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Exhibition of contemporary posters from well-known Finnish designers. Prepared in cooperation with the Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem.

About Finnish Graphic Design by Pekka Loiri

Finnish graphic design grows from the same roots and soil as other Finnish and Scandinavian design. In ancient times, the rugged conditions of the Nordic countries meant that most implements needed to sustain life were made at home, an indoor job for the long, cold winters. The short and warm summers were spent cultivating the land and hunting or practising some artisan's profession. The important thing about making implements was that they worked and lasted. Unlike Southern Europe, here in the north people’s time was mostly spent on winning their daily bread and clothing. There was only a limited time available for decorating objects, and little need was felt for this. However, people have an eternal desire and drive for beauty. The concept of beauty was moulded over time, and it was only slightly dictated by outside influences. As living conditions gradually improved, the manufacture began here of tools, furniture and tableware from small-scale industry countries. Although industrial manufacturing brought with it new models of decoration, artisanry did not reject the austerity based on bare, simple forms that it had adopted earlier. Rather, it became refined into the basis of a different kind of Nordic and Scandinavian design. In Finland this was later seasoned with influences from the outside world such as the arrival of Christianity and the Swedish royal court. Even these were not able to undermine the basic idea of a simple design idiom.

The roots of Finnish graphic design can be dated from painting in the early 19th century. In those days many Finnish painters and sculptors spent long periods in continental Europe, mostly Paris. When they came home they brought with them fresh visual influences and stimuli.

Colour lithography, which was developed in the early 19th century, had introduced totally new possibilities for producing the advertising materials of those days. Multicoloured posters could now be printed in great quantities, better and cheaper. The Frenchman Jules Chéret was one of the first real originators of a graphic style. The style of his colour lithographs was imitated and influences were drawn from all across Europe. However, when one looks at European posters of this era, they all look somehow the same. They have a strong influence from the so-called interim period and empire style, and they are practically all products of the same philosophy and school of thought. This can also be seen in Finnish, Swedish and Danish posters.

Art Nouveau, which originated slightly later, was characterised by the elimination of borderlines between different fields of art, particularly architecture, industrial design and illustration art, by making itself an integral part of the entire human habitat space.

Although Art Nouveau was brought to Finland by Finnish artists working in Paris, Finland adopted it in the more massive and somehow more melancholic form of German Jugendstil rather than the richly formed French variety. It Finland the style rapidly took on the form of national romanticism and symbolism. Great names of Finnish painting in that epoch, including Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Valle Rosenberg, Eric Vasström and Bruno Tuukkanen, developed their visual narrative style into symbolist and stripped-down realist forms.

Most designers working in the fields of furniture, textiles and ceramics rapidly adopted the style and philosophy. Finnish Art Nouveau, which became known as the National Romantic style, contained the strong seed of a return to the Finnish tradition of a sparse visual narrative. Art Nouveau quickly found its way into the methodology of graphic design. The style was adopted and further developed by a number of illustrators, such as the Danish-born lithographer Nils Wiwel, Germund Paaer, Ragnar Ungern and Topi Wikstedt. The return to a simple design idiom was opened up with the aid of Art Nouveau, and the great isms that followed it, such as cubism, constructivism and above all functionalism, fit in with this tale of evolution extremely well. Out of all this a strong basis was formed for a graphical style derived from the Finnish and Nordic heritage. Even the dynamic internationalisation that followed the Second World War was no longer able to stifle this centuries-long heritage of visual traditions.

Finnish graphic design also has much to thank Finnish modern object design for. In the post-World War Two period, strong influences from pioneers of furniture design, ceramic workshops and glass design helped to uphold the Finnish tradition of design faithful to discretion and compactness. I believe that the cobalt-blue Kartio glass created by Finnish designer Kaj Franck for Iittala is one of the most beautiful objects ever designed by humans. Object design of this kind was a strong indicator for all Finnish designers – including graphic artists.

Visual design for marketing communications seems to have gone its own way, in Finland as elsewhere. Here it has adapted to international, oftentimes very rapidly changing styles and forms. At its best it has been able to harness the dictates of these trends superbly, but it has little or no continuity with the aforementioned Finnish tradition of an austere visual idiom. A similar formation of transnational phenomena seems to have taken place in advertising design in many other countries and societies.

You sometimes hear it said that (graphic) design has never been as high in quality and as excellent as it is today. All design is, however, rooted in its time and therefore a child of its era. We graphic designers must, as we stand in the present tense, know the imperfect and understand to train our eyes on the future tense.

The high-quality works in this book are now history. Everything that has been made or designed is part of the past. Many posters on their stands have been covered over repeatedly with newer posters. I believe it is of the greatest importance that the history of graphic design is collected and stored in publications of this kind.


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