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Travel | Helsinki, Finland

February 18, 2018

After many years of being obsessed with all things Scandinavian, my partner and I decided to embark on a ten day trip to visit Finland, Sweden and Denmark to satiate our curiosity about the countries that brought us Ikea, the Moomins and how to hygge. 

 

Being our first time travelling to all three countries, it was easy to choose which locations to visit. As with most Nordic novices, we picked the capital cities with a stop over in a large town en route to our final border crossing. Our trip would include planes, trains, trams and ferries but our first destination was Helsinki. 

 

Situated in southern Finland, Helsinki is an unassuming city with a reputation for its excellence in design, art and architecture. Its Baltic bays and stone walkways are made for meandering and discovery awaits around every corner with distinctive shops, intriguing eateries and captivating museums scattered throughout its boulevards and back streets.

 

Arriving at Vantaa airport just twelve miles north of the city, we took the train into Helsinki.  We were excited to see the famous Central Railway Station that was described by railway historian, Brian Solomon, as "one of the world's great railway terminal buildings, and one of only a few that embody an art nouveau aesthetic". 

Designed by Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950), the railway station was completed and opened in 1919. Although its design is defined as Art Nouveau, it contains many features that would later come to define the Art Deco and Modernist movements. Finished in pink granite and featuring a clock tower, a huge arched window over its main entrance and globe-bearing statues guarding the portal, the structure makes for an impressive welcome to Finland.

Our first wander led us directly to the the Marimekko flagship store on Mikonkatu. For those unfamiliar with the lifestyle brand, Marimekko is synonymous with Finnish design. Founded in 1951 by Armi Ratia, the design house is celebrated worldwide for its original prints and colours that are translated into fashion, bags, home decoration and accessories.

I was positively giddy at being able to wander around an entire store filled with vivid patterns on almost every surface. Although Marimekko items are available for purchase in UK stores, the stockists are few and far between and ordinarily only have a limited range on display. I would come to discover that in Helsinki, the stores are liberally spread around the city and stalls can even be found in local market halls. 

We then went onto Artek on Keskuskatu, a design store that showcases its own collection of furniture, lighting and accessories alongside carefully selected complementary brands. The name Artek is a synthesis of "art" and "technology" and the company strives to remain "an innovative player in the world of modern design, developing new products at the intersection of design, architecture, and art." ('About Artek', www.artek.fi)

Heading east, we arrived at the impressive green domed Helsinki Cathedral. With a stark white façade that was dazzling in the brilliant late afternoon sun, the colossal structure dominates Senate Square whose perimeter is lined by City Hall, the Palace of the Council State and the Presidential Palace. With the Bank of Finland just a stone's throw away, the district houses the political, religious and commercial powers in the form of Neoclassical architecture.

We began day two of our visit at Kauppatori, Helsinki's main market square on the South Harbour, the highlight of which was the adjacent Vanha Kauppahalli (old market hall). The stalls offer a variety of traditional Finnish fare such as tervamuikku (small white fish in tar sauce), bear meat and elk pâté as well as more familiar foodstuffs like cheese and cold cuts from its remote European neighbours in Italy, Spain and France. 

After sampling a selection of culinary delights, we gorged on a visual feast at the Design Museum Helsinki.  The museum holds a permanent exhibition of design objects from the nineteenth century to the present day alongside temporary displays. 

Walking towards the north west of the city centre, we located the Kamppi Chapel, also known as the Chapel of Silence. Situated in the middle of the hectic Narrinkkatori Square, this modern chapel offers an opportunity for respite and reflection. The sanctuary's flowing wooden design reflects its ecumenical philosophy, welcoming everyone irrespective of religion or background, and its windowless exterior fends off urban clamour while its interior envelops the visitor in safety.

Within the vicinity lies HAM (Helsinki Art Museum) which has the weighty responsibility of looking after over nine thousand works of art that belong to the people of Helsinki including public art and statues that are displayed throughout the city. The gallery itself hosts a collection that consists mostly of Finnish art from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries but it also includes some older Finnish masterpieces as well as international art. 

We concluded our day with a visit to Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art. Part of the Finnish National Gallery, Kiasma focuses mainly on pieces by Finnish artists and it actively supports contemporary artists within the geographical region by commissioning new work. As such, its collections are an important element of Finnish cultural heritage, curating a visual anthology of artist's work from the Seventies onward.

Our third and final day in Helsinki started with a bus ride to the Töölö district to visit the Sibelius Monument. Created by Eila Hiltunen, the sculpture was erected in 1967 as a memorial to the revered Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The abstract monument resembles a sound wave made of clusters of six hundred organ pipes and was designed to embody the spirit of Sibelius’ music, however, its conceptual aesthetic drew criticism and a large bust of the composer was added at the foot of the monument so that viewers would know for whom it was a tribute. 

Another short trip on the bus took us to the Temppeliaukio Church, also known as the Rock Church. Completed in 1969, the rugged church walls were quarried directly from the natural bedrock. The circular chamber is topped by a massive copper dome with one hundred and eighty skylights lining the circumference allowing natural sunlight to seep into the craggy arena. 

To the south of Rautatientori Square is Ateneum Art Museum which is regarded as the home of Finnish art. Housing the nation's beloved works from the nineteenth century to the modern age, it also displays international masterpieces such as Le Corbusier’s 'Two Women' (1939) and Edvard Munch’s 'Bathing Men' (1907–08).

Our final wander saw us exploring the Design District, an area that brings together creative businesses in the heart of Helsinki. Two hundred Design District members occupy premises on twenty five streets providing a shopping experience that is perfect for lovers of art, design and fashion.   

 

I was thrilled to happen upon one of my long time favourite design brands, Kauniste, within the unique craft quarter. The company's original concept was combining art prints into an everyday item, the tea towel, which then expanded into a wider range of textile-based goods such as cushions, blankets and tote bags. Their simple, striking and lively designs are unmistakeably Scandinavian and it was a delightful treat to have seen their products first hand rather than ogling them on the internet. 

Helsinki was a great introduction to Scandinavia and it surpassed our expectations. We initially thought that we would struggle to fill our itinerary despite our fleeting visit as on paper, this compact city appears to have limited sights but this could not be further from the truth. Glancing over the city map, I can still find museums that we would have liked to have visited or areas we would have undoubtedly enjoyed exploring, but those plans had to be suspended as we would be moving onto our next destination - Stockholm, Sweden. 

 

We were booked on the Silja Symphony ferry for an overnight journey departing from the Olympia Terminal on the South Harbour at 17:00 so we had plenty of time to kick back and relax, enjoying an Estonian beer while we crossed the Baltic Sea. Farewell, Helsinki.

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