With her eye for joyful colour and innovative forms, Finnish textile designer Maija Isola put the thrill back into floral fabric,
The Finnish textile that anticipated the Flower Power era and has become a timeless favourite.
When Marimekko designer Maija Isola created a bold floral fabric in 1964, she worked in secret, knowing her boss wouldn’t approve. Armi Ratia, who headed up the Finnish textile company, had declared she wanted vibrant colours to cast sunshine on the postwar years, but said flower patterns were taboo. She must have felt fabrics didn’t do them justice – or perhaps she was just ‘floralled out’ by the fussy takes of the time.
But she hadn’t counted on Maija’s vision. The designer played with scale and colour, bumping up blooms to in-your-face sizes. An astonished Armi adopted eight of Maija’s florals, including what would be the most famous Marimekko print of all. Featuring flat, asymmetrical poppies in provocative red and pink on a white background, it was simply called Unikko (Finnish for poppy).
By the time Unikko burst forth, the company was already enjoying an international profile. In 1949, Armi had joined her husband’s new textile venture, Printex, and given it the catchier name of Marimekko, championing innovative, upbeat fabrics. And when Jackie Kennedy was photographed in Marimekko dresses during her husband’s 1960 presidential campaign, the firm’s fortunes skyrocketed. Its clothing and fabrics seemed to symbolise a new era of freedom after the prim ’50s.
Maija designed more than 500 patterns for Marimekko between 1949 and 1987. These included simple geometrics such as the dotty Kivet and swirling Kaivo, but the best known is still Unikko. It heralded the era of flower power, yet has remained in production ever since, a testament to its timeless appeal.
“Unikko became a story of creativity, strength, courage and faith in oneself. It looked so new and distinctive,” explains Minna Kemell-Kutvonen, design and product-development director for home products and prints at Marimekko.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, the Unikko poppy adorned almost everything you could imagine,” says Perth architect Ariane Prevost, a long-time Marimekko fan. “The design is striking, unfussy, playful. I never tire of it.”
For Unikko’s 50th anniversary in 2014, Marimekko released a version with bumper blooms on a multicoloured background. Its designer, Emma Isola (Maija’s granddaughter), updated the print with a design resembling a pixelated quilt. Called Ruutu-Unikko, it looks forward as well as back to its source.
In her defiant original design, Maija was actually following Armi Ratia’s best-known maxim: “One has to dream. And one must stand out from the rest.” Both Maija and her exuberant floral did exactly that.
WHAT IT MEANS TO US
Australians first caught sight of Unikko in the 1960s, thanks to the advocacy of Sydney interior designer Marion Hall Best. The pattern still features in Marimekko stores here and worldwide. In a dazzling display of petal power, these tall poppies have kept their heads above the rest. “Unikko has been seen in hundreds of colourways and on a large variety of products, from tableware to sneakers to the livery of a Finnair plane,” says Minna. “The pattern has become a symbol of Marimekko.” And, by extension, of Finland itself. marimekko.com/au
Maija Isola at work. Clockwise from top left Her original Unikko design. Kivet (1964), like Unikko, is regularly reinvented in different scales and shades. Kaivo (1964) was inspired by rippling water. Bold Unikko homewares.