Finnish Society of Crafts and Design – actively involved

The Finnish Society of Crafts and Design was established 145 years ago. Over the years, we have been actively involved in a number of projects and initiatives.

The foundation of the society was related to the desire to build a distinct Finnish identity as part of the Russian Empire in the second half of the 19th century. One public arena for showcasing national differentiation and skill was the large-scale industrial and artistic exhibitions arranged across Europe. Finland had been unable to distinguish itself at these exhibitions, which was a matter of concern. There was a need to develop industry that was still largely based on making things by hand.

The Society of Crafts and Design laid the foundation for Finnish design.

A group of Swedish-speaking influencers of society, led by Professor Carl Gustaf Estlander of the University of Helsinki, founded the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design on 29 October 1875. The society’s task was to maintain the art school Veistokoulu, which had started its operations in 1871 and provided professional training for Finland’s craftspeople. The second task was to take care of the artefacts collection obtained from the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair, which was to serve as a model and source of inspiration.Art and industry walked comfortably hand in hand: the Ateneum building, commissioned in cooperation with the Fine Arts Association of Finland, was completed in 1887. The Finnish Society of Crafts and Design owned four sevenths of the space, and the schools and collections of both associations were moved to the building.


This groundwork for Finnish crafts and design has borne fruit. The applied arts artefacts collection has developed into the current Design Museum. The Veistokoulu has developed through various names and stages into the University of Arts and Design, which is now a part of Aalto University’s School of Arts, Design and Architecture.


World-famous Finnish Design

The term ‘Finnish Design’ was born out of the visibility gained from the Triennale Di Milano in the 1950s. H. O. Gummerus, then Director of the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design, made determined use of his excellent media and stakeholder relationships and gained funding for the exhibitions in Finland and visibility abroad. He was supported by Finnish designers who created elegant and inventive exhibition sections and built the myth of the creative genius gaining inspiration from nature. The foreign press was entranced.


For a long time, exhibitions made up the core of the society’s activities. There were extensive exhibitions on Finnish design touring the world, private exhibitions of individual designers as well as various themed reviews, such as the Classic Makers exhibition showcasing icons of Finnish design in 1995.


In the 2000s, Design Forum Finland continued coordinating impressive international design export projects. One target area was New York, where exhibitions and seminars were organised as joint projects of several ministries and companies between 2008 and 2011. In 2010, Hirameki, the largest Finnish design export project yet, was carried out in Tokyo. The main exhibition of the ten-day event attracted 36,000 visitors.


Networks and anniversaries

2005 was the Year of Design and Design Forum Finland acted as its main coordinator. Events were organised, online portals were introduced and design, and lack thereof in particular, were discussed. Even more discussion took place in 2012, when Helsinki was the World Design Capital. The application process had demanded lengthy and painstaking cooperation, and when Helsinki finally beat Eindhoven, it was time for a toast. Design Forum Finland was naturally one of the cooperation partners and responsible for one of the year’s main events: The International Design House exhibition organised in Suvilahti. International design press attended pre- and after-parties alike.

Various networks were also established: The Finnish Design Management Association and Finnish Design Business Association. Both associations were created by Design Forum Finland, aiming to combine skills in the field, generate discussion and promote the design industry.


Design District Helsinki

Design District Helsinki was established in 2005. The man behind the idea was Design Forum Finland CEO Ilpo Santala. Our office, Design Forum Shop and exhibition spaces had just relocated to Dianapuisto park in the heart of Helsinki. The area was brimming with boutiques, design agencies and galleries. Here we are in the middle of a creative neighbourhood, said Santala, let’s turn this into the Finnish Design District. The business association was established, and the district became one of Helsinki’s central tourist attractions. Design Forum Finland was in charge of the activity for many years.


In the late 1990s, Design Forum Shop was just a corner of the exhibition space selling a small selection of design products often related to the on-going exhibitions. It received its own space when we moved to Sanoma House in 2000, and in connection with the move to Erottajankatu in 2005, it became a fully-fledged design store with a cafe and a wide range campaigns and events. For nearly a decade it offered a great platform for presenting and marketing Finnish designers and small producers. Financial reasons forced the shop to close down in 2014, and it was sorely missed by customers and designers alike.


Well-implemented design deserves to be rewarded and noticed

The Kaj Franck Design Prize was first awarded to Oiva Toikka in 1992. The rules of the prize were created when Kaj Franck himself was still alive and the purpose of the prize was to the honour Franck’s significance to Finnish design. The Pro Finnish Design competition for companies began in 1990. It was renamed the Fennia Prize and opened up to foreign participants in 2003. In 2000, the 125th anniversary of the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design saw the establishment of the Young Designer of the Year award and the Estlander prize and medals.

The names of Kaj Franck recipients make up an impressive list of the best of the best in Finnish design. Some Young Designer winners have already received the Kaj Franck prize as well. Fennia Prizes have showcased design as a competition and success factor in business. They have been an excellent and concrete method of presenting the uses and opportunities of design to a wider audience.

In addition to the various prizes, design has been showcased through publications and books. Between 1980 and 2004, Design Forum Finland published the Form Function Finland magazine covering Finnish design, art and architecture. The English-language magazine was distributed to over 70 countries around the world. The magazine was followed by a series of Finnish Design Yearbooks that also received a wide international readership. The book Designin uusi aalto (New wave of design) published in 2018 is an addition to the earlier publications.

Design promotion under the government’s wings

Encouraging companies to utilise design – although expressed in slightly different words – has been among the key tasks of the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design from the start. Initially, the society arranged industrial exhibitions in Finland, then sought visibility on the international arena. Although the exhibition focus was often on crafts and design, the underlying idea was to showcase Finnish skills. Design Forum was established in 1987 from the need to showcase industrial design side by side with crafts and design. Even back then, the work was deemed important on a national level: one of the background operators was the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the current Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. In 1990, with support from the Ministry, Design Forum started the province-specific design representative activity, whose aim was to help SMEs utilise design.

Supporting Finnish companies is still at the heart of the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design / Design Forum Finland.
The methods have changed over the decades, but the aim has remained the same. This has called for flexibility and adaptation, a proactive approach and learning along the way. Today, our message is delivered with the help of events and coaching, in different digital channels and through a variety of projects. The nature of design has also changed: we no longer see it as a part of product development but as a strategic resource and skill that all kinds of companies and organisations can apply to their operations. The markets and audiences have become global, but the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design still has a role to play.


Anne Veinola
Communications Specialist, Design Forum Finland

More history of the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design is here.

Photo 1:  The 100th anniversary exhibition of the Society at Ateneum in 1975, photo: Krister Katva / the Society’s archives
Photo 2: Ateneum, photo: J.A. Lidh, from the book Suomen Taideteollisuusyhdistys ja sen keskuskoulu 1870–1870–1925
Photo 3: Design exhibition of Finnish glass and textiles in Rio de Janeiro 1958, exhibition architect Timo Sarpaneva, the Society’s archives.
Photo 4: Finnish design export initiative Hirameki in Tokyo 2010, photo: Design Forum Finland’s archives
Photo 5: Design Forum Shop was operating until 2014, photo: Valtteri Hirvonen
Photo 6: Young Designer of the Year 2007 prize exhibition, Janne Kyttänen & Julia Lundsten, photo Rauno Träskelin, Design Forum Finland’s archives
Photo 7:  Design Forum Finland published the magazine Form Function Finland, picturing covers from 1980 and 2000, photo Design Forum Finland’s archives