Helsinki Rising

Brian Keaney of TonfiskDesign may be Irish, but his Finnish is flawless; he guides us through icecold Helsinki’s hot spots.

For the past 20 years Finland’s most famous star has been native son and world-class ski jumper Matti Nykänen, known not just for his numerous medals and world records, but also for his frequent appearances in the tabloids. Nykänen has graced the pages of the rags for his five marriages to four different women, multiple arrests, jail time, and stints as waiter, singer, and stripper. But times have changed, and these days Nykänen’s not garnering the most attention in the flourishing Nordic capital of Helsinki; a new breed of young designers and a burgeoning creative scene are creating a more compelling stir.

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The Helsinki Central railway station was designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1909, and still serves as the city’s center of public transportation.

Brian Keaney should know. His firm, Tonfisk Design, which specializes in innovative ceramic tableware and accessories, is one of the fresh forces ushering in the next era of Finnish design. Says Keaney, "I think it’s going to be interesting in 10 or 20 years to look back at this period and consider the results. There’s so much interesting stuff going on—new companies and designers are breaking through, and new processes of production are offering a lot of opportunities." Keaney, an amiable expat from Ireland, started the now-hot design studio with friend and fellow University of Art and Design Helsinki graduate Tony Alfström. Don’t let his roots mislead you: His Finnish is spot on, and one need look no further than the Tonfisk website to know how committed he and the company are to important cultural cues like herring and mobile phones.

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Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall sits on Töölönlahti Bay, an area popular with the public for its scenic walking trails.

New names like Heikkinen-Komonen Architects, fashion house Ivana Helsinki, and Tonfisk Design are making new headlines in Helsinki. We sat down with Keaney to learn more about Finland’s metropolitan epicenter, where the winters are cold, Aalto is worshiped, and the sauna is king.

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Classics, like this Suomi White ceramic set by Timo Sarpaneva for Rosenthal, can be found at the Design Forum.

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A passerby window shops at Artek, the furniture company founded by Aino and Alvar Aalto in 1935.

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The 1969 Temppeliaukion Kirkko, or Rock Church as it is known, is one of the most popular places to visit in Helsinki. The dramatic interior space was created from a solid granite outcropping, and is often used as a concert hall because of its superior acoustics.

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The Kiasma, which opened in 1998, is Helsinki’s contemporary art museum. Designed by Steven Holl, the building’s scale is based on the dimensions of the human body.

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The interior of the Kiasma focuses on the use of natural light.

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A trio of relaxed patrons cool off outside the Finnish Sauna Society, a traditional pastime every visitor must experience.

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The Kauppahalli marketplace offers an eclectic selection of local foods and personalities.


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