BOOK REVIEW: Man Matter Metamorphosis — 10 000 Years of Design

The L-leg patent by Alvar Aalto created for Artek table or chair legs. It consists of layers of birch wood strips cut down the grain, and then glued and bent together.

Design retrospectives are typically organized by chronology and typology across short time periods. A recent exhibition at the National Museum of Finland, in Helsinki, zoomed out to take a much wider picture: Man, Matter, Metamorphosis — 10,000 Years of Design, curated and with scenography by Swiss-based architect Florencia Colombo and industrial designer Ville Kokkonen, looked at every- thing from a 15th-century Nordic rune calendar and pair of ice-spike shoes to a 1957 Tom of Finland drawing. The handsome 376-page eponymous catalogue, designed and written by the same duo, follows the exhibition’s taxonomy, which was influenced by the 20th-century Japanese Mingei movement, whose founder, philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, sought to embrace the “arts of the people.” Following this logic, Colombo and Kokkonen reexamine Finnish history and material culture through an ethnologic and anthropologic lens, focusing less on author- ship than on innovation and technology around themes of form making, ergonomics, archetypes, and dietary practices. Certainly, masters like Alvar Aalto, Eero Aarnio, Kaj Franck, Yrjö Kukkapuro, Timo Sarpaneva, and Tapio Wirkkala are not overlooked, but their inventions, like Aalto’s bent L-leg or Kukkapuro’s ergonomic fiberglass chair shells, are contextualized within this macro narrative.

Ice-spike shoes such as these – made of steel, wood, and rope – were used in Finland for winter seine fishing since the 15th century. These are from Rymättylä (western Finland).

The exhibition, which ran until February of this year at the Eliel Saarinen-designed museum, employed a grid structure of carbon-fiber tubes to display the objects without hierarchy. The book achieves a similar neutrality by presenting one item per page, beautifully photographed and accompanied by a short caption that reads more like verse than a conventional catalogue entry — Colombo describes it as being “like a user’s guide.” Of the hundreds of objects, some stand out as significant milestones in human development, such as a scale model for a nuclear- waste canister. As Colombo explains, “There are over 4 miles of tunnels excavated under the Finnish bedrock for spent nuclear-fuel repositories. They will eventually hold over 3,000 copper canisters, lined with nodular-graphite cast iron, designed to last 100,000 years” and to withstand ice ages and all sorts of other apocalyptic scenarios in the far future.

Nuclear waste canister overpack (2014); Image: Posiva.

Within the context of Finnish culture, the author-curators were interested in how we think about design so as to understand how we are shaping our future. They critique, for example, a pervasive but misinformed mindset regarding recycling — “if items can be recycled,” says Colombo, encapsulating this flawed logic, “then it must be good for the environment even if we dispose of them.” The book’s final section, “Operating Systems,” looks closely into how “we as users and makers function within a network,” using statistics to relay the “social life” of objects. It’s yet to be confirmed if the exhibition will travel to the United States, but the book alone suggests that Colombo and Kokkonen have broken new ground with their approach to archaeology and ethnology in the history of material culture.

All images courtesy the Finnish Heritage Agency.

Man Matter Metamorphosis — 10,000 Years of Design by Florencia Colombo and Ville Kokkonen (The Finnish Heritage Agency, 2018)

Originally published in PIN–UP Magazine, Spring Summer, issue 26.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s