Ambassadors of design


This year Mr and Mrs Zan travelled across Finland on a mission to reinforce collaboration between Finland and China. During their tour the couple were surprised to see how design manifests itself in everyday Finnish life.

With a Moomin toy in her hand, “Mrs Zan” sits on a chair from the Isku Interior catalogue, catching beams from light fixtures conceived by Eero Aarnio and sipping juice from an Aino Aalto Iittala glass. Each one of these items is a Finnish design icon.

“I’ve been so impressed with how design in Finland is a part of everyday life,” she says.

“Mr and Mrs Zan” – their real names are Andrew Guan and Sanpig Quan – won the role of Design-Will Ambassadors through an online competition in China. Zan has a number of meanings in Chinese, and in this case it implies a positive outlook, similar to “cool” in English or the Facebook thumbs-up. The copywriter–skateboarder couple from Shanghai packed their bags for an eight-day exploration trip, relishing the chance to rethink design.

Their tour of Finland was an element of Radical Design Week 2012 (RDW), which occurred in late October and early November. RDW, which showcased Finnish–Chinese collaborations in a series of more than 40 events, was part of two design programmes: the Shanghai-D Week 2012 and the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012. The initiative was also a contribution to the EU-China Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Top creative innovators in design, architecture, business, culture, education and research were invited to brainstorm and come up with new design possibilities.

“Our aim was to introduce Finnish design to China and to promote China to Finland,” says Guan.

“We hope to help China to rethink design and to bring back information about the design world in Finland,” Quan chimes in. “Finland has plenty of big, innovative companies, but sometimes China seems too big and daunting to them.”

A design tour of Finland

The couple’s tour began from Rovaniemi, Lapland’s main hub located on the Arctic Circle. After paying visit to Santa Claus and Santa’s Post Office, they discovered Taigakoru silver jewellery and the Lappset children’s activity park company. They also dropped in on the Pilke Science Museum and the Korundi House of Culture.

In addition, the couple attended a lecture on Service Design, an example of how design in Finland has broadened to include systems and processes. Sometimes design expands beyond (but doesn’t necessarily exclude) the traditional definitions of object form and function. Design in a more conventional sense was well covered on a trip to the old foundry village of Fiskars, where the Design-Will Ambassadors were introduced to classic brands such as Iittala, Arabia, Gerber, Hackman, and Buster boats. (More information on these brands: Fiskars Group.)

As their itinerary took them closer to the capital city, the Zans were introduced to yet another aspect of design. They visited the headquarters of Rovio Entertainment in Helsinki’s neighbouring city of Espoo, the original “nest” of the phenomenally successful Angry Birds game. In partnership with Lappset, Rovio is about to open an Angry Birds theme park in Shanghai.

Democratic design

One of the Design-Will Ambassadors’ great realisations was that design is incorporated into the Finnish lifestyle and tradition in numerous different ways.

“In China there is a perception of design as something luxurious, only available to a few. It isn’t like that in Finland,” Guan says.

Quan adds that during their visit to the factory of Marimekko, a Finnish design staple for its garments, bags and fabrics worldwide, they met a woman who said that she had been wearing a dress of a particular design since she was two years old. “It made me think that design is more democratic in Finland. You don’t need to be super-rich to own and have access to the best items,” she says.

Text by Tim Bird

A longer version of this article was published in Finnair´s Blue Wings magazine (Nov 2012).

Published November 23, 2012

Category: Collaboration