In Finn Form: The Art of the Practical

From the Finnish Cultural Institute exhibition at the embassy, a paper wedding gown by Tuija Asta Jarvenpaa. Samuli Naamanka's graphic concrete turns gray blocks into grand murals.
From the Finnish Cultural Institute exhibition at the embassy, a paper wedding gown by Tuija Asta Jarvenpaa. Samuli Naamanka's graphic concrete turns gray blocks into grand murals. (Finnish Cultural Institute - Finnish Cultural Institute)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 8, 2005

Anew design exhibition at the Finnish Embassy leaps into the thoughtful chasm between fantasy and reality. That's where the practical solutions to everyday problems will be found.

Lacy paper wedding dresses hang in the atrium, ready to be worn once, ripped off and tossed into the trash, with no insult to the permanence of vows.

Dangling globes filled with scents invite visitors to enter, breathe deeply and be transported to distant cities, in this case, Paris (Gauloises and perfume), Budapest (paprika and exhaust fumes) and Helsinki (woods and sea). Washington's olfactory profile is left to the imagination.

Blocks of concrete are overprinted with graphic images that transform industrial surfaces into murals of ice crystals and ferns. In theory, portraits of presidents would be entirely possible.

The exhibition, which opened Thursday night, is called "Sauma [Design as Cultural Interface]." It's the most intriguing collection of contemporary design shown in Washington since the 2001 run of "Young Nordic Design: Generation X."

Finns will understand the title word (pronounced sah-u-ma), which in colloquial usage means getting a chance to try something new. Fifteen design teams have given mundane furniture, clothing and the streetscape unorthodox twists. For instance, Klaus Aalto's chests are neatly fitted with plastic suitcases instead of drawers, so busy people can grab and go.

The concept of chance applies to exhibition visitors, too. Velcro-striped "Jackets for Lonely People" await those with the courage to encounter strangers -- and stick to them.

The Finnish Cultural Institute in New York produced "Sauma" as part of Finland's year-long celebration of design. That the show debuts in Washington, rather than New York (it goes there next) is a feat of design diplomacy from Ambassador Jukka Valtasaari. Since taking up his post in 2001, Valtasaari has put local museums on notice with an impressive series of exhibitions featuring such legendary designers as Tapio Wirkkala, Nanny Still, Oiva Toikka and Eero Aarnio. The country's contribution to 20th-century architecture is honored daily by the spectacular contemporary embassy building. For this display of 21st-century design, the ensemble of glass, copper and gleaming wood provides a perfect backdrop.

The "Sauma" project began two years ago. Curators Hannu Kahonen and Marko Tandefelt issued a call for innovative personal work, as opposed to commercial designs commissioned by major clients.

The array of chosen projects includes an electro-acoustic sitar guitar by Kari Nieminen, who has made instruments for the Rolling Stones and the Who. Humanism and technology are combined in imaginative proposals for emergency gear. One is a Braille-enhanced pack with phone and Global Positioning System device to help the visually impaired, the other a solar-cell shoulder strap capable of powering up a mobile phone or laptop in the wild.

For his conceptual kitchen, Esa Vesmanen drew inspiration from the essential elements of fire, water, air and fertile earth. Stove and sink are supplanted by a brushed-steel "campfire" four inches off the ground, and a water-filled basin that serves as a "well." The ensemble, which comes with a wind machine instead of an industrial hood, and a handcrafted herb garden, is about as Zen as a Finnish designer can get.

A professional-quality portable audio system by the well-known industrial designer Harri Koskinen is making its worldwide debut here. It resembles a fat aluminum laptop. A lamp by Ilkka Suppanen, a regular on the international furniture fair circuit, would emit diffused light from an LCD screen. It's still a work in progress. But the paper wedding dresses by Tuija Asta Jarvenpaa were modeled in May at the Kunsthalle Helsinki, by nine brides who wed en masse at the museum.

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