Contemporary Art

Pure Baltic: Art in Scandinavia

By Emma O’Kelly

A sk any foreigner to name three Finnish artists from the past century and it would be a struggle,” says Kari Korkman, founder of Helsinki Design Week. Try architects and designers, though, and the names come to mind easily. For such a small, young country (it celebrates its centenary next year), Finland has a ridiculously long list of architectural eminences, including Alvar Aalto, Finn Juhl and Eero Saarinen, along with a disproportionately large number of heritage design brands: think Marimekko, Iittala and Artek, for starters. 

Although technically Finland is not part of Scandinavia, it’s culturally linked in many indisputable ways to the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark and especially Sweden. For more than 500 years, until 1809, Finland was part of Sweden. Both languages appear on menus and websites and in shops, and the ferry route across the Baltic Sea connecting their capital cities of Helsinki and Stockholm is a well-travelled path. 


This autumn a major Yayoi Kusama exhibition makes that journey as well. After debuting at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Japanese artist’s first major Scandinavian retrospective completes its tour at the Helsinki Art Museum. The museum reopened in 2015, after renovations to the Tennispalatsi, a multi-use structure that also houses a cinema and shops. And this past May the Finnish-art-focused Helsinki City Museum – in the Tori Quarters, the oldest part of the city – introduced a radical reinstallation of its collection and historical displays of interiors through the ages. The art and design movement will further gather strength in 2018 with the launch of Amos Rex, a contemporary gallery being built below Lasipalatsi Square. The multimillion-euro project is funded by the Amos Anderson Museum, the largest private art museum in Finland, and will incorporate Bio Rex, Lasipalatsi’s landmark movie theatre. Currently in development, and also scheduled to open in 2018, is Art Hotel Helsinki. Situated near the city’s western harbour, the drop-off point for an ever-increasing number of visitors coming from Tallinn, Estonia, and St Petersburg, the boutique hotel will offer 80 rooms, 20 of them designed by well-known contemporary Finnish artists such as Lauri Astala, Pekka Jylhä and Stefan Lindfors.


Helsinki is already firmly established on the international cultural map, says Korkman, who has run the city’s design week since 2005. “In the past twelve years, Helsinki has changed dramatically,” he notes. “There are so many more fashion designers, young chefs and product designers, and it’s a small country, so it’s easy to gain recognition,” adds Korkman, who tirelessly promotes Finnish artistry at home and abroad. “We are linked to the Nordic countries, but we have a growing interest in the Baltic region,” he explains. “Helsinki is a gateway between East and West, both Slav and Scandinavian.” With the launch of a World Summit at Helsinki Design Week in September 2017, Korkman hopes to make the city a vital connection point for design professionals from all over the world.

His enthusiasm extends beyond groundbreaking design to innovations in the culinary world. This year, Helsinki Design Week held its welcome dinner at Finnjävel. Founded a decade ago, Finnjävel makes dishes that are “edgier, less sweet and more sour than that of our Scandinavian neighbours,” Korkman explains. A host of young Finnish chefs have followed suit. “It’s as though the most innovative individuals choose the restaurant business to realise their ideas,” he adds. He recommends refuelling on Pieni Roobertinkatu, a street where eateries Vinkkeli, Krog Roba, Pastis and Ox offer local specialities such as arctic char and lingonberry ice cream. 


Ox’s interior was created by Joanna Laajisto, whose studio was also behind the interiors of the restaurant and a lounge for Löyly, the go-to sauna inaugurated this spring. Built by local firm Avanto, Löyly is the latest in a host of architecturally stunning contemporary incarnations of an age-old institution that have sprung up since 2013. First was the invitation-only Kulttuurisauna, which opened to the public after much popular demand, and this August the Allas Sea Pool debuted with a floating pier, sauna and terrace.

Another institution is the Arabia porcelain factory. Each year more than 200,000 design buffs pass through its doors to view vintage ceramics and buy new pieces made by the 143-year-old company. In November Arabia joins the glassmaker Iittala to launch a design centre in the city, which will tell the story of Finnish glass and ceramics in great depth. Iittala is also opening a new store on Pohjoisesplanadi, and many collections will be added to best-sellers such as Kastehelmi tableware and artist Oiva Toikkas’ssignature glass birds. The venerable furniture manufacturer Artek has also launched a flagship on Keskuskatu, flanked by two famous Aalto structures: the Rautatalo office building and his Academic Bookshop. 


The Design District is an area downtown encompassing 25 streets and 100 shops that brims with hip fashion labels, bookshops, cafes and boutiques. Among the newer offerings is a storefront for TRE, a label selling local design and fashion that also has a strong online presence. With an emphasis on luxury and customer experience, TRE (which means “three” in Swedish) hopes to follows in the footsteps of Samuji House, the trendsetting concept store founded by Samu-Jussi Koski in 2011. Samuji has two Helsinki outposts offering Scandinavian fashion and housewares in settings that feel like immaculately curated Finnish dwellings.

Helsinki’s formidable creative abundance means that the capital more than holds its own when compared with Stockholm.

Helsinki’s formidable creative abundance means the capital city more than holds its own when compared with its Swedish counterpart. “Sweden unfairly often gets the credit for the design talents of the whole region,” declares Fredrik Carlström, a Stockholm native and man-about-town who launched his concept shop Austere in Los Angeles in 2014. This autumn Carlström opens Austere’s first Stockholm location in the former home of Beckmans College of Design, on Nybrogatan. It will occupy the ground floor of members’ club and shared-working space Alma, a sort of Scandinavian Soho House and the first of its kind in the capital. While Carlström explains that “the members’ club is not really in our DNA,” he also predicts the freewheeling communal work aspect will draw 500 or so potential members.

That this metropolis has enough young creatives as potential members is beyond question. Every February the city hosts the Stockholm Furniture Fair, the world’s largest event for Scandinavian furniture and lighting. More than 40,000 visitors come to check out the latest trends from the region. For the duration of the fair, Stockholm is taken over by pop-ups, exhibitions, talks and parties, while young designers network furiously to promote their nascent brands. And by next spring, visitors will find cool boutique hotel options in the Bank, Nordic Choice and Scandic Haymarket, which will also offer dining alternatives to rival perennial favourites Taverna Brillo and Gastrologik.


Contemporary art lovers are never disappointed in Stockholm, where in addition to the Moderna Museet are a cluster of commercial galleries like Charlotte Lund and LOYAL. This autumn the pioneering Magasin III museum has a show by multimedia artist Tony Oursler, and exhibition space Andréhn-Schiptjenko presents the evocative blackand-white images of enigmatic American photographer Francesca Woodman. Stockholm’s cultural treasures can be found further afield as well. A pleasant cycle ride from the historic centre is Millesgården, a haven for classical sculpture. This season the museum honours Tove Jansson, the painter and author of the beloved Moomins children’s books, with an exhibition that celebrates not only a versatile artist’s career, but also the Baltic ties that bind: Jansson is, of course, a Finnish national treasure.

Emma O’Kelly is editor-at-large of Wallpaper* magazine.

LEAD IMAGE: The Löyly is one of the new breed of architecturally stunning saunas that have been opening up in Helsinki. © 2015 Kuvatoimisto Kuvio Oy

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