helsinki design market

It’s a sunny Saturday morning in Helsinki, and Tom and I are wandering through the city’s industrial western district. We’re headed for the old Nokia cable factory on the waterfront, which has been converted into an exposed-brick arts centre. Given that Tom works as a graphic designer in London, he couldn’t contain his excitement when he discovered that we’d unknowingly booked our city break to coincide with the start of the renowned Helsinki Design Week. So, after mingling with Finland’s design elite for opening night drinks the previous evening, we thought we’d check out the well-regarded Design Market, which is now in its 6th successful year.

As we enter the monstrous warehouse, at first glance we appear to have walked into a giant village-hall-style jumble sale. All around us clothes rails are crammed full with garments. Hats and accessories spill out of over-turned boxes, and hundreds of bodies are shamelessly foraging for a bargain. But, as we venture further in, we quickly realise that this is no jumble sale: the garments are trendy one-off design pieces, the over-turned boxes have been cleverly and precisely placed, and the bodies are hip Helsinkians with a wad of euros to spend on an upcoming artist’s whacky creation. Amid the designer clothes, there are shiny high-top trainers, bold patterned tights and screen-printed tea towels, as well as arty posters, funky jewelry and swathes of swirly fabric.

September sunlight floods through the over-sized factory windows making the high-ceilinged space feel as hot as a Finnish sauna. It doesn’t put off trade though: people of all ages are arriving in their hoards and won’t, it seems, be content until the tables are stripped bare. Young designers manning their stalls are eager to be discovered as the next big thing in time for 2012, when Helsinki becomes the Design Capital of the World. They are selling samples, prototypes and one-offs like they are going out of fashion. Over in the central aisle, an enthusiastic designer-cum-salesman is trying to make a sale: ‘It’s a magic price’, he exclaims, in jolted English, as his potential buyer eyes up a soft grey leather handbag. ‘Yes, you heard me right, I didn’t make it up’. The young girl doesn’t need much convincing and soon an oversized bundle of cash is being exchanged for an oversized tote.

We weave our way through two floors of noise and chaos, and I manage to resist buying – among other things – a necklace bearing a faux liquorice allsort as its pendant. We then spend a while in the slightly more serene artists’ gallery on the other side of the building, before we are spat back out into the sunshine – rather intrigued and somewhat bemused by what we’ve just encountered – and continue on with the rest of our day in Helsinki.

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