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A summer house near the lake district of Lohja in southern Finland

As the working week draws to a close, large numbers of Finns prepare to leave their city apartments and head for cosy weekend cottages. Once there, many will choose to strip off and spend the evening between the steaming sauna and the ice-cold lake, stopping only to drink beer and eat a simple meal, before jumping back into the sauna and beginning the cycle again. It is not uncommon for the sauna to be on from 4pm until midnight as Finns indulge in what is a national ritual.

In this country of 5.4m inhabitants – the most sparsely populated in the EU – it is estimated there are about 3m saunas or roughly one per household. Some homes even have two – one electric and one wood-fired – and even those living in studio flats will often squeeze one into a corner.

The sauna is so important to Finnish life that it is not unusual, when building a new cottage, for the sauna to be created first. The rest of the rooms are then added afterwards. And, just as with bathrooms elsewhere in the world, there are fashions in sauna decor.

“Currently the trend is for natural wood but there has also been a fashion for black,” says Katriina Nuutinen, a lighting designer.

“Building a new sauna is a significant expense, but it’s such an important part of Finnish life that everyone finds a way to have access to a sauna. If they can’t afford it then usually someone in the family will have one that they can use.”

At the top end of the scale, building a new sauna can cost upwards of £30,000, with some even stretching to £100,000 for a log cabin with three chambers, sauna, washroom (with several showers) and a changing room. It is often the one area of a Finnish house where people like to show off.

Contemporary table lamp in Finnish wood cabin

“It’s about being social and welcoming your friends so it can often be the showpiece of the house more than the main living space,” says Hanna Francis, a designer who is half-Finnish. “There may be a terrace outside to sit on. Some people install tiny lights on the ceiling to look like stars and it is often really stylish and design-led.”

Many Finns have a second home, which they use regularly. Whereas in Norway the cottages tend to be remote and used mainly for holidays, in Finland going to the country for the weekend is common. The forests are dense and there are about 188,000 lakes and 179,000 islands, meaning there is plenty of room for everyone to find their own remote spot just a short drive from the city. Some cottages in the north of the country, towards Lapland, even have access to skiing and winter sports.

Interior designer Nina Mäklin says like many of the older generation, her parents are uncomfortable in cities and prefer to be in the country whenever possible. “That is quite typical of many Finns. Homes in cities tend to be . . . quite boxy and plain; the colour comes from the accessories. There is usually enough room for the family’s needs but no more, so they don’t have dining rooms and playrooms but one open-plan kitchen and living space.”

Oksa wallhook, £65, hannafrancis.com

Finns like to furnish their cottages with colourful rag rugs, which are often homemade using offcuts from old clothes and pieces of fabric. Curtains are changed according to the seasons, while cushions and other soft furnishings often come from Finnish design brands, such as Marimekko, while trinkets and ornaments by Iittala are popular.

“There has been a massive interior design boom in Finland so people like to experiment with items that are easy to change, such as curtains, cushions and accessories, while keeping the base fairly safe,” says Mäklin.

“They are very price-conscious and appreciate good quality everyday items but, at the same time, they want their homes to represent their taste, individuality and originality, so you will find a mix of design classics, flea market finds and Ikea all existing comfortably together, while the base of white walls and wooden floors remains relatively safe.”

Elina Kopola from TrendWorks, a company specialising in trend research, says bright colours work particularly well in Finland. “There’s something about the quality of the light that really makes the colours pop. I have masses of Iittala glassware in my house in England but it doesn’t stand out in quite the same way as it would back in Finland,” she says.

“The Finns are very close to nature and a lot of the internal decor reflects this,” says Hanna Francis.

Plants, flowers and animals all feature heavily on textiles that tend to be patterned with strong graphic outlines, often in black and white, and filled with bright colours, including strong, almost primary reds, oranges and yellows with blues and greens also popular.

It is a colour palette that tries to make the most of the climate, says Francis. “Summer is so short that everyone wants to make the most of it and to remember it when it’s gone,” she adds.

Time and again the theme of practicality is raised. Many Finns own a loom and make their own rugs. Huge communal washing lines hang alongside the lakes for everyone to hang their rugs on when they are washed in spring, and curtains are hung from simple clips that mean they can be taken down and washed or changed in a matter of moments.

“Tablecloths are very important as are paper napkins,” says Francis. “It’s both practical and decorative, which is a very Finnish trait.”

Henna Lamberg, of VAJA Finland, which makes ceramics, says the table is an important part of Finnish decor. “We have a long tradition of well-designed tableware and there’s no house or cottage in Finland without pieces by Arabia or Iittala.

“The rest of the cottage tends to be very simple. No art on the walls, maybe just some fabric, and sofas tend to be plain wooden with cushions rather than soft ones.”

Finnish folk art is another strong influence on the country’s designers, many of whom reference the Kalevala, the national epic poem, in their work. Compiled in the 19th century by Elias Lönnrot, the Kalevala’s animals, birds and characters come from traditional Finnish folk tales and often find their way into graphics and patterns made by even contemporary designers.

Bordering Sweden and Russia, Finland is a country that has fought hard to forge its own national identity. Both countries have controlled it at various points and, until the 1950s, Finland was a largely agrarian nation. Industrialisation, when it came, was rapid and Finns moved to the cities in large numbers seeking work. The country is now consistently ranked among the highest in the world for quality of life and education. In 2010, Newsweek magazine ranked it the best country in the world.

Minna Kemell-Kutvonen, the creative director of Marimekko, possibly the most famous Finnish brand in the world, says Finland has been influenced by both east and west. “The Finnish aesthetic is based on functionalism and usability, always with a touch of human warmth,” she says. “Marimekko design is very Finnish. It expresses east and west, the meeting point of two cultures. Clarity and functionality comes from Scandinavia – from the east comes emotion, warmth and prolific decoration.”

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