Five Questions Salon Edition with Jennifer Komar Olivarez

Five Questions Salon Edition with Jennifer Komar Olivarez

Tanja Orsjoki Kelohonka

Tanja Orsjoki, Kelohonka, 2008. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

On May 7, the American Craft Council Library Salon Series will welcome Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) associate curator Jennifer Komar Olivarez to discuss her three years of research on Finnish design, craft, and architecture in preparation for the upcoming exhibition "Finland: Designed Environments," organized by the MIA with support provided by the Consulate General of Finland in New York and the American-Scandinavian Foundation. We asked Jennifer to give us a preview of the salon:

Tell us a little about the exhibition "Finland: Designed Environments." 
This is an exhibition about Finnish design now, really since the new millennium. So it’s a look at the wealth of experimentation in Finland in all areas of design, including architecture. I’ve included craft too, for various reasons — one, because designing and making go hand-in-hand, and two, because the bright lines we have traditionally used here in the United States to distinguish craft and design don’t really exist in Finland. It’s much more fluid there. Artists working in craft media are sought after for product design, for example.

What’s the occasion for staging the exhibition?
I proposed this show in 2010 as part of a celebration of 150 years of Finnish presence in Minnesota in 2014. There are other shows planned at the American Swedish Institute and the Textile Center, as well as the big FinnFest conference in August in Minneapolis, to celebrate this sesquicentennial. We’re all trying to connect Minnesota with contemporary Finland in these endeavors — instead of just looking back — so it also made sense for us to do more with contemporary design for this show too. It also recognizes recent achievements that were part of the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 year in Finland.

How is Finnish design already a part of our lives here in the U.S. and Minnesota?
Well, first of all, we have this wonderful church in south Minneapolis, Christ Church Lutheran, designed in 1951 by Eliel Saarinen, one of Finland’s most celebrated architects. He started his career anew in the US in the 1920s, and the forward-thinking Minneapolis congregation commissioned him to build them a modern church, which ended up being his last built project. His son Eero Saarinen, also an émigré to the US, designed the education wing, which was his last built project before his death in 1961. It is a sublime interior on all levels, with a wonderful simple use of materials and a respect for simplicity, space, and light. The church is open monthly for tours, so it’s a good primer on Finnish modern design, as many of the same principles and values carry on to today.

If you’re more ambitious, visit Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which has a wealth of buildings and objects designed by the Saarinens in the 1920s and 1930s. Maija Grotell, an important Finnish ceramic artist, taught at Cranbrook too. Eero Saarinen is now seen as more of an international modern architect than a Finnish architect, but once you visit the Arch (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) in St. Louis, you’ll get why he was so gifted.

Most folks are familiar with the so-called “golden age” of Finnish design, and know the name Alvar Aalto. His famous chairs and stools are part of many American museum collections (including the MIA) and available in the US through Artek, the company he and his wife Aino founded, and both of them are still very influential in contemporary Finnish design. The pop furniture designs of Eero Aarnio (whose work is in the exhibition) may also be familiar to American audiences — we have an example of his 1968 Pastille chair in the MIA's collection.

I started using Finnish products in my home before they were readily available in Minnesota. Thankfully, now we have FinnStyle in Minneapolis and online, which is a great outlet for contemporary tableware and Marimekko products, which are also retailed by one of the great Nordic standbys in Minneapolis: Ingebretsen’s. Some more contemporary Nordic products have also popped up in places like Forage Modern Workshop in Minneapolis, but you have to look for them there. Our museum store also plans to highlight some little-seen Finnish products too. I have also been known to order Marimekko clothing through the company’s website too.

Also, if you’re familiar with the Finnish-American architect David Salmela, who is based in Duluth, you’re also getting a good dose of what contemporary architecture looks like in Finland — dramatic volumes framing views, lots of wood and light, very cutting-edge sauna designs. David shares a lot of the same aesthetic qualities as well as the same focus on sustainability. You just need to seek out David’s work, such as the new Izzy’s Ice Cream building near Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis or even the Bagley Nature Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which is the project we’re including in the exhibition "Finland: Designed Environments."

Can you share an interesting or surprising discovery made during the research and preparation for the exhibition?
When I was in New York City during Design Week in 2012, the Finnish Consulate and the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York sponsored talks (in a very well-designed booth, mind you) on what they called "(post)material design." I was planning to attend the talks anyway, but I thought, “What can they mean by that?” It was a completely new term for me, as someone who has worked for years with older design objects and antiques.

Really, what I’ve come to call it is non-material design, which really defines processes to enact change. Design itself is an agent for change, and non-material design includes design thinking and strategic design, which both use new ways to get to solutions to problems, sometimes by finding the real source of the problem that wasn’t apparent. Systems design is really re-examining large systems (such as education or social security — think bureaucracy) and finding ways to achieve greater efficiency. So traditional design isn’t dead, but there is this category which defines non-object based design.

During my follow-up research, which included participating in a two-week course at Aalto University in Helsinki on using design thinking and other tools to address the topic of food and sustainability, I learned how Finland is promoting these design skills not only to improve their lives and government but also as tools for business and even as an exportable skill. It is a major component of design now.

What is the not-to-be-missed highlight or portion of the show?
Overall, I would say the lighting and the fabrics, which are colorful and promise to be great punctuation in the show — these are areas in which the Finns really excel. I have a well-designed lamp by Eero Aarnio to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder that gives us an idea of how wonderful these products —which many of us need here in the US — could be.

I also think the ceramics and jewelry — all designed and made by the artists — are revelatory, since these artists’ work is sadly rarely shown in the US. The most intriguing object from a social standpoint is the maternity package, which is offered to all new parents in Finland as a benefit of Finland’s Social Insurance Agency. It was specially redesigned in 2012 as part of the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 year, and was written up in international media. I tried hard to get one (they don’t sell them!), and we have one on loan from the Design Museum in Helsinki. Though its contents are familiar, the social goals and design behind it make it a unique design object for us in the US, reinforcing how good design is a part of Finnish life from birth.

What can we look forward to during your salon with the ACC?
A preview on the objects and subjects above, plus lots of good tips on what to do if you want to visit Finland. I’m a one-woman travel source for Finland now — I went six times while researching this show!

This salon is co-presented by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The event is free and open to the public, however, space is limited. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Presented by the American Craft Council, the Library Salon Series is a series of free public presentations exploring craft, making, and art.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.