (too many hearty visitors riding the bikes lined up beside the lift?) harked back to its first incarnation 80 years ago as a YWCA hostel, rather than its current status as a signature WDC 2012 designer hotel.

But Finns simply don’t do bling, and the longer I stayed, the more I appreciated the thought and discernment that had transformed my small room into a comfortable haven and efficient working office.

The ceiling was a backlit nature landscape, the bedside light a light bulb encased in a cube of glass – an overnight design classic after überhot local designer Harri Koskinen launched it in 1996.  The light was placed on top of a simple, contemporary stool – designed 80 years ago by the revered godfather of Finnish design, Alvar Aalto.

Like many of his compatriot designers and architects, Aalto benefitted from a rich crafts heritage and training, and was inspired by nature. Paradoxically, it was precisely the country’s poverty that gave rise to the simple and functional Finnish design that is now appreciated worldwide.  When  a Scandinavian design show travelled to the US and Canada in the 1950s, Jackie Kennedy became  one of the many fans of the beautiful,  clean designs  that combat the dreary long winters with bright, light, practical environments.

This affinity with nature is just as strong in modern Helsinki. Market squares and meeting places are just a few hundred metres from the sea, which is dotted with ferries, rows of freshly varnished yachts, giant icebreakers and cruise liners.  There are huge stretches of green parkland (about a third of Helsinki is green), with the black and white speckled trunks and green foliage of birch trees providing the perfect backdrop to modernist sculptures.

A trip to International Design Week during September made it clear that WDC status goes far beyond good-looking objects. Most projects had long-term implications for improved urban living. Design was   incorporated in diverse projects to address challenges in healthcare and social services, airport security checks, our working habits, work wear and revamping signage systems, among other things.

Helsinki’s wooden Pavilion, an open- to-all temporary structure between the Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Design Museum, became a central meeting place for numerous events. Now dismantled, it offered everything from yoga classes and reading groups to film nights and senior citizen exercise events.

Red brick buildings in the old Tukkutori wholesale market sector, originally built to house the city abattoir in 1933, are being renovated for restaurants and markets. And an unused rail turntable in the middle of the city houses an oasis of urban gardening.  The space includes a greenhouse where lunches are served among the plants, cultivation areas, workshops, bee hives and even a pizza oven topped with herb plantings.

The Chapel of Silence at the southern corner of busy Narinkka Square – near the metro and a large  modern shopping centre – was awarded the 2010 Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture prize before it was even completed. This 11.5 metre high sacral space, softly lit by an overhead skylight, has a curved wooden façade. The interior walls are made of thick, oiled alder planks and it is a quiet sanctuary in the heart of the city, where you can catch your breath in its tranquil silence.

And the University of Helsinki’s numerous projects – with a theme of “Designing society through thinking” – ranged from green roof designs to a new library that welcomed 30,000 visitors in its first week alone.

Of course, if you’re a design object junkie, you’ve landed in nirvana.  Design District Helsinki, in the city centre, is an area full of design and antique shops, fashion stores, museums, galleries and restaurants. Here you can find the most interesting names, classics and trendsetters.

At the exhibitions and galleries, Koskinen, of my hotel room’s Block Light fame, pops up everywhere.  He’s behind the form of ceramic dishes and a wooden tray in iittala’s new Sarjaton dinnerware range – soft, muted tones and designs inspired by the arts of basket weaving and textile embroidery.

His bowl-shaped layers of coloured glass were installed at a leading contemporary art gallery, Galerie Forsblom; and at Habitare (the largest furniture and interior decoration and design fair in the country) the iconic Artek furniture stand boasted his Lento Lounge easy chair and side table.  These are long-awaited additions to the collection he began in 2006, with a chair suitable for both homes and public spaces.

Old-fashioned telephone receivers in luminous colours at Habitare were a surprising hit in a country that regards grey as a colour. Another item that’s drawn accolades is a playful smoke alarm – designed to look like a moth, in a selection of five colours. It can easily be attached with 3M tape to fulfill municipal obligations while making a design statement.

Everyday Discoveries showcased the finest examples of design solutions, created by over 100 designers from 23 countries – including South Africa. Home-grown products ranged from young Eastern Cape designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s knitwear, that interprets beadwork aesthetics, to the Dolos concrete blocks that protect our coastline.

So what has all this form and function and buzz really achieved for Finland? “The World Design Capital’s task is to highlight the significance of design; indicate the intended usage of contemporary design, and to increase the demand for design,” said Pekka Timonen, Executive Director of WDC Helsinki 2012. “Our projects have succeeded brilliantly in all of these.”

Statistics released in November showed that the effect and significance of design was explored in a total of 580 projects. Altogether, 2,800 events were organised throughout the year, of which 90 per cent were open to the general public and 80 per cent were free of charge. Events, exhibitions and locations attracted nearly one million visitors. Projects have been featured in almost 7,000 international articles published in nearly 100 countries.

The programme will also benefit a huge number of Helsinki residents through the extensive, long-term development projects, as in the Abattoir area. Even 11,000 six-year-olds were introduced to design through the Designer’s Treasure Chest, a design education package distributed to pre-schools.

Over 80 international seminars, conferences and events were organised during World Design Capital Helsinki 2012, which brought more than 2,000 experts to Finland. The growth in tourism has been estimated at 1,3 per cent – 2,5 per cent.

So there’s plenty of potential  for WDC 2014 to become a  year-long programme of design-focused events that will see creative communities across the globe turning to Cape Town to explore its social, economic and cultural solutions. Such connections could secure long-term links with global stakeholders, and harness the potential of the creative industries to generate much-needed, sustainable jobs.

First published Business Day WANTED February 2013

Images Judy Bryant and supplied