If Helsinki was an object, what would it be? It's an oddball question, yet product designer Ville Kokkonen wastes no effort in his description. 'It's a conductor's podium in front of the orchestra, not mass-produced, copied - but powerful and eccentric.' An apt and timely metaphor. Helsinki is having sort of a renaissance - it scores highly on liveability indices and recently the World Economic Forum ranked Finland fourth in global competitiveness, edging out the US and Germany. Helsinki is also preparing to be World Design Capital next year, adding a cool rosy gloss to the destination. Meanwhile, home-grown design companies such as Kokkonen's Artek, where he sits at the helm as design director, are playing their part in brand-building 'Finland Inc'. Artek is a Helsinki-based company best known as the collective established in 1935 by a group of Finnish idealists that included legendary architect and designer Alvar Aalto, who aimed to improve daily urban life by bringing together various artistic disciplines with a humane approach. One example is Aalto's Paimio chair, made of Finnish birch with seating angles designed to help the breathing of tuberculosis sufferers. While the company has exchanged hands over the years, Artek still reissues Aalto's original designs and aims to develop new products with a nod to the company's founding principles. But does living in Aalto's shadow prove challenging? 'It's quite the opposite. It's beneficial to have a great starting point. It would [be] disappointing not to have such a predecessor,' the 35-year-old says confidently. Unsurprisingly, Kokkonen recommends seeing Aalto's studio (Studio Aalto), which is 'just outside the city centre with a very high and elegant ceiling. This space has fascinating stories linked to Aalto's career and life.' He also recommends visiting the academic bookstore (Akateeminen Kirjakauppa). 'It is the best in the world, with lots of unique interior details designed by Aalto.' His other favourite buildings by Aalto include the 1930s Restaurant Savoy, one of Aalto's first large-scale interior designs, which is 'still very elegant, and has not lost its charm'; the Enso Headquarters now occupied by Stora Enso - a pulp and paper manufacturer - with 'beautiful marble facade and great use of lighting fixtures'; and Finlandia Hall for a concert. Like his predecessor, Kokkonen isn't shy to make his opinion known on the state of design. 'The only way to make a difference is to be radical. Designers and products have increased, and quality has not,' he says. 'We try to solve problems. We research how home and domestic life changes. Usually product designers create in a vacuum.' Kokkonen's latest project was launched last month at Dover Street Market during the London Design Festival. The White collection, which has four light products, came about as Kokkonen felt light had been ignored in favour of fixture design. 'We wanted it to be about the light, not the form - it was about perfecting the white light.' During the two-year R&D phase, they conducted 'shadow studies' to diminish the levels on the final product. The collection also contains a therapeutic light product which Kokkonen hopes will help people with seasonal affective disorder and other ailments. When it comes to real light, he is entranced by Helsinki in January, which he says is the most beautiful time of the year. He loves, 'feeling the heat of the light on your face while standing on ice right in front of the harbour'. Born and raised in Helsinki, Kokkonen lives in a 19th century building in the city centre, next to an old dock. He returned to the city after studying in Canada and went to work for the University of Art and Design in Helsinki between 2001 and 2004. He subsequently began his own consultancy. Artek hired him in 2006, and three years later he was appointed design director. Living in the city is no easy feat for him. He questions even the most banal daily purchases with the finicky disposition common to designers. 'I become picky; it's so difficult to switch it off to make a decision. Every day is critical,' he says. His home is decorated with vintage Alvar Aalto inherited from his parents. He admires brands that preserve artisanal techniques and heritage approaches. He also loves online shopping. Nevertheless, he has a few favourite shops he buys from. First up is Marimekko, the renowned Finnish textile and fashion house with outlets around the city, but Kokkonen also recommends visiting the factory in Herttoniemi to see printing units. For homeware, he suggests Arabia ('modern-elegance') in Esplanadi - the design district is good for those looking for cool crockery and design gifts. He also loves the work of Vallila district-based Samuji, a womenswear line specialising in easy, high-quality ethical clothes. For fresh Baltic gastronomy, Kokkonen says look no further than Muru for a 'great wine list and exquisite Finnish ingredients'. Make sure you try (or take home) a Finnish dessert served typically during Easter ('go to a well-equipped supermarket to get' it, Kokkonen says) called mammi - a dish of baked rye flour and malt served with molasses and cream. For an interior glimpse of Finnish history, head to the Mannerheim Museum in a house that belonged to one of the country's most enigmatic political figures. But Kokkonen is, like many Finns, aware of the lure and proximity of nature; a few times a year he goes hunting in northern Finland, where he shoots and forages and often brings back mushrooms, geese, pheasant and seabirds. It's a rugged and sturdy side to the product designer, but one which fits in with his contrasting description of Helsinki: 'Subversive, safe, easy, eccentric and harsh.'