An indefatigable explorer of myth on a lifelong quest to engage the spirit of place, architect Travis Price likens landing in Helsinki, recently named the 2012 Design Capital of the World by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid), to “entering a vast strawberry field of embedded design.” Says Price, “I found myself floating between products and buildings and digital technology and food and full living culture where everything was simple but not simplistic.” In contrast to this Nordic simplicity, he discovered an almost Asian influence expressing itself in such disparate sources as the Byzantine Uspenski Orthodox Church or a swath of baroque Marimekko fabric. Finland lies in the merging of those two worlds; it’s the emerging crossroads of the world.”
Price discovered essential clues to the Finnish character in the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. While the original poems are ancient and part of Finland’s oral tradition, the cycle itself is a 19th century construction compiled when Finnish nationalism and independence from Russian rule became burning topics. Price’s Helsinki journey fortuitously coincided with an exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum of painting and sculpture inspired by the Kalevala that explored the cycle motif by motif. “These characters are the Finnish character. There is nature and a kind of silence and then there’s this third category called bad and mad. And you see that all through the Kalevala. Every time I see Helsinki in my mind, I see a duck swimming across the water, floating, almost not a ripple, but underneath the feet are going crazy. And looking constantly below at what’s to eat and yet the occasional ripple occurs and the whole pond changes. That’s kind of Finland to me, it seems quiet on the surface, but underneath there’s a fervor and change and growth and extremes from intense work to intense silence. A lot of the great ideas come from there, they don’t necessarily market from there, but they come from there.”
Price shared these insights and more with the Washington design community in a sauna evening held at the Embassy of Finland in May 2009. Kari Korkman, originator of Helsinki Design Week and Travis’s Helsinki host, was on hand to take the audience further into Finland’s burgeoning design world.
Going forward, Price is at work on the 2010 Helsinki Spirit of Place project, a program of Spirit of Place-Spirit of Design, the non-profit educational organization Price founded to explore the design and construction of architectural forms that successfully respond to natural and cultural settings in a contemporary language of design. American students from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC and Finnish architecture and design students from the Helsinki University of Technology, and Aalto University will design and build a meeting house inspired by the enduring metaphors of the Kalevala on Seurasaari, an open-air museum of traditional Finnish architecture featuring cottages, farmsteads and manors of the past four centuries that have been relocated from around the country. For the first time in conjunction with this project Spirit of Place plans a number of related events and programs in conjunction with the installation, including major film, web, and print documentation in collaboration with National Geographic Traveler, as well as a larger series of multi-disciplinary arts events to celebrate and interpret the themes of the Kalevala. The dedication events will coincide with the Helsinki Festival in August 2010 and will be the opening event for 2010 Helsinki Design Week.
Price is also exploring the development of product designs that celebrate the Kalevala with such Finnish companies as Iittala and Marimekko. “For ten years I’ve wanted to do Spirit of Place fabrics and now I have the opportunity to take these philosophies into the different arts.” Price calls the opportunity to work in Finland in this holistic way the model he has been planning for eight years that finally found its nest to incubate. My Helsinki experience allowed this vision to finally land, like a bird in a tree. And the egg will crack open in August. How Kalevala is that?”