Glass explores the Finnish design culture of Helsinki

JUST UNDER three hours away, Finland remains an untouched country by mass tourism. A hidden wonderland lying in plain sight. A culture filled to the brim with history, an enviable sustainable design culture and a blossoming dining hub. This a country that deserves your time.

Helsinki From Above Helsinki From Above. Photograph: Jussi Helsten / Helsinki Marketing

Boarding a mid-morning Finnair flight from London to Helsinki, the country’s largest airline, not to mention the sixth oldest still in operation, I was flown with complete ease to the capital’s international airport within a matter of a few hours. Travelling via tram to Helsinki Central station, the Scandic Grand Central hotel lies only a stone’s throw away, standing tall and proud in its colossal art nouveau building designed by Eliel Saarinen.

Originally constructed as the administrative offices for the rail network, architects Soini & Horto and the Finnish Heritage Agency helped renovate and transform the 491 rooms into a contemporary safe haven for those after a staycation or as a pit-stop for tourists. Decorated with original artworks by painter Helen Schjercbeck, extensive white-tiled bathrooms and oversized beds to hibernate in, the Scandic Grand Central was worth its two and a half year redo.

Scandic Grand Central Scandic Grand Central

Scandic Grand Central Bedroom at Scandic Grand Central

Leaving for the former capital and eastern city of Turku, a two-hour car ride across the flat terrain, blanketed in forests, shrubs and lakes I stopped by the now-opened inaugural brick-and-mortar store and showroom of the Finnish Design Shop.

The online shop was conceived in 2004 to make a curated selection of Finnish interior design products available internationally – but as customers didn’t make a clear cut differentiation in Scandinavian design, a wider selection was offered.

FinnishDesignShop-Showroom-1121-2Finnish Design Shop

FinnishDesignShop-Showroom-1121-3Finnish Design Shop

Now, the brand, with over 20,000 different products from 250 brands, has opened its doors to offer a special experience to their customers and nearby residents. Using local materials, the ginormous warehouse is made from glass, ash, pine and concrete, blending into its surrounding woodland.

Along with the vast amount of stock it holds and a minimal, slick showroom, award-winning chef Sami Tallberg, world-renowned for his time at London’s Ivy, founding Kämp Signe and more recently his stint at NOMAD, has set up residency in the restaurant space below.

A man who oozes passion for his kitchen but more noticeable was his aim to use only the ingredients at his doorstep – I highly recommend trying his pan-seared goose – which emphasises the common combination where values on circular living and national pride entice you into wanting to prolong your stay indefinitely.

Löyly HelsinkiLöyly Helsinki. Photographed: Pekka Keränen / Helsinki Marketing

Löyly HelsinkiInside of Löyly Helsinki. Photographed: Pekka Keränen / Helsinki Marketing

Upon my return to the capital, and after countless conversations of hearing how integral saunas were to Finnish day-to-day life, I found my way to Löyly. Named after the Finnish word for evaporated steam and located in the former industrial area on the coastline, Löyly is comprised of two saunas and a restaurant area. Encased in wooden panels making it look like a large rock from afar, this building was named one of the World’s Greatest Places to see in 2018 by Time Magazine – a statement I will back.

These enclosed hot places are valued for more than their health benefits. Inside I was met with people meeting friends and work colleagues hanging out after work, conversations were flowing and the friendly nature of this land was once again reconfirmed.

In true tradition, when you reach your heat limit you immerse yourself in cold water, and at Löyly that means the Baltic Sea. Well, you know the saying when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so I jumped in. Freezing yet electrifying, I felt renewed – definitely worth the shock.

Nolla by Nikola TomevskiInterior of Nolla. Photograph: Nikola Tomevski

On my last evening, I visited Nolla. A restaurant whose name echoes down the streets of Finland and around tables of those who have had the privilege of eating there. Famous for its pioneering zero-waste approach to food, the three founders (Albert Franch Sunyer, Luka Balac and  Carlos Henriques) have provided a solution to a global problem.

Only purchasing seasonal local produce and throwing leftover food into an industrial composter which is then returned straight to the farmers for their soil, this restaurant is one that exceeds expectation. Each course was presented like art, it was simple, delicious, guilt-free cuisine. Don’t take my word for it, book yourself in.

Grilled quail, fresh corn polenta and chanterelles_photo by Nikola TomevskiGrilled quail, fresh corn polenta and chanterelles at Nolla. Photograph: Nikola Tomevski

Nolla by Nikola TomevskiNolla. Photograph: Nikola Tomevski

With the word design referencing things, as a whole, created to look and be functional, Finland has taken this into every sector of their lives. From the plate you are eating local cuisine beautifully presented on, to the light above your head and the way your sauna is built, it is a place to be inspired in and a place to learn from.

by Imogen Clark 

For UK fully vaccinated citizens, there is no test needed to enter the country only the official NHS Covid Travel Pass is required