Field Trip: Design Diplomacy, Helsinki Design Week

Design Diplomacy - Denmark, Helsinki Design Week

Answering questions about their careers and passions in the sumptuous surroundings of the Denmark Embassy, ”senior talent” Tauno Tarna and “young talent” Morten Grønning Nielsen set the tone for Helsinki Design Week…

“Materials, simplicity, purpose”, says kitchenware designer Tauno Tarna, are the three words that summarise Finnish design. And he should know. The 72-year old design specialist, born in 1944 and now living in the quiet town of Porvoo, has spent a long and prolific career exploring what materials, simplicity and purpose can do in the manufacturing sector.

I heard him speak on Monday at an “in conversation” event at Helsinki Design Week (HDW), Finland, with Copenhagen-based Dane and recent MA Innovation Design Engineering (Royal College of Art, London) graduate Morten Grønning Nielsen. Entitled Design Diplomacy, this very charming evening (perhaps so charming because the Finnish, famously, are a nation of introverts, and this was my first experience of their respectful manner) was held at the sumptuous Denmark Embassy. Usually out-of-bounds to the general public, we were first encouraged to look around the oldest embassy in Helsinki (established in 1922) with a glass of wine, before hearing the designers ask each other random questions from a pre-prepared deck of prompt cards.

“It heralds, in a clever way, Helsinki Design Week’s global ambitions: namely, becoming the headquarters of a new, World Design Week consortium in 2017″

Design Diplomacy is one new addition to a whopping 250 events of HDW, and is essentially a series of relaxed discussions held at ambassadors’ home residencies across the city; with participating countries for this first iteration being Japan, Iceland, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, Belguim, Slovakia, Austria, Spain, and of course Denmark, whose ambassador Jette Nordam was there to greet us with a firm handshake.

It heralds, in a clever way, HDW’s global ambitions, its Director Kari Korkman tells me afterwards over more wine; namely, becoming the headquarters of a new, World Design Week consortium which will officially launch in Helsinki in September 2017, and which has been carefully developed with 39 international cities, including Tokyo, San Francisco, Melbourne and Seoul. Korkman will be World Design Week’s Chair of the Committee of Europe Regions, and it is clear that he cares very much about expanding HDW after a decade of operations (he started the event in 2006). Perhaps this is part of why HDW’s 2016 theme is Parempi/Better: a call-to-arms to the international design sector, in the face of societal and economic challenges including sustainability, fractured politics and climate change. It also references research house Nielsen’s 2015 report that out of 8,500 European design launches last year, only 18 were “breakthroughs”. Is more considered, less-wasteful design necessary?

KATRILLI pitcher and cups by Tauno Tarna

What was great about the Design Diplomacy structure was the combination of formal setting, expert speakers and informal card game: the result being an immediate icebreaker for all involved, and a simple way of getting to know Tarna and Grønning whilst they got to know each other. We all sat in one of the embassy reception rooms facing the pair, who sat on a modern grey sofa under a large oil painting next to Korkman. Despite the generation gap, we discovered that both had a keen interest in exploring materials to their utmost limits. Probably best known for his tableware — including the recognisable Katrilli range (above) for Finnish plastics company Sarvis Oy in 1969, and his work modernising the Lion cutlery range with long-term collaborator and silversmith-designer Bertel Gardberg — Tarna was able to express the importance of reducing objects down to the most simple form for their intended function.

“Grønning’s invention Happaratus is a “power glove” which uses touch and changeable fingertip attachments to shape hard materials like wood and stone”

With an interest in new technology, Grønning could have come across as dismissive of traditional design, but instead conveyed a similar concern and respect for materials. Explaining how his invention Happaratus – a “power glove” which uses touch and changeable fingertip attachments to shape hard materials like wood and stone, and which won him the Danish Design Award 2016 – has made him consider the neurological connections between hand and brain, including the Gestalt Theory of visual perception. Developing Happaratus, he said, had also given him a new appreciation of the complexities and possibilities of manipulating material, especially the textiles from which the glove is made. In response to: “What is your favourite material?”, both Grønning and Tarna agreed that textiles would be the most interesting to experiment with in the future, in spite of it being an “incredibly difficult material to work with”.

Happaratus power glove, Morten Grønning Nielsen

What was slightly disappointing, and especially considering the festival theme of Better, was their response to the question: “What global problem would you most like to change and how?” Struggling with the enormity of the query, ambassador Nordam chipped in to suggest that they tackle climate change, to which they both nodded and moved on to the next card. This was a missed opportunity to address one of the key challenges facing designers today, and I would have liked to hear their opinions; especially as Grønning had previously written a research paper on design innovation as activism for social change.

“They would, if they could, encourage their student-selves to ‘start building immediately’”

A little later, Grønning was able to be a little more critical, when asked: “Is it hard to balance between creative and commercial work?” A resounding “Yes!” from both, the young designer shared that it had taken him a while to get used to working alongside non-design professionals, including lawyers, in one of his freelance roles in urban design; using the example of his rejected designs for New York Metro magazine stands as a frustrating moment of mixed communication and differing interpretations of the strict brief in regards to health and safety.

In my favourite part of the discussion, and in response to: “Is there anything you would change about your education?”, both Tarna and Grønning agreed that they would, if they could, encourage their student-selves to “start building immediately”: concepts should come simultaneously to — not after — figuring out the making process. And perhaps this dedication to constant making and testing is the secret to a successful career in design wherever you are, alongside Tarna’s mantra of ”Materials, simplicity, purpose”: explaining somewhat the enduring power of Finnish and Danish design, and why Helsinki Design Week can feel proud to be the headquarters for the future World Design Week.

Laura Robertson, Editor

Laura saw Design Diplomacy: Denmark, opposite Old Church Park, Helsinki city centre, at 5-6.30pm on Monday 5 September 2016. See talks and installations at Helsinki Design Week until Sunday 11 September 2016 at venues across Helsinki, Finland — FREE

HDW’s The Weekly Tips series continues post-festival, and includes Helsinki Comics Festival, Sauna Day, Moonlight Swim and Love & Anarchy Festival — find out more on their website

Laura flew from Manchester (UK) airport to Helsinki (Finland) with Finnair; buses and trains run with frequency from outside the airport directly into Helsinki city centre (taking approximately 30 minutes)

Posted on 09/09/2016 by thedoublenegative