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Climbing High on Helsinki Design Standards

June 15, 1986|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

HELSINKI, Finland — Even if your personal tastes tend toward baroque or ornate styles, you can hardly help appreciating the consistent quality and high design standards of Finnish goods.

In Helsinki, examples are everywhere: in the neat, clean lines of furnishings and accessories you see in homes and hotels, in the simple and elegant table settings used in restaurants, on fashion-conscious citizens and in merchandise displayed in modern shops.

A rich array of Finnish merchandise, especially handicrafts, is on display at the Senaatti Center at Unionkatu 27, occupying half a block in the heart of Helsinki's shopping district. The center has 26 individually owned shops and boutiques, as well as a dozen smaller kiosks. They sell items for the home, many ideal for gifts, and lovely wearables that exemplify Finland's fine design tradition.

The center occupies three buildings that date from the late 1700s. They were originally used by shopkeepers and from 1879 to 1930 housed Helsinki's famous Stockmann's department store. Then Helsinki's police station moved in, until 1980, when the buildings were restored.

Delightful and Different

The Senaati Center opened in 1984. It is a delightful, different and convenient shopping environment, made all the more appealing by the high quality of merchandise sold by its various shops.

First-floor shops surround an airy, high-ceilinged area, with kiosks at spacious intervals throughout. A broad stairway leads to a balcony, also ringed by shops.

Most interesting of the several outstanding women's clothing boutiques is Titvi, the showroom for designer Titvi Kiaheimo's distinctive clothing. The shop is crowded with beautiful clothes, based on the traditional attire of Karelia, in Eastern Finland.

Titvi uses velvets, silks and brocades to create layered ensembles: slacks and knickers, ankle- and knee-length skirts, vests that end at waist ($60), hip or knee ($130), blouses ($52-$90), dresses (from $80), cloaks ($410 unlined, $490 lined with heavy cotton for warmth).

Comfortable and versatile, these fashions might have walked into modern Finland from a Renaissance painting, especially when worn with Titvi's romantic accessories, including variously sized handbags, envelopes and pouches of matching fabrics and wooden handles ($75), collars of silk and lace ($10-$45) or painted velvet, and close-fitting crown caps ($58) to be worn with matching scarfs.

Flair for the Dramatic

Titvi is usually in the shop on Fridays and Saturdays or by appointment to advise customers on color and style. Her clothes reflect her personal charm and are wonderful for women who dress with a flair for the dramatic.

The hand-loomed fabric called popana is another Finnish tradition. Woven from varicolored cotton rags, the material has been used through the ages for mats, rugs and bed coverings. You'll find examples of these at Multi Mani (many hands), as well as a lovely variety of warm jackets ($230 unlined, $250 lined), skirts and bulky blouses ($120) skillfully tailored from popana.

Bright Patterns

Color patterns are usually bright with asymetrical, geometric accents. Multi Mani also has one-of-a-kind velvet quilt coats ($290) and hand-painted cotton ensembles ($40 and up).

Kapsteena is the shop of designer Swanhild Abonde, whose hand-knit sweaters ($100 average), skirts ($60) and dresses ($165) are made of natural fibers (wool, linen, cotton) dyed with natural colors. The designs, often patterned after vintage clothing, are comfortable and durable, enhanced by textures in the knit. Kapsteena also sells handmade bed covers of quilt-patterned knit ($545, king-size).

Martta Karhi's elegant silk fashions are available only in her shop on the second floor. Dresses as well as skirt-and-blouse ensembles (about $500) are in a variety of solid colors, both subtle and spectacular, and lively floral prints. Best are the beaded evening gowns of silk and chiffon, shimmering and tastefully attention-getting. An excellent choice for women who dress conservatively but individually.

Children's clothing, accessories and toys are at Tsuppu. There are cuddly pink fun fur jackets ($120) and duffel coats, pinafores, suits of all sorts and knit neckties in miniature, as well as baby bunting. Tiny tea sets and doll house furniture are adorable, as are the porcelain dolls ($10 and up) and a white wicker doll carriage trimmed with lace ($165).

Delightful Country Scenes

Linens for grown-ups are sold at Ulla & Stina, where charming hand-painted and silk-screened cotton fabrics, including delightful country scenes, are stitched into large pillow cases ($10) and quilt covers ($36, twin-size only; the Finns usually use two twin-size blankets on larger beds, thereby giving each sleeper greater individual mobility). Ulla & Stina also has decorative items for kitchen (potholders cost $8) and bath (robes cost $45), often with hearts or floral motifs.

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