The Simple Things
SPOTTING A PATTERN
SEVENTY YEARS AGO, MARIMEKKO WAS BORN WITH THE AIM OF BUILDING A HAPPIER, MORE EQUAL WORLD. WE CELEBRATE THE JOY IT CONTINUES TO DELIVER TO THIS DAY
Take a look around your home. Chances are, if you’re a fan of a bold pattern, your eye will fall on a spot (or a stripe) of Marimekko. Perhaps it’s a tea towel, a satisfyingly chunky mug, or that dress that feels like just the right thing to throw on, year in year out. For a design company that seems so in tune with the way we like to live now, it might be surprising to learn that this Finnish design giant is celebrating its 70-year anniversary this year.
A DRESS FOR MARY
Its continued popularity is partly thanks to the clear vision of its founder, Armi Ratia, a staunch advocate for good design. Developing the company amid the gloom and poverty of post-war Finland, she knew she wanted to build a happier, brighter and more egalitarian world. Printmaking became the means to do it when her partner, Viljo Ratia, bought a textile factory. Gathering a young, creative team, they began printing onto cotton by hand and, in 1951, looking for a way to show off their work, made them into dresses. Hence the name. For those not fluent in Finnish, Mari is Mary, or a kind of every woman, and mekko a dress. In 1956, the dresses were joined by Jokapoika, an ‘every boy’ shirt, inspired by a workwear-style top, another continued staple.
Such designs were created as a sort of uniform for the kind of women that were helping shape modern Finland. (Long a leader in equality, in 1906 it was the first European country where women could vote). Armi described them as “the woman who wants to forget her dress… for such women as the many intellectuals we have in Finland… I sell an idea rather than dresses. I sell a new woman.” Though at times the height of fashion (such as when Jackie Kennedy wore their dresses in the 1960s), they always strove for timelessness – products that made life that bit easier.
POPPIES THAT POP
Over the past seven decades, Marimekko has birthed a whopping number of patterns: more than 3,500 (many gathered together in the appropriately colourful book published to celebrate the anniversary, Marimekko:
The Art of Printmaking by Laird Borrelli-Persson), and testament to the creative freedom that Armi aimed to build into her company. Though using a huge range of inspiration, they’re probably best known for the prints that reflect the Finnish natural world. That’s no doubt in part to the success of Unikko, designed by Maija Isola in the 1960s, despite Armi’s initial plea for no florals. Unikko gave the poppy a bold, new look, just as the world was embracing flower power. It continues to be loved today. Kaivo, meanwhile, was inspired by the patterns Maija saw in the water of a well. Different techniques lie behind each design – cut paper in the case of Kivet (Stones), or a “dance with the brush” in 1961’s Rautasänky design. Another favourite, Piccolo, a stripe dating to 1953 was initially hand-painted by Vuokko Eskolin-Nurmesniemi. More recently, Aino-Maija Metsola’s 2012 Weather Diary ( Sääpäiväkirja) collection was adapted from paintings. What helps them feel distinctly Marimekko is not just the subject matter but their bold use of colour. “Colours must be clean and true; blue from the seas, red from the tulips,” as Armi once put it.
NEW PATTERNS OF THINKING
Today, about 1 million metres of joy-bringing Marimekko fabric are printed every year in their Helsinki factory. And, of course, it’s now not just fabrics. The ceramic homewares were introduced in 2009, a continuation of the philosophy of living and finding pleasure in the everyday, precisely the reason the textiles have made good companions to our lives over the last 70 years. Even at five, six or even seven decades old, they still manage to feel as fresh as, well, a poppy. But, as we raise our Unikkopatterned mugs to celebrate their success, it’s also worth noting some lessons. Discussing the birth of Marimekko from a difficult period of Finnish history, BorrelliPersson’s book quotes Armi as saying: “When there are too many things in your life, you may go into a wilderness of possibilities. But crisis situations have good effects; they bring about new thinking.” As we emerge from our own once-in-a-generation crisis, it’s worth pondering what new thinking we would want to try and the kind of world we’d like to build. Let’s hope it can bring as much happiness and creativity to the world as Marimekko has succeeded in doing to date.
“I sell an idea rather than dresses. I sell a new woman”