The University of Art and Design came into being 125 years ago (1871), when a handicraft school, here called the School of Applied Arts, was established in Helsinki by a decree of the Imperial Senate and using the corresponding school in Stockholm as model.

The Market Place and the Seurahuone
The Market Place and the Seurahuone
©Photograph: Helsinki City Museum. 45390

Many events coincided at the time of the founding of the School of Applied Arts. To illuminate the background means looking back as far as to the previous century.

In Turku the esteem of handicraft and likewise the quality of its products had improved, and a considerable amount of masters in different skills were active there. Further development was, however, restricted by the narrow rules of the guild system. The rise of industrialism put new challenges to the training in techniques as well as commerce and industrial art.

Helsinki in the middle of the nineteenth century was a small town of civil servants and merchants. Industry was only in its initial phase. Nevertheless, the town strove to follow international development. 'The handicraft industry is primitive and unproductive. The beauty and elaboration of our products are of minor interest. There is no technical civilization. Our factories have to employ foremen and even workers from abroad, the Technical School would need foreign vocational teachers', August Fredrik Soldan writes in 1862, after a visit to the World's Exhibition in London. Soldan was a graduate in engineering and one of the persons who established the School of Applied Arts in Helsinki.

Still, it was necessary to take part in international exchange. Accordingly there was Finnish partaking in the World's Fair of Stockholm in 1866 on a large front. The number of Finnish exhibitors was 270 and their success fare.

A school of arts and crafts had been founded in Stockholm already in the year 1846, its curriculum following German and Danish models. The Swedish school, though not of the highest standards, influenced the establishing of the Helsinki School of Applied Arts in many ways.

Drawing had been taught at the Turku Academy already before this. The Finnish Society of Crafts and Design was constituted in 1846, and the first art school opened in Turku the same year and another in Helsinki 1848. The roots of art education in Finland can be found in two directions: in the home education of the higher social classes and in the training of artisans. The starting point was teaching the art of drawing. Special drawing schools trained teachers of drawing for the ordinary schools in Finland during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The Turning Point

A school reform lined out towards the end of the 1860s was, of course, not a fast or dramatic one given the then Grand Duchy of Finland. Still, it staked out the central turning points for a change, also in developing the arts and crafts education. Initiator was professor C.G. Estlander.

In the elementary education Estlander esteemed nearness to practice highest; that was the only way to improve the skills of the Finnish people. His special interest was to develop elementary education for industry and handicrafts. Besides, industrial art, left in a grey zone between art and handicraft, was an essential part of the modern way of life. The abolition of the guild system left a large gap in the education of arts and crafts. The skill of the artisans was declining.

A more practical approach had to be chosen for the education, with art proper and industrial art in close cooperation with each other. Estlander thought that the schools working only on Sundays did not meet the requirements. But abroad he could see good examples of how to develop the education for the industry and industrial art. But you had to find the intermediating factor needed between aristocratic art and common education. For the artistic skill it was an absolute necessity to maintain contact with 'art proper'.

The spring meeting of the Art Society inspired to an assembly on the 20th of September 1870 at the Seurahuone. Professor Zacharias Topelius was the chairman, and he worked out a decision for making a move to establish a handicraft school in Helsinki. Estlander presented a curriculum. On the 16th of November the Senate decreed for a grant to the board of directors to establish the school. Nine senators then designed a constitutional document on the 11th of January, 1871; the School of Applied Art was officially opened in the Kansakoulu school building in Kasarmikatu 21.

Kasarmikatu 21
Kasarmikatu 21 (C.L. Engel, 1836) left centre.
©Photograph: A.E. Rosenbröijer. Helsinki City Museum. 42032