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Marimekko’s pattern of progressive design

Finland’s famed design brand is moving forward by looking back

A worker moving a printing screen at Marimekko’s headquarters and printing factory in Helsinki

Filled with the industrial clatter of huge machines, the factory floor at the Helsinki headquarters of Marimekko hums with efficiency.

Glistening cylindrical printing screens, embossed with a design from the company’s library of more than 3,500 patterns, are set spinning, churning out playful strings of shapes and colors. One production line slowly turns ivory fabric into a field of Day-Glo poppy flowers as it recreates Unikko, the company’s signature pattern.

Watching the machines print, wash, and dry long rolls of fabric that will later be turned into clothing, accessories, and other products is hypnotic (more than a million yards are printed each year).

But look closer, and a strong hand-making tradition can be found amid the mechanization: Little circles found inside one of the flower patterns recall the company’s early days in the ’50s, when each roll of fabric was inked by hand; workers used these rings as guides to line up printing screens.

At the end of the line, near neat stacks of fabric rolls, a team of workers examines every inch of finished fabric, scrolling through the prints on easels to check for errors (any fabric faux pas get sold in the adjoining factory store at a discount).

The Unikko pattern being printed at Marimekko’s factory. More than a million yards of fabric are printed here each year.

“The most important thing for us is producing timeless things that are functional and last,” says Lila Vertanen, my tour guide and the company’s public relations coordinator. “It’s never been about trendy fashion. We know that fashion circulates, and you can recirculate your closet.”

Based on the brand’s performance over the last few years, an increasing number of fans are discovering—or returning to—Marimekko. Between 2010 and 2016, for example, worldwide net sales grew from $77.4 million to $105.6 million, buoyed by a push into Asia that has nearly doubled the total number of stores, from 90 to 160, and high-profile collaborations, from a partnership with Target to a deal to decorate jets for Finnair, the national carrier. The company’s respect for its heritage has become big business.

But “heritage” here in Helsinki means something different (and decidedly Finnish). One of the design world’s biggest current obsessions, hygge, is a Danish idea that roughly translates to coziness. Fashion business bible Women’s Wear Daily nodded to the trend when covering Marimekko’s Fall/Winter 2017 collection: “old and new prints on retro-tinged silhouettes telegraphed the Finnish equivalent of hygge.”

While hygge represents comfort, Marimekko—with its famous free-flowing dresses and bold patterns—represents moving beyond conservative tradition and embracing creative freedom. As founder and pioneering businesswoman Armi Ratia put it, “our clothes must be loose and express movement. They are part of modern interiors and modern life.”

As the company continues to expand, it seeks to expand that vision—a timeless idea of egalitarianism and progressivism—all while seeking to stand out in a crowded market and put more and more of the company’s products into every corner of your home.

Fabric with the Liidokki pattern coming off the line

“It’s amazing to see how modern things have been always,” says Sami Ruotsalainen, a ceramics and glassware designer who has worked at the company since 2001. “For every season, we can keep bringing back old ideas, and they still look contemporary. It’s one of the most amazing things.”

Inside a squat, 43,000-square-foot building in a nondescript industrial park, the walls and hallways of the company’s offices are white and minimal, almost clinical. It makes the occasional fabric banner or archival photo—often featuring a model in full mod pose dressed in a curved, colorful dress in—stand out.

Ruotsalainen is showcasing a few books from the company archives, which meticulously document decades of design. One book, a huge binder of old advertisement clippings sent to the company by an American shop owner, features the riotous colors of the ’70s, the bright neons retaining their glow despite faded newsprint.

Another volume, filled with fabric swatches collected by the late longtime Marimekko designer Maija Isola, shows how she developed colorways and patterns. Many of the company’s contemporary collections start, Routsalainen says, by consulting these bibles of style.

“It’s really difficult to explain Marimekko’s philosophy,” he says, “because it’s something I feel now. When you see a colorway, you just know whether it’s Marimekko or not.”

While the company draws from literally thousands of graphic patterns, shapes, and colors, common threads of both creative freedom and almost painterly detail run through the company’s decades of products. Many of the quintessential patterns by Isola, one of the company’s most famous designers, were transferred from her paintings, and they contain the types of organic inconsistencies that make graphics eye-catching. The attitudes and ideas of Ratia, who established a tradition of strong female leadership and quality craftsmanship, also run deep.

“She had a clear vision of bringing joy to people’s everyday life,” says Vertanen. “It’s more relevant today than it was then.”

Ratia started the company in 1949 while helping her husband, Viljo, sell fabric made by his company, Printex. Ratia thought colorful, lively patterns and a design-led textile house would enliven a country still coping with the fallout from World War II. (Finland was the only country to fight against both Germany and the USSR, both of whom tried to wrest control of what is now a republic following World War I, when Finland declared its independence.)

A mid-’60s add for Design Research, the Cambridge-based store, featuring Marimekko. Note the original company logo, based on letters formed by an Olivetti typewriter.
Design Museum Finland

Ratia gathered a cadre of female artists to create new patterns, and decided to stage a fashion show as a way of showcasing new product. Held at the Kalastajatorppa restaurant in downtown Helsinki, the 1951 show was a massive success. So many orders for dresses poured in that Ratia set up a workshop in her home to handle the influx, and eventually spun off Marimekko (Finnish for “Mary’s Dress”) into its own company just a few days later. During the first few years of the company’s existence, fabric was printed at a Helsinki factory and sewn at home by seamstresses, since the expanding company simply didn’t have the room.

The focus, says Ruotsalainen, has always been design that was universal. Ratia avoided the word “fashion” when describing Marimekko products, instead looking at the company’s goods as egalitarian. Ratia’s vision of unbound, flowing dresses and clothing, such as the striped Jokapoika shirt, made her a fashion world darling, establishing the company as both a cult brand and one of the world’s first lifestyle companies.

In 1960, Marimekko had a pop-culture breakthrough when Jackie Kennedy was photographed wearing one of the company’s frocks on the campaign trail and on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a red dress by in-house designer Vuokko Eskolin-Nurmesniemi. By that time, Marimekko had already landed in influential stores, such as Design Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Habitat in London, and the brand’s new silhouettes and vibrant colors presaged the fashion of the ’60s.

Marimekko founder Armi Ratia wearing a Jokapoika shirt

A 1964 New York Times article declared that any woman wearing a Marimekko dress “can feel that she has accomplished something: She has left the herd and gone out on her own.”

Ratia’s charm and charisma, played up in flattering profiles, lifted the brand’s image. But her true genius came through in her leadership, her vision to design a company by and for women, and her ability to attract and keep top talent. She ran the company “like a Karelian farmhouse,” said one executive, referring to a rural region divided between Finland and Russia.

“She was the farm mother and saw everything. She even called herself ‘old mama.’” And she offered creative freedom to Marimekko’s roster of talented, mostly female artists.

Perhaps the most influential of the company’s designers, Maija Isola, worked part-time out of her own Helsinki workshop, and was given immense license to turn her paintings into patterns, such as Kivet (Finnish for stones).

Her most famous creation, the company’s signature Unikko pattern, was painted in response to a Ratia edict that said only nature could create something as beautiful as a flower. After Ratia saw the artist’s big, bold take on poppy flowers, she relented.

To this day, the company’s staff is 94 percent women, and while there’s no official policy, it’s always tended to be that way. When Heikki Salonen, a male executive, was hired in 1969, he told the New York Times that “you couldn’t get enough men for a basketball team.” Marimekko had disappointing performance throughout the ’80s, following Ratia’s death in 1979, as the new owner, the Finnish Amer Group, struggled to lead. It took another bold leader, Kirsti Paakkanen, a former ad executive who purchased the company in 1991, to turn things around.

Paakkanen embodied the Ratia tradition, combining the same bold vision and personality. Before Marimekko, she founded Womena, an all-female ad agency. The name was also a play off the Finnish word for apple, omena; she sent out 600 apples to potential clients, and famously quipped: “The first sales speech by a woman was made in the Garden of Eden when Eve convinced Adam to eat the apple!”

Her management style at Marimekko empowered employees after years of corporate ownership; she declared early on that “design is now paramount throughout the organization,” broke down bureaucracies and silos within the staff, and gave individual designers profit responsibility on their designs.

The company’s turnaround under Paakkanen, and new president Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, has also empowered the design team to continue expanding the company’s offerings into home goods and international markets, while keeping in touch with the company’s heritage.

“Color, print, joy.” Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko recently summed up her company’s consumer promise with those three words. But it’s arguable that “home” should be added to that list. Marimekko has long been a Finnish staple, with some hint of the iconic fabric found somewhere in every home and a long tradition of housewares and accessories (it branched off into tablecloths and cushion covers in the early ‘50s).

Marimekko Maija Isola working in her studio

The company’s recent collaboration with Target, while not as much of a blockbuster as some of the retail chain’s previous collaborations, exposed a new group of consumers to the company via a vast array of products, including kites, bocce balls, and beach chairs. Target saw a 10 percent boost in online sales that week.

“It’s part of the Scandinavian lifestyle to be surrounded by beautiful things that last a lifetime,” says Vertranen. “In Finland, we have a saying that if you’re poor, you can’t afford to buy bad quality.”

Ruotsalainen says that the company has increasingly focused on the home, and on making items for every part of your life. A trained ceramicist, he’s been involved in making vases and plates and fitting Marimekko patterns to new items.

The current housewares collection, which featured a collaboration between Ruotsalainen and Carina Seth Andersson, was inspired by nature and craftsmanship. He showed off the new Hortensie design, an organic pattern that riffs off the stem of the hydrangea flower and adorns a range of plates and mugs. It’s simple, elegant, and well considered.

Veljekset (brothers), a new pattern based on Finnish folklore, was just released to celebrate the country’s 100th anniversary
The new spring/summer housewares collection. The pillow on the right features the Hortensie pattern.

While the company is often associated with bold colors, Ruotsalainen says one of the secrets to its design success is minimalism: focusing on perfecting small ideas (he spent weeks adjusting the Hortensie patterns on housewares by hand, making sure the pattern was perfect).

Early on, when Isola was making many of the company’s famous patterns by transferring her paintings to fabric, she would test them out in black and white before thinking about colors. Ratia once said “There is no reason to mess up a print with a color unless there is a reason.”

Isola’s approach, one that’s still embraced by in-house talent, explains Marimekko’s continued appeal. While the Finnish company may forever be associated with bombastic colors and the ’60s, it’s Marimekko’s quiet search for perfection, and the pursuit of joy, functionality, and timeless work, according to Ruotsalainen, that make it more a quiet constant than a flashy trend.

“People think Marimekko is only about bold patterns and colorways, but since the beginning, we’ve had big and bolder prints, as well as small and silent ones,” he says.