Shop Review: Iittala Outlet Arabia in Helsinki

By Sally McGrane
January 3, 2010

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If you had to condense the philosophy behind Finnish home furnishings to one sentence, it might be this: high-quality design should be beautiful, functional and affordable. Still, window-shopping in Helsinki can result in serious sticker shock. On the northern outskirts of town sits a solution: the Iittala outlet store at the Arabia ceramics factory.

Built in 1874, the factory, which has spawned over 20 outlet stores around the country, produces tableware for the Arabia and Iittala brands. There, the on-site outlet store Iittala outlet Arabia offers a crash course in 20th- and 21st-century Finnish design — not to mention discounts of up to 25 percent. Selections range from classic, amoeba-shaped Alvar Aalto vases to contemporary glassware and flatware, along with slightly irregular and special-edition items.

The outlet store stocks contemporary glass and flatware lines at regular prices. But the deals are to be found in the slightly irregular offerings. On a given day, you might find elegant Kartio drinking glasses for 4 euros, or $5.60 at $1.40 to the euro, down from 5.45 euros, or KoKo mugs for 9 euros each. A classic glass vase by Aalto can be had for 74 euros (regular price: 99 euros).

Located in a renovated shopping area that used to be part of the factory floor, the outlet store isn’t the factory’s only draw. The ninth floor is home to the Arabia Art Department Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to ceramic art, as well as individual artists’ studios, which can be visited by appointment. Also on the ninth floor is the Arabia Museum. The museum’s ceramics collection takes you through the evolution of the factory’s designs, from the first mug (1874) to colorfully glazed art pieces from the 1950s and ’60s. The collection wraps up with contemporary pieces, like the spare, graceful plates, bowls and cups designed for the company’s KoKo line in 2005.

Cara McCarty, the curatorial director at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York has been an admirer of Finnish design since her first trip to the country in 1974, and is a regular visitor to the store and factory. “It’s a great way to get an overview of Finnish design today,” she said.

Tours of the factory itself can be arranged in advance at “I always recommend the tour to young students of design and art history,” Ms. McCarty said. “You learn what it means to mass-produce ceramic. It’s all about the process.”

Iittala outlet Arabia, Arabiakeskus, Hameentie 135, Helsinki; (358-204) 39-3507; Open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.