Brief Encounters

The Finns take a different approach to furniture fairs, as Veronica Simpson discovered at 2023’s Habitare.

IT MAY sound like a strange thing to say as a long-serving design and architecture journalist, but I avoid furniture fairs. However much the word ‘sustainability’ might pop up in the promotional literature, the overwhelming imperative is to simply sell more stuff.

Finland does things differently, however. I’ve always been impressed both by its thoughtful approach to design, as well as its respect for its own design history. And a visit to 2023’s Habitare – Finland’s biggest annual furniture showcase – proved that this sense of stewardship of nature’s resources as well as their own cultural legacy prevails.

Within yards of entering the exhibition hall, I come to the Nikari stand. This furniture design studio is built on the legacy of master cabinetmaker Kari Virtanen, who founded his workshop in 1967 and grew his business largely through helping Finnish architecture legends Alvar Aalto and Kaj Frank to create their stunning wood interiors of the 60s and 70s.

Taken under the creative directorship of Johanna Vuorio in 2009, she has maintained the continuity of the brand’s DNA, retaining the woodworking studio in the charming Fiskars village, an hour out of Helsinki, using locally sourced and salvaged wood where possible, and making judicious and infrequent additions to the family of Nikari furniture through collaborations with some of the late 20th/early 21st century’s iconic designers. Far from newness for its own sake, Nikari’s star product for this furniture fair was the Centenniale, a coffee table whose components were made from 100-year-old wood taken from the lower section of trees, which normally contains small blemishes that cause this perfectly beautiful material to be discarded. Here, the cracks and crevasses have been lovingly incorporated to make each piece unique.

There was another refreshing approach to lasting beauty at the Basta stand. A brand created by Dutch designer Marcel Wanders together with Finnish designers Joel Roos and Stefan Mahlberg, their aim is to offer the most beautiful and durable sofas, created from a kit of components that can be easily made, repaired, swapped or replaced, and ideally sourced locally. They currently have manufacturing in Amsterdam and Helsinki but are looking to use local ateliers wherever they can, thus minimising the shipping costs and carbon footprint. It’s an uplifting antithesis to Ikea.

At the fair, they had a cool female foreman demonstrating the modular elements from which the various models are built, as well as samples of the washable and replaceable upholstery. The idea is to minimise waste at every stage.

Basta’s exhibition showed the company’s desire to create beautiful and durable sofas from easily replaceable or repairable materialsBasta’s exhibition showed the company’s desire to create beautiful and durable sofas from easily replaceable or repairable materials

Finnish linen and wool brand Lapuan Kankurit is a regular feature of Habitare. A fourth generation company of weavers, they use the finest Finnish and sustainably sourced materials and local weavers and designers to create their luxurious towels and table linens all inspired by the tones and forms of the natural world – as they say: ‘The longer textile products are used, the better for nature.’ They support students from Alvar Aalto University’s textile course with workshops, tours, internships and commissions every year, and this year were showcasing a new range created by a Belgian/ Japanese graduate who has been snapped up as an inhouse designer. Through collaboration and support of the University of Helsinki’s biocolour scheme, they have started introducing natural dyes, and this year revealed a rich ochre range coloured with spent coffee grounds.

Habitare also introduced a whole island of sustainable new projects under the title ‘Choice’. This included Fargo, a Helsinki design consultancy that sources vintage pieces of Scandinavian furniture. There was also a new vintage range from the big Finnish glassware and ceramic brands, Iittala and Arabia comprising reproductions of famous designs from yesteryear, to allow those with incomplete dinner sets to replace the missing items.

Do FX readers realise that floristry is a hugely wasteful industry? I certainly didn’t. But apparently 40 per cent of all flowers that get shipped around the world are trashed.

So sourcing locally is the only answer, as sustainable floristry brand, Fro, demonstrated. A stacked display of species that grow easily in this Nordic climate demonstrated how great even dried flowers and grasses can look, replacing fresh when they’re out of season.

Olkilev is a Finnish brand offering ‘100 per cent natural, energy-efficient and affordable building materials’. In Habitare’s Choice section, they demonstrated a new twist to a very old tradition: compressed straw panels. These are ideal for thermal as well as sonic insulation, as the team cleverly demonstrated by hiding a thumping portable sound system within a straw panel box – you only realised how loud the music was playing when they lifted the lid.

Apparently, compressed straw panels were being used all over the world 100 years ago. But then we were seduced by the cheapness and allure of asbestos and plastics – and we know how that panned out.

Is this the furniture fair of the future? Not yet, perhaps. The owner of Bonden, fashion designer and trend analyst Kati Hienonen, thought there was still work to be done. She launched Finland’s first industrially made Finnish lambswool home textile collection in 2017 and has now added fine linen made in Portugal to the range. Only natural dyes are used, and everything is sustainably and ethically made. She had just returned from showing at Maison Objet in Paris, where she said ‘sustainability was treated as a bit of a joke. It was “green wash”.’

Fargo sources vintage and rare pieces of Scandinavian furniture, including heirloom dinner setsFargo sources vintage and rare pieces of Scandinavian furniture, including heirloom dinner sets

The architecture of the exhibition – by Studio Joanna Laajisto – aided a sense of calm contemplation with wide-spacing, slow-pacing and materials and colours that added variety, sculptural scale and interest. But one of the most helpful aspects of this fair and its message of conservation, repair and longevity is that it was open to the general public. The Habitare Materials section – a rich repository of samples and swatches loaded with sustainable options – was created and curated by NEMO architects, aimed at democratising design and increasing knowledge. It was introduced as a materials library concept in Milan in spring 2023.

Looking to 2024, I see that the Surface Design Show has an overall theme of mindfulness. Now that’s an approach to a trade fair I’ll be curious to experience.

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