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I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Friday, 7 January 2011

Marimekko @ 60

This feature on the story behind Finnish design company Marimekko appeared in the Nov/Dec issue of Homes & Interiors Scotland. I love Marimekko. So clean and fresh, even at 60!

If iconic Finnish brand Marimekko was a person it would be a baby boomer, but not just any baby boomer, a Scandinavian baby-boomer, intent on equality and devoted to respecting the ordinary man or woman in the street’s right to good design.
When Marimekko was first conceived in Helsinki in 1951, Finland was in a slough of economic post-war despondency as the peace treaty which signalled the end of the country’s war brought in its wake heavy war reparations which had to be paid to the Soviet Union.
The beginnings of this now world-renowned brand started out, like most good ideas, as a sideline born out of economic necessity.
The Marimekko story starts in 1949, when Viljo Ratia, a young, entrepreneurial ex-army officer, took a job as a junior partner in a company called Printex Oy which made oilcloth in the suburbs of Helsinki. Within a couple of years, the company had gone bust – not an uncommon happening in post-war Finland – but Viljo managed to secure a small load from the bank to buy it out.
Viljo’s big idea, hatched with his art school-trained wife Armi (who still had a day job with an Helskinki advertising agency) was to take the idea of making patterned oilcloth, which the company worked out how to do prior to going bust, and taking it a stage further by producing bold, experimental hand silk screen printed cottons.
Armi was a trained artist and although she did come up with some of early designs for Printex, she looked to other artists to realise her vision. Her friend, the rector of Ateneum School of Art in Helsinki, which Armi had attended, recommended a talented young artist called Maija Isola and this inspired introduction ultimately led to much greater things.
Taking on a local designer was a bold move as the general practice in the printing industry in Finland at that time then was to buy in designs from abroad and adapt them to local tastes.
Maija’s designs were mainly non-figurative, abstract, and daring in colour and it took a great deal of experimentation (at a time of universal shortages) to get it right. When Viljo and Armi did show their new designs, they were admired, but people didn’t quite know what to do with them, so they came up with a plan to make a collection and show it off.
Armi, who had an instinctive feeling for promotion, realised they needed a name for their collection which would show people how their designs could be used in clothing and interiors products. Eventually, they settled on Marimekko, which combined the old-fashioned Finnish girl's name of Maria and the term mekko which described a tow shirt, open at the back and worn like a pinafore.
The company was registered on May 25 1951 and the first collection consisted of simply cut dresses, accentuating the textiles rather than the styling of the garment.
Recalling this event in 1985, Viljo Ratia wrote: “Marimekko’s first fashion show, at Kalastajatatorppa in spring 1951, was a real experience for the audience. There was still a shortage, clothes were darned and patched, people were tired of artificial silk and wartime grey was still in their minds.”
Although this first airing for Marimekko was a big success in terms of the impact it made on the audience, the sales back up was non-existent and the young business embarked on a steep learning curve.
But by 1954, despite some testing times, and with a new chief designer in place in the form of Vuokko Nurmesniemi (who went on to found Vuokko in 1964), Marimekko was finding its way onto the covers of the Finnish fashion magazines of the day. The press interest in Marimekko was fuelled by Armi, in whom journalists found instant copy. Armi’s firm belief was that Marimekko was not just clothing, or fabric for interiors, it was a way of life. As Viljo recalls: “There was no need to force ourselves on the press. They came to us. In the public mind, Armi was Marimekko and Marimekko Armi.”
He also describes how he had to act ‘as a brake’ when Armi’s plans became ‘too Utopian’, referring specifically to the cash-gobbling Mari Village plan – an idyllic sustainable village which Armi tried her hardest to make real during the 1960s.
During the 1960s the company expanded globally, helped in no small measure by Jackie Kennedy being seen wearing Marimekko dresses during her husband’s successful presidential campaign in 1960. Marimekko represented a casual, unisex approach to clothing and interiors, aimed at a young, independent clientele. The bold, colourful geometric textile patterns by the designer Maija Isola also reflected an awareness of American contemporary fine art practice, which also helped.
By the late 1960s, the company was also producing a whole range of interiors-related textiles as well as glassware and paper goods. Op-Art inspired stripes entered into the Marimekko range by the 1970s as exemplified by the Peltomies series (1975-79). Similar designs continued to be produced through the next decade, with geometric patterns scaled for furniture in shades including mauve, opal, and midnight.
Although its charismatic founder, Armi Ratia, died in 1979, her son Ristomatti and his siblings carried on running Marimekko until it floundered and he sold it to Finnish conglomerate Amer Group. Unable to take the business to the heights it had previously reached, in 1991, they invited Kirsti Paakkanen, another charismatic businesswomen, to become its chief executive. She refused, and Amer instead offered to sell Marimekko to her for a nominal sum.
Within a year, Paakkanen had turned the iconic brand around and steered it back into profit, mainly by homing in on the trend for retro prints long before it happened and digging deep into the Marimekko archive. She also brings in a new generation of designers such as Mika Piirainen and Erja Hirvi. Under Paakkanen, the home interiors side of the business boomed and she has been credited as being the saviour of the Marimekko brand.
In February 2008, Paakkanen handed over control of Marimekko to the banker Mika Ihamuotila, and as we enter 2011, having branched into individually owned concept stores, the company is preparing to celebrate its 60th birthday with a new interiors collection inspired by the vibrant Marimekko’s archive.
The designs used by Marimekko have given it a unique identity. Inspired initially by elemental forms and colours taken from Finland's landscape and national heritage, the designs embraced experimental ideas and contemporary graphic thinking, resulting in bold patterns and saturated colours. These were designs based on an understanding of modernity, rather than concerns for contemporary fashion trends and that ethos has continued down the decades, throughout takeovers and changes at the helm.
In summer 1969 (since subbed the Summer of Love), Armi Raita said: “I only want to bring people together so they can get to know each other and gain something from one another.” For six decades now, her ‘way of life’, Marimekko has being doing that by illustrating people’s interior lives, and adding a burst of colour, joy and strong design along the way.

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