Creative Conversations: Cara McCarty
Cara McCarty is the Director of Curatorial at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and also the international friend of Helsinki's Habitare Design fair 2018. We sat down with McCarty to discuss past and future of Finnish design.
How did your passion with Finnish design start?
The Design Research store was my first introduction to Finnish design. As a child, I lived for a while in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the first Design Research store opened in 1953. I would go to the store after school, play and hang out there with a classmate who modelled their children’s Marimekko dresses. There were not many places to go and see contemporary design, let alone foreign design, so DR had a huge impact on me and ultimately my career. My mother bought me Marimekko textiles so I could sew my own clothes, my sister got an Aalto desk and chair from the store, and my parents bought a Marimekko-upholstered sofa, designed by the store founder Ben Thompson, for our living room. They still use the sofa. Since then, Finnish design has been essential and influential to me throughout my life and career.
Why was the store so unique?
It was an exhilarating, joyful feeling going to the store. It was unlike any other store. All the contemporary designs went very well together in the old homes in Cambridge. The friction created by juxtaposing the old and contemporary was perfect. There was also a Design Research in San Francisco. The store was a formative experience for many people working in the design field.
Tell us about your first visit to Finland.
In 1974, I went to Switzerland to work on a farm for a few months after finishing high school. I then took a train all the way up to Stockholm, and then an overnight ferry to Finland. It was a week before the midsummer. Sailing through the archipelago silhouetted by a huge orange sun on the horizon felt like a transition to another world! I sat on the deck the whole night. It was the most romantic, glorious way to arrive in Finland. I had a Finnish friend with whom I celebrated midsummer. We then drove all over the country, visiting Alvar Aalto’s buildings, picking mushrooms at summer houses, and I had my first experience in a wood-burning sauna. It was total immersion in Finnish design, architecture, and nature. I was even introduced to Alvar Aalto in the Academic Bookstore! In Helsinki, I walked up and down the Esplanade lingering in the Arabia, Iittala, Marimekko, and Vuokko shops. The same beautiful designs were in people’s summer cottages, and I realized this is design for everybody, everywhere. It was a total sensorial experience. Even the orange and green trolleys in Helsinki were beautiful. Nature permeated every part of the Finnish lifestyle.
What makes Finnish design so distinctive?
It is difficult to talk about 20th and 21st century design without including Finland. It’s remarkable that some of the same designs produced today are the same as 50 years ago. And they still look fresh. The pure adorned forms of Kilta pieces and Iittala glass are very classical, highly functional, minimal, yet bold. They have an integrity that endures. By and large wood is Finland’s dominant material. When one flies into Finland, one sees endless forests and Alvar Aalto vase shapes between all the islands in the archipelago. Nature is one of your huge assets. Do you take it for granted?
What exciting is happening in Finnish design at the moment?
Finland is a forward-looking country, and it is ahead of the curve in many important areas: education, recycling, sustainability, mobility as a service, healthcare, textile research. The challenge is how to apply all the new research within industry. Design is an agent of change. It is about problem solving and the Finns excel at zeroing in and prioritizing ways to tackle relevant global issues. I’m intrigued by Helsinki’s ambitious goal to make the city car free by 2030, or 2035. The Finnish app, Whim, integrates all forms of shared and public transport into a subscription payment network where one can move fluidly from one mode of transport to another.
You are the International Friend of Habitare furniture fair this year. What are you expecting to experience and see during your visit to Finland in September?
My last visit to Helsinki was in 2009. Since then, there has been a lot of new development mostly along the waterfront in Helsinki so I’m looking forward to walking, walking, walking. Finland’s fashion scene is thriving so I am eager to check it out. I anticipate Habitare showcasing the latest home goods designs – ceramics, glass, furniture, lighting, textiles. And, of course the food and restaurant scene, which is deliciously healthy, and forward-thinking in terms of zero waste.
How about your favorite places in New York City?
New York is a continual work in progress. And it’s fantastic for walking. You walk 10 blocks and you are in a new neighborhood. I do some of my best thinking walking the varied, dynamic streets of New York City. I remain sane because of Central Park and the High Line, and I love getting to know Brooklyn's thriving creative communities like Williamsburg, Dumbo, and the Old Navy Yard. The Lower East Side has completely reinvented itself, from a crime-ridden neighborhood to a place with top quality restaurants, boutiques and galleries, while still retaining its character. The evolving variety, neighborhoods, cultural offerings and creativity coupled with an unpretentious edginess is energizing and appealing. We just need to tend to the crumbling infrastructure.
Interview and photos by Liisa Jokinen