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Kappeli restaurant at Helsinki's Esplanadi. Anne Relander / City of Helsinki Tourist and Convention Bureau
Kappeli restaurant at Helsinki's Esplanadi. Anne Relander / City of Helsinki Tourist and Convention Bureau
Cafe Aalto in Helsinki. Courtesy of Cafe Aalto
Cafe Aalto in Helsinki. Courtesy of Cafe Aalto

By turns unfussy and flamboyant, Helsinki is World Design Capital 2012

Huma Qureshi spends a weekend in the Finnish capital to discover why it was bestowed with the prestigious title.

This is the year that Helsinki has been waiting for - the year the Finnish capital takes over the coveted title of World Design Capital from Seoul.

It's about time, too. Without many of us even being aware of it, Finnish design has infiltrated our homes. It's in the tapered legs of wooden, mid-century furniture that the hit television show Mad Men revived; the angular lines of urban design; the folksy fabrics found in vintage stores. All these elements - from retro to modern via quirky - make Finnish design what it is: deceptively simple and timeless.

Arriving in Helsinki for the weekend, the first thing I notice when I touch down is the glare of the snow and the bitter chill of subzero conditions - it's nearly minus 20°Celsius. The air is sharp and dry; a slap in the face thatleaves red marks on my skin.

Aside from the antiquated trams clattering glacially, Helsinki lies still, covered in inches of snow. The streets are empty when I arrive on a Friday afternoon so bleak, my heart sinks. But it also feels dramatic in a film noir sort of way: there is a compelling vibe to the place, with low-rise utilitarian concrete blocks clumped together and street lamps strung across the middle of the road.

My impression of the city changes once I arrive at Klaus K, one of Helsinki's first boutique designer hotels. With its glitzy lights and Art Nouveau facade, the hotel feels glamorous, in stark contrast to the drab blocks round the corner. Inside, the interior is contemporary - lots of glossy white furniture and twisted light installations - but with a classic Finnish twist, in colours taken from the palette favoured by the Finnish national artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (who died in 1931). My room may not be cosy but it is sharp in style, with a silver and black feature wall and a gigantic plum velvet headboard.

Once a former German girls' school and then a printing business, Klaus K was rebuilt in 1913 by Lars Sonck, a Finnish architect who was inspired by the organic forms and sinuous motifs characteristic of Art Nouveau (think Charles Rennie Mackintosh). It was Sonck who helped to develop the National Romantic movement in Finland, featuring carved stone, wood and curved, flowing forms.

I begin to look beyond the weather and notice elements of Romantic design - elegant apartment blocks with elaborate wooden doors, and ornately carved window frames through which I can just make out a graceful balustrade.

Nowhere can this be seen more than at the Esplanadi. A walk down the two tree-lined boulevards is like strolling through the Finnish design hall of fame (interior design boutiques far outnumber fashion outlets in Helsinki). On either side are beautiful stone buildings resplendent with intricate balconies and pillars. I stop short at Kappeli, a brasserie in an elaborate art nouveau glass house, shimmering with chandeliers on the inside. These streets form the most expensive strip in the city and, as the street lamps light up and shadows fall, Helsinki feels beautiful and soft - a far cry from my bleak first impression.

Here at the Esplanadi is the Marimekko flagship store, created in 1951 and famous for its textiles and pretty yet practical homeware. Its rainbow-coloured window display sparks warmth in the freezing temperatures; its founder, Armi Ratia, said she wanted Finnish homes to exude comfort in long winters.

Farther along is Aarikka (established 1953), known for its playful Nordic wooden decorations and jewellery. Then there is Iittala, a glassware company steeped in design history. In 1936, it produced the delicate mouthblown Aalto vase; gently undulating, inspired by the Finnish landscape and designed by the country's most famous son, the architect and designer Alvar Aalto.

Hailed as one of the heroes of Modernism, Aalto's work is everywhere - it's impossible to visit Helsinki and not see his influence. His interior design company, Artek, sits opposite Marimekko, and is full of his refined furniture, such as curved wooden armchairs and stools. Aalto also designed the interior of the Savoy Restaurant, also at the Esplanadi. The Savoy, which is located on the top floor of a 1930s multi-purpose block, is as austere as it is beautiful, and it's worth taking a peek inside, even if the menu is beyond your budget.

Thoroughly numbed by the cold, I head for shelter at another Aalto landmark, Cafe Aalto, set inside the Academic Bookshop. The bookshop is housed in a large concrete slab that looks like a purpose-built office building, typical of the early 1960s when Aalto designed it. The inside takes your breath away: a vast, white atrium, filled with books, is lit by atmospheric, dusty light streaming from a series of huge, angular skylights. The space is immense, and there's a low, barely audible hum - the cafe and bookshop are busy but the mood is quiet and reflective.

Inside the warm cafe are gorgeous brass bell-shaped lamps, also designed by Aalto, hanging low over small, white marble-topped tables (which can be bought at Artek). It's all very refined, neat and stylish but, as with most things in Helsinki, Cafe Aalto is hard on the wallet - my toasted sandwich cost nearly €11 (Dh54).

But it's not just Helsinki's past that's being celebrated this year. The award-winning Kamppi Chapel of Silence in Narinkka Square (due to open in May) has been built especially to honour Helsinki's design status - a good example of how Finnish designers have interpreted Aalto's modernity for the 21st century. Egg-shaped and plain, made out of curved wood, it's a strange construction yet manages not to look out of place.

There will also be several design exhibitions, a children's art event, a fashion festival and a design week to be held in Punavuori, the city's design precinct. This is the livelier, edgier part of town, full of moss-green and yellow buildings that would look pretty and inviting in summer, but are less than appealing in winter.

Still, there are plenty of shops to explore. The Design Forum is a store that stocks pieces by young Finnish designers, such as beautiful slimline ceramics. For something less stark, Fox and Rabbit sells vintage crockery and cushions. Pino is more modern, with quirky, fun accessories that include washi tape, giant paper bags and oversized metal monograms.

Helsinki prices might be frightening (a tea towel costs €20 [Dh98]), but on Uudenmaankatu street in Punavuori I stumble upon two of the most affordable places to eat: a vintage cafe, Fleuriste, which serves sweet Finnish pastries and fragrant green tea, and Cafe 9, a vegetarian-friendly cafe bar offering a tasty halloumi and coriander stew for €9 (Dh44).

Also in Punavuori is the Design Museum, which has a permanent section devoted to Aalto, showcasing his furniture from the 1930s, as well as a Nokia phone display. Objects that we take for granted today - an elegant table or a slim mobile handset - are what Finnish designers have been painstakingly perfecting for years.

On my walk back to Klaus K, I pass churches at nearly every turn: square and whitewashed, looking like they've been transported from the New England countryside; gigantic, gothic, redbrick Russian ones, such as St John's, opposite the Design Museum; or the Uspenski cathedral down by the harbour, a reminder of when Helsinki was conquered by the Russians in 1809 and remodelled to look like St Petersburg. Finally, there's Tuomiokirkko, the city's main cathedral, sat proudly atop a hill looking toward the harbour. Built in the 1830s, it is palatial, with white pillars topped with sparkling pale green domes.

This is what makes Helsinki so intriguing: for every unfussy Aalto creation, there is a flamboyant Marimekko print demanding attention, each style a tribute to the long-lasting design and historic architecture that Finland prides itself on. In the summer, Helsinki will thaw and come alive to celebrate its World Design title, but even after that, it will remain a design lover's dream, a place where Modernism, Romanticism, 1950s vintage and Art Nouveau sit side by side.

 

If you go

The flight Return flights with KLM Airways (www.klm.com) to Helsinki from Abu Dhabi via Amsterdam cost from Dh3,490, including taxes.

The hotel Double rooms at Klaus K Hotel (Bulevardi 2-4; www.klauskhotel.com; 00 35 8 20 770 4700) cost from €139 (Dh678) per night, based on two sharing, including breakfast and taxes. The hotel is offering a discount of 20 per cent on reservations made before the end of the month.

The info For more details about World Design Capital Helsinki 2012, visit http://wdchelsinki2012.fi/en

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