De­sign Mo­ment

With her eye for joy­ful colour and in­no­va­tive forms, Finnish tex­tile de­signer Maija Isola put the thrill back into flo­ral fab­ric,

Australian House & Garden - - CONTENTS - writes Chris Pear­son.

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.


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.

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.

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