Finland may be a relatively small country, but it's a giant when it comes to innovative interior design and lifestyle. Elegantly severe art deco and art nouveau structures and fortresslike Nordic buildings come alive -- even in the middle of winter -- with a warm rush of color, bright woods and flowing shapes that render the city livable and inviting.
Familiar names like Nokia, Marimekko, Artek and Iittala are fixtures in homes and life -- Jewish and otherwise -- across America. However, a visit to Finland is a must, especially if you are a design maven searching for new ways to breathe new life into your living space or a wardrobe built around clean lines.
The Helsinki Design District (www.designdistrict . fi), which has an infectious Bohemian vibe, is a must-tour for those who like their style cutting-edge and futuristic. Important spots include the shops of Lumi on 14 (amazing leather bags), Goodis, 2OR+ YAT, IVANAhelsinki (the "it" designer of the moment), Nessi Hovi, Helsinki 10 (a cool mix of new and vintage) and Hanna Sarén (whose wooden shoes figured into the final episodes of "Sex and the City").
The Esplanadi, Helsinki's main boulevard, is a stunning showcase for many of Finland's purveyors of modern lifestyle chic. Think of it as a dazzling interior-design-centric counterpart to Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue.
Helsinki's elegant Old World hotels have undisputed appeal, but to immerse yourself in the city's directional modern lifestyle, check into hotels like Glo (moderate, www.palacekamp.fi ) and the Klaus K (luxury, www. klauskhotel.com), where function and fashion go hand in hand, and simplicity couldn't be more alluring.
That 'Glo' Feeling
While Glo's location puts you front and center for all the shopping action, it's also within a few minutes walk from the Atheneum museum, the imposing Central Station, the design district and the waterfront. In addition, it also happens to be adjacent to the ornate and historic Hotel Kamp, and its lovely restaurant, should you need a break from all that newness.
Klaus K, just off to the side of the Esplanadi, represents modern Scandinavian design at its finest, in the caring hands of U.S.-born founder Marc Skvorc. The lobby itself is designed as a gallery, with exhibitions of rising-star artists, while its restaurants (Toscanini and Ilmatar) and lounge (Ahjo) feature divinely fresh cuisine, imaginative wine selections and truly inventive cocktails in bright ambient settings, all of which prove that clean lines and directional furnishings can be warm and inviting, rather than cold and corporate.
Chain hotels, like Crown Plaza and Radisson, follow suit with the whole "modern lifestyle" conceptualization, right down to their scene-happy bar/lounges and restaurants (Crown Plaza's Macu does the modern cuisine thing brilliantly, especially with its light fish dishes).
What makes this Radisson special is the way it curves around and hugs Helsinki's main synagogue. The strikingly cheerful mustard-yellow building serves the city's 3,000 Jewish residents, offers glimpses into the community's storied history and adjoins a kosher restaurant. Although the hotel's design in itself is appealing, it also frames and preserves what came before it.
Meanwhile, Saslik (Neitsytpolku 12) not only offers another respite from modern life (the restaurant's decor is decorative-arts-museum-meets-Grandma's-living-room), but a hearty, homey meal that just may take you back to childhood (especially if you come from an Ashkenazi background), with outstandingly fresh lox, herring, potatoes, veggies and meats arranged on plates that go on for days.
Tallinn, Estonia -- accessible by various ferry services -- is the photographic negative perspective to Helsinki's angular, edgy glamour. While several neighborhoods are dotted with boxy glass buildings that house malls, restaurants and corporate offices (all of which play a role in the city's re-emerging economy), the true heart of Tallinn is the old city, with its winding cobblestone streets and and storybook charm.
The heart of Tallinn's Jewish community -- which, like the economy, is springing back to life -- can be found on the edge of a green expanse that is also home to the area's palaces and cultural institutions.
The Tallinn New Synagogue (16 Karu St., Tallinn, 10124), consecrated on May 16, 2007, is a three-dimensional metaphor of rebirth and enlightenment rendered in glass, warm dark woods, tree sculptures and nature-inspired accents.
It also houses the city's first kosher restaurant, and is adjacent to surviving older institutions, such as the Jewish school.
Meanwhile, if like many another Jewish traveler, you worship at the altar of a great bargain -- or just want to view some relics from Tallinn's recent past -- a Sunday visit to the city's Recycling Center (a high-concept flea market devised by Oxford-educated entrepreneurs who intended to provide an "eco-friendly counterbalance to the city's increasingly capitalistic culture") offers a perfect statement about how concepts of Utopia can change from one era to the next.
An eco-friendly buzz is also being sounded loud and clear throughout Helsinki. One thing that never changes, though, is a great buy that balances past and present in your own living space back home ... whether it's a complete ceramic tea set for $3 from Tallinn's Recycling Center or stunning, pricey Marimekko linens from the Esplanadi.
For more information, log on to the Web at: www. hel2.fi/tourism/EN/matko.asp.