How does Finnish design use nature to promote wellness in an urban setting?\

In September 2018, a group of our staff went to Helsinki to take a closer look at Finnish interior architecture. Here is a selection of the research they gathered from the trip.

Sculpting daylight

Daylight is crucial to the well-being of building occupants and Finland has many excellent examples of the careful use of glass to provide the feeling of being under an outdoor sky. Alvar Aalto's architecture particularly, uses daylight very purposefully. As can be seen in his studio, where a drawing display board is angled with a tiny roof light focused solely on it.

The ring of roof lights of the Temppeliaukio Church continually connects visitors to the natural colours of daylight. Equally as does the diffused light within the Dipoli building in Aalto University and the Kampii chapel. This kind of circadian lighting can be imitated using technology, however the kind of skylight design seen in these spaces provide far higher levels of light and an infinite variety of light conditions.

The Temppeliaukio Church, Tuomo and Timo Suomalainen (Illustration © Jonathan Chan)

A palette for well-being

Material and colour palettes are very well considered in Finnish interiors, favouring naturally derived materials and strong connections with nature.

The Aalto House uses a muted naturally inspired colour palette, that allows the building to sit harmoniously within the setting and to draw from the environment around it. Aalto created interiors with a strong design identity by conceptually connecting all the elements within the interior from the light fittings to the furniture.

Think Corner is a space that provides services to all from students to professionals for public lectures, meetings, debates and co-working. In the main communal space there is a very refined material palette of shuttered concrete with slatted timber alcoves and ceiling. It is not only the choice of the materials that is significant but the way they are applied and manipulated that accentuates the inherent textures and tones.

Think Corner, JKMM

Visual connection

Being immersed within the natural landscape or just being outdoors in the 'fresh air' has a commonly known calming effect to aid well-being. Within an urban setting with a focus on indoor activities, the need for this becomes increasingly important. The longer winter nights in northern countries increases the need to connect to nature when possible.

Within Aalto's house and studio, views are strategically guided towards curated natural and soft landscape and away from the hard street front and density of housing. Accommodation wraps around gardens and courtyards with large windows covered in greenery bringing the outside in. Nature is further connected with internal window planters merging the transition and creating the illusion we are outside.

InFORMed by nature

The form in Finnish architecture tends to divert from typical symmetrical, rectangular shapes. In the spirit of Aalto's legacy the volumes take on exciting, free forms adjusted to the user needs. The organically derived forms help to build an intimate, human friendly and welcoming environment.

The play with the form in Aalto's architecture starts with the arrangement of variety of forms within the surrounding landscape and scales down to be reflected in the details: furniture, joinery, decorative lighting and ironmongery. For each of these elements he was looking for the ergonomic, human friendly forms, that are functional, comfortable and tactile. Aalto extensively used bent plywood and laminated wood which he considered more humane and warm.

Bent wood furniture details by Alvar Aalto

Coherence in design

Finnish culture embraces timeless beauty, sustainability and a deep connection to the natural world. Functionality, a pared down, simple style and a thoughtful colour palette are key principles for Finnish designers and architects dating back to the 1950s Scandinavian design movement.

The Finnish landscape was Alvar Aalto's muse and his coherent design of the Aalto house has a harmonious relationship with nature. Large south-facing windows harness natural light and reflect the surrounding environment, whilst the interior is tastefully furnished with many of Aalto's well-crafted furniture and lighting designs. The warm palette of finishes and materials offer psychological warmth as well as physical shelter; supporting well-being during the long months of darkness.

The holistic design, its poetic simplicity and coherent style has a calming effect aiding well-being of the building occupants. As well as the less tangible Finnish cultural values such as joy, courage and enhancing everyday rituals.

Let's put it in context!

In Helsinki, modern Finnish culture includes a strong sense of identity with an emphasis on community, public spaces, health and the outdoors. Along with their love of nature is a desire to nurture it and look after personal well-being of the building occupants. This is apparent in the architectural heritage and following the playful Art Nouveau era, functionalism and developed into the prevailing modern style with Alvar Aalto at the healm. There has been a shift away from a functional hygienic or sterile aesthetic to a softer approach to designing for well-being with a move toward the domestic, celebrating comfort and conviviality.

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