Helsinki — There is nothing quite like the Finnish twilight. I wonder if in some way it hasn't inspired Finland's great architects and designers. This thought came to me only a moment ago, for when I saw the twilight at its mellowest and best in late March while standing by the still-icy Gulf of Finland on the edge of Helsinki, I was too taken with the moment and perhaps still too weary from an overnight flight to reach such an Archimedean conclusion.
Slightly dazzled by the experience -- the quietude, the sun dropping behind distant pines, the faint darkening of the sky -- I gushed about it to the woman who came minutes later to fetch me at my gulfside hotel, the Kalastajatorppa.
"We have a name for it," she said. "It is the 'blue moment,' something like what the French call l'heure bleu.m In Paris it is that perfect twilight moment when you are sitting on the Champs Elysees and the day is closing . . . but I must say the best blue moment is right here at this time of year when the snow is still on the ground and the sky is very clear."
In March that moment is closer to an hour, and by May or June the twilight is nearly endless in this country of long, illuminated summer nights. Maybe (and here is another inspired guess) the protracted daylight is another contributor to the brilliance and originality of Finnish design, which rears its lovely head nowadays all across Finland, around the world, and indeed on the Finnair plane that carries you to Helsinki.
Lifting out of Kennedy Airport, we had not yet reached cruising altitude of 10,000 meters (if you go to Finland, get used to the metric system) when already I was taking note of (1) the perfect square of vermilion linen beneath (2) the unmistakably Finnish-designed juice glass handed me by (3) a stewardess who had changed into a boldly lined black and white smock. The menu she gave me was decorated with a photo of the fluffy, colorful Finnish rug known as rjijym (a close relative of the Danish ryam ), and on the back was a bit of rjijym history.
It said that the rjijym as tapestry first won international repute at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. That date and event marked the introduction of Finnish design into the international marketplace. In fact the design of the Finnish Pavilion in Paris that year vaulted the architect Eliel Saarinen into worldwide prominence and gave birth to the school of modern Finnish architecture.
One can get a brush-up course in Finnish design in Helsinki by visiting the Friends of Finnish Handicraft, the National Museum where local children are taught to weave, or the Design Center where samples of all the design forms are displayed. But perhaps the best route is to walk the Esplanade, the Fifth Avenue or Faubourg St. Honore of Helsinki. In a city not particularly noted for its architecturally unified streets, the Esplanade is a standout of handsome turn-of-the- century buildings. On the street level are shops -- small, crisply displayed, unintimidating shops -- showing the top names in Finnish design in glassware, leather, jewelry, fashion, ceramics, even toys.
The shops are concentrated in a few blocks on the north side of the street, in the center of which lies a shaded boulevard with statues, benches, and outdoor cafes. The other side of Esplanade is a nondescript row of stone buildings. The center green strip provided an even sharper division at the end of the last century when, at the height of the national language conflict, the Finnish-speaking public walked on the south side, the Swedish speakers on the north.
On a sunny Saturday morning (when shops are open only until 2 p.m.) I stopped first at Marimekko. Armi Ratia, who founded the company in 1951, died last October, but her business is in good hands and sends 40 percent of its sheets, dresses, shirts, and other creations abroad. At No. 27 is Aarikka, named for Kaija Aarikka, the woman designer who has made her mark by blending natural wood -- usually pine or birch -- into her jewelry, toys, clocks, utensils, curtains.
By the time I reached Pentik, a leather and ceramics shop launched by Anu Pentikainen eight years ago, I was beginning to sense two patterns in the industry: Women are at the top of the Finnish design world, and the female sales clerks on Esplanade, most of whom speak English, are among the best mannered and most helpful I have encountered on any shopping street. After explaining a bit about the Pentikainen style, the saleswoman remarked, "Do have a look at the new ceramics department downstairs. We have recently made a hole in the floor." Descending a pine staircase at the middle of the shop, I found a mirrored, wood-paneled cellar somehow not cluttered despite heaps of ceramics and a low, vaulted white brick ceiling.
Arabia, maker of enamel pottery, plates, and glassware, has perhaps the most spacious outlet on Esplanada -- and not surprisingly. Arabia is everywhere in Finland; you cannot sit down in the simplest cafe in Lapland without being served on the familiarly striped plates. At No. 25 is a Vuokko, a small airy clothes shop with a smart tile floor. The Vuokko label seems to be the most desirable with Finnish women these days, even more so than Marimekko. Antii Nurmesniemi is the brains behind Vuokko, which she founded in 1964.She does all the designing, a saleswoman told me with a trace of boastfulness, whereas Marimekko has long employed many designers.
At the end of Esplanade is Helsinki's outdoor market. In its bright geometric displays of fruits, vegetables, and flowers the market is itself an expression of Finnish design. At the center of the market is an outdoor cafe where, at 8 or 9 a.m. you can have breakfast before inspecting the stalls. That may not be the "blue moment," but it's a colorful way to start a summer day.