In the land of modernism, PoMo was always going to be on the margins – but that made it all the more unsettling, says Crystal Bennes of an exhibition in Helsinki that ends on Sunday
When one thinks of Finnish design, the first name that comes to mind is invariably Alvar Aalto, alongside visions of his creamy woods, warm metals and clean lines: Aalto is the king of a certain kind of organic modernism. And you can't spend more than a day in Helsinki without running face-first into the legacy of Aalto. His furniture is everywhere – nearly every hip cafe is furnished with his Artek Chair 66 or Stool 60. But it is also clear that this slightly softened modernism remains the aesthetic tradition to which many Finns, among both designers and the public, subscribe.
And so it comes as something of a surprise to find myself surrounded by objects from a wholly unexpected tradition – the postmodern – in Helsinki's Design Museum. Walking through the exhibition with curator Harry Kivilinna, I'm curious about the timing of an exhibition about Finnish postmodern design. Why now? It turns out that the rationale is not to shine a light on some under-represented moment in Finnish design history and its intersection with international practice – it's all rather more pragmatic: "Well, we started with an art nouveau show back in 2000 and we've been through all the styles. This will finish off the series, and it's a great way to take stock of the current state of our collection."
The exhibition begins with a bit of context for those not up to scratch on design history, with a room full of objects from the original Memphis exhibition in 1981. Ettore Sottsass's Casablanca cupboard waves madly from one corner, while a vitrine replete with four different tea sets from Alessi as well as Alessandro Mendini's classic Tea & Coffee Piazza project shines invitingly. "There was a Memphis exhibition in a design store in Helsinki in 1985," Kivilinna says. "The news media had gone crazy for the original Memphis show, but in Helsinki it fell totally flat. The entrenched view here was that designers did not want to give up their modernism."
Such sentiments make their presence felt to rather amusing effect in the next room, which details early Finnish attempts at postmodern design. "They made some tests, but nothing really significant, as you can see," Kivilinna says, gesturing in the direction of a 1985 chair called XY by Stefan Lindfors. The boxy chair, with its rigid wood and steel-cable structure, looks almost like something out of Le Corbusier's office, apart from the fabric seat, which has a pink and camo-green print of what looks suspiciously like the designer's naked backside. Tua Rahikainen's 1983 fashion collection of geometric shapes printed on fur coats is a quintessentially Finnish expression (often characterised by "wacky" geometric forms applied to a classic shape) of such early postmodern experiments.
By the late 1980s, a few Finnish designers began to take postmodernism more seriously. Lindfors, for example, showed various new designs at Helsinki's Museum of Applied Arts in 1987. Among these, his Metaxis series, colloquially referred to as the "superpower chairs", are more sculpture than design, with each iteration referencing the personality of a particular world leader. The chairs propelled Lindfors into the domestic spotlight and, the following year, his touch-activated Scaragoo – a waist-high, bird-like aluminium and steel lamp, also on display in the exhibition – gained international attention at the Milan Furniture Fair.
Given Finland's long history and expertise in the production of ceramics and glass, it's no surprise to see a number of pieces from the factories of Arabia, Iittala and Rörstrand. The 1987 examples from longstanding Iittala designer Oiva Toikka continue the Finnish variation on the postmodern rubric: classic form, crazy pattern. Toikka's tray and carafe have clean, simple shapes, but are decorated in an experimental, almost childlike, hand-drawn pattern in Chinoiserie blue and white. The effect succeeds in being at once naive and sophisticated.
From the exhibition's many and varied objects, it seems that postmodernism in Finland didn't lead to radical experimentation in form or to the infiltration of critical theory into architecture and design philosophy, as it did, for example, in the US and UK. When I ask Kivilinna what he thinks the legacy of postmodernism has been in the country, his reply is thoughtful: "I think the perception before was that there is 'one truth' in design and that this was a modernist truth," he says. "It was all very homogenous. But postmodernism blew it all open – people felt free to be different, to try new things. I think, in Finland anyway, the postmodern movement has been much more important mentally than aesthetically."
The exhibition ends on 17 May 2015. Curator Salla Heino told Icon about the thinking behind it in January