The Milan miracle in 195 placed Finnish design among the world's best
The miracle didn't happen out of the blue. It was built by the alumni of the Institute of Industrial Art.
The breakthrough of Finnish design almost didn’t happen. Finland had been invited to the IXth Milan Triennial in 1951, the most important craft and design exhibition of its time, but funding was a problem. In a country recovering from war, the state, the business sector and the designers themselves were hesitant to participate in an event that might not prove useful.
The first test awaiting Tapio Wirkkala, who was the Commissioner of the Finnish Department and would soon be appointed the Art Director of the Institute of Industrial Art, was to unite the field and scrape together the necessary resources. The small exhibition team took off on short notice.
On show at the Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan were mainly works of Finnish crafts and design: unique glassware and ceramics by Wirkkala, Rut Bryk and Toini Muona, and textile art by Alli Koroma and Dora Jung. Industrial production was represented by Alvar Aalto's stools, Ilmari Tapiovaara's Domus chairs and Lisa Johansson-Pape's lamps.
Despite the humble beginnings, the exhibition turned out to be an unprecedented success. The Finnish team brought home six Grand Prix prizes, six gold medals, seven silver medals, and three honourable mentions. The international press went crazy, and the American magazine House Beautiful picked Wirkkala's laminated wood platter as the most beautiful object in the world.
The success was fully taken advantage of, both in Finland and abroad. At home, people recovering from war and from postwar scarcity hungered for heroes and got Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva and Kaj Franck.
‘The success catapulted design into the national consciousness and boosted our confidence. We understood that this here is exactly what we excel at,’ says Yrjö Sotamaa, long-time president of the University of Art and Design Helsinki.
The success linked Finnish Design to Scandinavian Design. It played a big part in the Finnish Cold War foreign policy, with Finland wanting to appear as part of the Western Bloc.
From a successful contestant to a top-ranking player
Although the triumph at the 1951 Triennal was named the Milan miracle, it didn’t come out of the blue.
The Institute of Industrial Art nurtured students’ intuitive thinking and artistry. The pedagogical approach of the two Art Directors, Arttu Brummer and Tapio Wirkkala, bore fruit, with all but one of the prize winners at the 1951 Triennal being institute alumni.
Design began to change in the 1960s. The cult of design heroes was subjected to criticism and, as social awareness increased, people started to see design more broadly than just as objects participating in a beauty contest. Now, exhibitions and contests have lost their earlier significance as the measures of good taste. Instead, Sotamaa emphasises the success of the Aalto University in global ratings.
‘It's a big deal to have achieved such a prestigious position in developing global design expertise. It can be considered the big triumph of our time. It's based on the patient and systematic work we have done since the 1950s,’ he says.
Text by Miisa Pulkkinen