In the exhibition Design for Every Body you can listen (only in Finnish) a conversation between curator and writer Nimco Hussein and graphic designer and artist Kiia Beilinson about the themes of the exhibition.
Museums have traditionally been considered havens of research information and expertise. Museum curators have been authorities in their fields and their views have not been questioned. Today, the idea that museums and exhibitions present absolute truths about the world seems outdated. Museums are increasingly seen as places where the visitors themselves produce knowledge and understanding of the world, based on what they see.
The work of a curator is still rooted in individual views and choices, however. On this site, you can read a conversation between Beilinson and Hussein in which the two design professionals seek to provoke ideas on the many ways to approach the themes of the exhibition. Beilinson and Hussein have both, in their own work, addressed questions of equality and representation in design.
You can read the commentary below:
Nimco: Welcome to our discussion as part of the Designed for Every Body exhibition. I am Nimco Kulmiye Hussein and with me here is Kiia Beilinson.
Kiia: We are sitting here in the central hall of the Design Museum, invited by the curators Anna Vihma and Kaisu Savola, to provide an outsider’s perspective to the themes present in the exhibition. That said, the two of us will obviously be unable to cover all angles and perspectives and we will be discussing these topics within the context of our personal backgrounds and experiences. Nimco, could you tell us a little bit about your background?
Nimco: My work draws from queer-feminist and postcolonial practices spanning art, design and culture, among other things, and my primary mediums would be writing and curation. I recently received my master’s degrees from Aalto University and Central Saint Martins.
Kiia: As for me, I’m a graphic designer and artist, I work as a freelancer in the field of arts and culture. I have a Master’s in art from Aalto University, which is also where I currently work as a visiting teacher to facilitate a critical thinking reading group for students in the Bachelor’s Program in Visual Communication Design. I also co-run a university-wide elective course focusing on the decolonization of studies with Miia Laine.
Speaking of critical thinking, I’ll mention at the outset that, although criticism might generally be perceived as somewhat negative, I would argue that it’s actually first and foremost aligned with matters of care. Critical review and discussion are, in my view, some of the primary tools we have for developing and improving things in the world. Although Finland is relatively progressive in many social aspects, equality is never ’’finished’’ and the pursuit for a more just and equal society is a process that requires constant review, thinking and learning about the nature of mutually diverse groups of people.
Nimco: I agree. Criticality allows us to have discussions, share knowledge and create new perspectives and ways to rethink concepts of equality and non-discrimination.
When it comes to the concepts of equality and non-discrimination, both principles strive to achieve the same goal but go about it in different ways: equality is the notion that all humans are born as equals. However, because our society still discriminates against certain demographics, we need non-discriminatory action to ensure these groups can participate in society regardless of their, say, ability, sex, cultural or ethnic background or other individual traits.
What’s interesting about design and the history of design is that they serve as prologues to historical events, connecting our past to current societal conditions.
Let’s kick things off with a familiar topic: Finland as a welfare state and the role of design in public spaces. Who’s been designing Finland, and in what ways? How have the concepts of equality and non-discrimination changed over the years?
Kiia: I’d also like to mention that this discussion approaches the field of design broadly and we’ll be using other all-encompassing terms, such as planning and the English word design in reference to the various realms of design.
Welfare State & Public Space
Nimco: So let’s begin with public space, which is where we are right now. The concepts of equality and non-discrimination have played a major part in the process of building the Finnish welfare state. Just by looking around you, it’s clear we are surrounded by design that was consciously created to make everyday life easier and better. Design has been utilized to create an aesthetically pleasing, functional environment – through, for example, city planning and product design. A great number of these services and products can even be thought of as a kind of ’’invisible’’ design, key examples being city planning and the furnishing of public spaces.
On the other hand, are the services and products in welfare states designed only for those who are already doing well?
Kiia: Our society certainly appears quite different to the non-disabled and the fit-for-work population than to, say, someone with a long-term illness or other disabilities. And from a city dweller’s perspective, it seems as though a large portion of public space is also commercial space. I would argue that the nature of the welfare state and public spaces today are strongly mediated by capitalist norms, such as work and efficiency.
Does a person have to be productive in order to feel like a valuable member of the welfare state in the 2020s? Has any room been left for rest or idleness in the public space?
Nimco: It’s clear to me that no person should be defined by their ability to work or to be productive. Everyone should have access to environments that enable not only work but also daily life.
Rest and idleness bring to mind libraries, waiting areas at health centres and park benches. These all have their own design language. Libraries, such as Helsinki Central Library] Oodi, have been designed to offer a wide range of services to their visitors – both in terms of function, and convenience or comfort. Waiting areas at public health clinics have been specifically furnished to best accommodate the various needs of different age groups.
Kiia: Waiting rooms are often designed to be calm and soothing. The bodily experience plays an essential role in how we navigate public spaces. This experience is unique since not all bodies are alike but instead come in different sizes and with different abilities. What facilities, routes or furniture are accommodating and which are exclusionary? In this sense, the idea of a universal design standard is challenging; whose body fits the standard, who is it suitable and unsuitable for? Can there ever be an objective, functional design standard for, say, a chair such as the Kari chair that’s part of the exhibition, when the user experience is always subjective? For example, the seats on public transport and aeroplanes are often unsuitable for many bodies although their dimensions are based on general standards.
Nimco: Indeed. Let’s take park benches as an example of furniture designed for rest purposes in public spaces. The term placemaking is used in urban planning, which means creating public environments that not only serve a functional purpose but also bring joy to a variety of people.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Hostile architecture or hostile design is used precisely to deter unwanted behaviour. The removal of seating from parks or designing the available benches in ways that make idling or sleeping impossible are examples of this. This kind of design is considered to be inhumane and has faced plenty of criticism, for good reason too, since it excludes, for example, people without housing, and it makes a conscious effort to keep certain groups of people away from public spaces. The case for hostile design is made by those who claim it’s making urban spaces more aesthetically pleasing and more functional.
Shouldn’t everyone be able to enjoy the benefits of public space?
Kiia: Perhaps this is exactly why the importance of inclusive design, or design that is available for all, should be emphasised when we talk about city planning. An example here in Finland is Femma Planning, whose work takes into consideration the principles of inclusive, feminist and accessible urban design. Participatory planning also plays a part in ensuring that the design process includes a diverse group of voices and ideas from the community. The results of this kind of planning reflect that diversity.
Kiia: City planning that strives for equality is increasingly concerned with issues of accessibility. Let’s expand on what is meant by the term: here, accessibility refers to the design of a physical environment so that it is useable for everyone, regardless of their bodies and abilities. Accessibility can also refer to the way information is received and understood, especially in a digital environment. Accessible design includes not only the aforementioned park benches and rest areas but also thresholds, stairs, ramps, elevators, door frames, railings and other space and walkway related features that might function as a barrier for those with limited mobility, such as someone using a wheelchair or someone pushing a baby stroller. Accessibility is something we should always concern ourselves with as it can change for any one of us at any time – and the change will happen to us all, as we get older, for example.
Nimco: It’s been wonderful to get to know Ulla-Kirsti Junttila’s pioneering work in accessibility design, some of which can be seen in the exhibition. Junttila is known for, among other things, her SURAKU-models, which are also on display in the exhibition. Junttila’s work is a sort of invisible design, the kind one barely notices when it’s been well executed – an indication that the urban environment is functional for most people.
Aesthetics and functionality don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Even restoration projects of buildings of cultural significance should take into account modern accessibility standards.
But isn’t it time to think beyond the wheelchair symbol? For instance, how are sensory limitations or other sensitivities taken into account in a public space?
Kiia: These are all good points when exploring the accessibility of public spaces. In my opinion, this conversation could also involve forms of communication such as signs and signals, announcements and alerts. Some good examples of this are the braille and other signs for people with vision impairment at Kamppi’s shopping centre and the excellent acoustic properties at the Oodi central library, to name a few.
Nimco: What types of public spaces are designed to suit as many different people as possible? What kind of accessibility design is needed today?
Kiia: When we talk about issues of accessibility, we should not only regard the physical aspects but also the economic, cognitive, social and cultural considerations, which also vary among people. Does spending time in an urban space require a certain level of solvency? Is idling allowed? How is the sense of security created? Who is keeping an eye on whom?
Nimco: These terms and concepts are in constant flux and are actively reviewed. Accessibility is part of a larger and constant process, one that aims to take into account and respond to different needs with the best possible know-how and competence. These kinds of discussions concern each of us, whether we are talking about issues of accessibility or non-discriminatory design. How can we promote these themes together in the near future? Whose voices are not yet being heard, who is missing from the debate and how do we include those perspectives in our conversations?
Kiia: As a designer, it’s interesting to think about my own position and privileged status as a decision-maker. Who becomes a designer? What kinds of conditions support that career path? Who or what validates a designer? Who has the opportunity to even consider working in such a field? And who is it that we are designing for, or designing on the behalf of? Who has the agency? Does a ‘for us by us’ model of design exist? Do we have a need for such a design concept?
It seems to me that the history and the canon of design are heavily constructed around the work of individual designers, the so-called heroes and geniuses of the genre. While it’s clear that the work and success of some individual designers are rightfully recognized, it’s easy to overlook how this success happens and the factors that make it possible.
Nimco: It’s important for us to consider the frame of reference that enables success for designers on the individual level, namely the conventions of any historical period that dictate who has the opportunity to study the profession. Who gets labelled a design genius by the media? Typically male designers are the ones seen as the heroes of design, which leads to their names being lifted in the upper echelons of history, their work and status widely recognized and unchallenged.
Kiia: However, even these revered individual designers stand on the shoulders of others: there are vast support systems backing their work. The success story of Alvar Aalto would undoubtedly look different without his partner, the designer Aino Marsio-Aalto, and later, Elissa Aalto. The same goes for Ilmari Tapiovaara, who created his work in collaboration with his partner Annikki Tapiovaara, although the majority of the design studio’s work was only signed by Ilmari Tapiovaara – a telling sign of the times. Concrete evidence of this can be found in the design archives, where the works catalogued under Annikki Tapiovaara’s name are considered inconsequential next to those of Ilmari Tapiovaara.
Nimco: Archives are collections or records that have been selected for permanent preservation by institutions such as museums, often presented in the form of exhibitions. How is an archive created? How have archival methods changed over time? How does time affect the status and reputation of different designers? And what factors are responsible for exclusion from the archives?
Kiia: What are the structural systems and support mechanisms that uphold success and longevity? It feels like the socially adept and verbally gifted extroverts are the ones who do well, get recognized and cement their names in history as ’’heroes’’ of the industry. The same logic applies today with (social) media and public persona: who is able to communicate their work and their personality successfully? Who does well in interviews? Extensive social connections and the gift of gab can lend an edge over others – class, self-esteem and the level of career guidance and support received from an early age all have an impact. In this sense, what can we do to create a more diverse, less white or less middle-class design paradigm in Finland?
Nimco: The design archives also illustrate the gendered nature of the industry; archival methods reflect how the importance of work by minority designers is measured in relation to the dominant culture. Howard Smith, an African American designer who had a long career in Finland, was awarded recognition significantly later compared to his peers.
Kiia: Maija Heikinheimo, on the other hand, was a single and childless designer whose work never had the opportunity to be documented by relatives or family. Ceramic artist, Esteri Tomula, was someone whose career was impacted by her gender and non-normative, short stature, she was obliged to become a decorative painter, which is now the work she’s best known for. Andreas Alariesto, a designer with Sámi heritage, never received the same level of visibility in his career as many designers from the mainstream culture.
Nimco: When designers and design perspectives are diverse, the products of design will also be more diverse. When considering the representation visible in design catalogues and design products, it’s interesting to direct the gaze at the designer themself and to consider the contexts the objects were created in and the kinds of Finns behind these stories.
Kiia: Here in the exhibition space you will notice that the works on display are mainly depictions of white Finns by other white Finns – the few exceptions oscillate between exoticization and infantilization. With these examples it’s clear that the depiction of minority groups does not come from within the group itself, instead, the external perspectives speak volumes about the time period, its prejudices and attitudes.
Nimco: We can analyse these works individually to get a sense of whether the influence has been motivated by reciprocity or appropriation. Who is inspired by whom? During the 60s and 70s, Kaj Franck was keenly interested in Duodji, the traditional Sámi handicraft and design technique. We can only speculate on the details of that particular relationship, but these days designers working with minority cultures should critically examine their own motives as well as who benefits from this working relationship.
Kiia: These days, Duodji has its own trademark, which is controlled by the Sámi community and protects the tradition and copyrights of Sámi handicrafts. But why in this case does the responsibility of copyright and cultural preservation fall solely on the Sámi community instead of the Nordic States in which these Sámi communities live? Similar trademarks, such as the Joutsenmerkki, Avainlippu and Finnish Design, signify and protect authentic Finnish handicrafts and design.
The design cultures of indigenous peoples and other minorities have often been perceived as separate from the industrial, or ’’official’’ Western art and design cultures. These traditions are often categorized using prefixes such as indigenous art, thereby creating separation. In the Finnish design context, it’s interesting how non-existent the treatment of Romani culture, aesthetics, design and fashion has been. A welcome exception is Few Magazine, founded a few years ago by Tino Nyman and Marina Veziko, on display here as well.
Nimco: In that particular project, it’s crucial to observe how narratives are created and how records are formed within the community itself. There is an understanding that’s rooted in direct experience and expertise when working with and from within the culture and traditions firsthand.
Kiia: This is a fascinating point, especially with regard to traditional knowledge and non-literary, non-western knowledge. In many cultures, the oral tradition plays a more significant role than writing. How is this type of information recorded and archived? How have documentation techniques, such as literacy and the printing press, affected what is documented? How does information spread and what becomes historical record? This is an instrument of power. Who conducts the research and whose interests are being considered during the research process?
Some good examples are AIDA (Arctic Indigenous Design Archive), which is a part of this exhibition, and a joint exhibition by the National Gallery and the Inari based museum of Sámi culture, Siida. The exhibition, called Kotiinpaluu (Homecoming), is a major repatriation project where Sámi objects in the possession of the National Museum are returned to the Sámi community.
Nimco: This brings to mind the role of gatekeepers; how does something ultimately end up in the archives? Who decides what is important and worth preserving, what kind of information is recorded and subsequently shared? Behind the institutions and publishers are individual decision-makers, this is why it’s so crucially important for institutions to prioritize the diversity of staff in these roles as well. This diversification would allow us to consider a wider range of stories and their respective significance, stories that we can then record, preserve and share in the form of exhibitions, for example.
Kiia: Quotas are an important part of the non-discrimination toolkit. Once it’s evident that a number of population groups are missing entirely from the archives, implementing quotas can help balance out the representation of these groups – demographically speaking. For example, like, we need at least 10% more of this group to be represented here …
Nimco: Exemplary policies and practices for institutional equality can also be found in other so-called welfare states. So it’s a good idea to observe how these discussions are conducted in other places. Conversations being had elsewhere have the potential to contribute to the fight for equality in this country as well.
Kiia: I think that design also plays a pretty big role in how norms are created and what’s considered as standard or ’’normal’’. This often comes through repetition: we need to see diverse representation of people and bodies regularly, not only in the results of design processes but also among professionals, such as designers, professors, directors of museums and other visible roles in design…
Nimco: As well as diverse urban spaces, diverse ways of navigating public spaces, diverse lobby furniture. How can we learn to view design with a fresh perspective? Design and the environment are changing and we are agents in this change. What do we wish to see more of? What do we want to promote? What do we want to change?
Kiia: All of this can expand our horizons. We are not looking to change things just for the sake of change. However, we can learn to see the world from the perspective of others, through new eyes.
Nimco: Design can also include playful elements; it allows us to speculate on all the potential things we can change and do differently. This, in my opinion, is the foundation of a Nordic design language that can be playful and offers the ability to see the world in different ways. It’s important to recognise that we are also always in the process of making design history. Can we contribute to our own history in a positive way while keeping an eye on the future of things to come?
Kiia: Design is not only a reaction to the world, through design we can also create our reality. Influence is happening in both directions.
Nimco: Absolutely. And there are multiple voices involved. There isn’t just one history or a neutral, objective point of view. Everyone has the right to participate in the discourse because design is happening around us every day.
English translation: Joni Judén & Kaitlyn D. Hamilton, TUO TUO