Since its inception 70 years ago, the brand has represented free-spirited bohemianism and bold confidence. The story of a trailblazing Finnish phenomenon is told by Dominic Lutyens.
Marimekko, the Finnish brand famed for its fabrics printed with splashy, outsized motifs, arose just as Finland was regaining its autonomy and forging a new national identity in the postwar years. It was clearly optimistic, but a little-known fact about the label is its bohemian heritage. Starting out as a textile brand, Marimekko quickly evolved into a globally successful fashion and home furnishings label, with a fan base that included artists and fashion icons who represented progressive values, such as the glamorous Jackie Kennedy, who purchased seven Marimekko dresses, and artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
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Marimekko’s distinct aesthetic is inextricably linked to the daring spirit of entrepreneur Armi Ratia, who co-founded the company in 1951. Ratia’s photographs are powerful projections of her personality and the ethos of her brand. In one 1960s photo, Bökars sits on a hammock at her summer home in the countryside, reading The Letters of F Scott Fitzgerald, with Elle and Vogue magazines on her lap – a picture of bohemian, cultured bliss. In one 1970s photograph, she cuts a commanding figure at her printing factory in Helsinki, dressed in a swashbuckling maxi-coat and trousers tucked into boots, looking single-minded and fearless.
Marimekko’s carefree spirit is encapsulated by its spring/summer 2021 collaboration with Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo, which features roomy dresses emblazoned with the signature bold, colourful, large-scale prints. Marimekko: The Art of Printmaking by Laird Borrelli-Persson was published this year to commemorate the lifestyle brand’s 70th anniversary, and it details how the well-connected, media-savvy Ratia – and the highly individualistic artists she hand-picked to design for her – shaped the label’s audacious aesthetic.
“When Armi founded Marimekko, her goal was to avoid well-trodden paths in textile design,” says Minna Kemell-Kutvonen of the brand. Polite, itsy-bitsy florals were the norm in the textiles world at the time, but Ratia championed outsized, abstract motifs in unusual colour combinations.
Ratia (née Airaksinen) was born in 1912 in Karelia, a Finnish province bordering Russia. She earned a diploma in textile design from Helsinki’s Central School of Applied Arts in 1935. That same year, she married soldier Viljo Ratia and soon after opened her own weaving workshop in Viipuri, Karelia’s capital at the time. As a student, she was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus, an avant-garde German design school. long passion, as evidenced by a photo of its founder, Walter Gropius, in her office. As US design critic Jane Holtz Kay noted in a 1974 article on Marimekko in The Boston Globe: “Behind the broad desk, there were cascading daisies in a glass bowl. She sits beneath a photograph of Gropius. The indomitable woman who founded what must be the world’s largest source of design excellence in clothing personifies a casual and total lifestyle.”
Kay was also taken with Marimekko’s egalitarian values: “the design way to defeat conspicuous consumption and class snobbery – the stick of good design beating the world’s ills.”
Ratia’s interest in the Bauhaus coincided with Finland’s long-standing embrace of modernism by several avant-garde architects and designers, including Alvar Aalto, Eliel Saarinen, and his Finnish-American son Eero Saarinen. László Moholy-Nagy, a Bauhaus member, influenced Aalto, who designed the Municipal Library in Viipuri, which opened in 1935 and helped to cement Finland’s reputation for avant-garde design. Tapio Wirkkala, a Finnish designer and sculptor, was internationally acclaimed in the postwar years.
Armi was free-spirited, and rejected notions of class and traditional gender roles – Laird Borrelli-Persson
World War II, during which Finland fought wars against both the Russians and Nazi Germany, was traumatic for Ratia. Two of her brothers were killed while fighting the Russians. Finland retained its independence after the war, but had to cede Karelia to Russia, forcing Ratia to leave the region. “Ratia was homeless,” explains Borrelli-Persson. and a………………………………….
Ratia settled in Helsinki and worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency, foreshadowing her flair for public relations. “Young men and women wanted to rebuild Finland after the war,” says Borrelli-Persson. “Armi was a free-spirited individual who rejected ideas of class and traditional gender roles.” Viljo purchased Printex, an oilcloth factory, after leaving the military. which promptly went bankrupt. Armi joined the company in 1949, and two years later she and Viljo co-founded Marimekko, a textiles company. It was unveiled at the Kalastajatorppa Hotel in Helsinki with a fashion show. Marimekko, which means “Mary’s dress” in Finnish, had a universal ring to it.
More specifically, there was a desire for innovation and optimism in postwar Finland, and Marimekko was at the forefront of this. “From the beginning, the brand’s raison d’être was to empower people to feel joy, which really resonated when national morale was low,” says Kemell-Kutvonen. This coincided, she adds, with a uniquely Finnish type of stoicism – sisu, which means perseverance in the face of adversity. Furthermore, Marimekko textiles, which were also used as home furnishing fabrics, helped to combat the gloom of Finland’s long, dark winters.
The country was desperate for resources after being forced to pay reparations to Russia, and Marimekko’s use of low-cost, utilitarian cotton reflected this. Ratia hired Vuokko Eskolin-Nurmesniemi, a young designer, in 1953 to create the charmingly hand-drawn, pinstripe-like Piccolo print. This made its way onto Eskolin-loose-fitting Nurmesniemi’s dresses and the Jokapoika shirt, the brand’s first men’s garment, based on Finnish farmers’ shirts but quickly co-opted by women. These provided an appealingly comfortable alternative to the 1950s’ restrictive, wasp-waisted silhouette.
Ratia cherished her rural roots, which had a significant influence on Marimekko. “Many prints have rustic, Slavic, rustic motifs – a nod to Armi’s upbringing near Russia,” says Borrelli-Persson. But, rendered in silhouette in a modern, graphic way, these folky prints didn’t look traditional. The brand was frequently associated with nature and freedom: in one 1960s photograph, a clothed model stands in a forest, completely unaware of a naked woman running behind her.
Although Marimekko thrived in circumstances unique to Finland, its appeal quickly spread far beyond its borders, owing primarily to connections Ratia established with the United States. Marimekko took part in the Design in Scandinavia exhibition, which toured America in 1954, and was also represented at the Tenth Milan Triennial. In 1957, it also took part in the Eleventh Milan Triennial. When Artek, the design firm co-founded by Alvar and his first wife, Aino Aalto, exhibited Marimekko clothing in a gallery in Stockholm in 1958, it was well received.
However, a significant breakthrough occurred when Marimekko displayed at the World’s Fair in Brussels the same year. Wirkkala designed one of its restaurants, which was decorated with Marimekko fabrics by Eskolin-Nurmesniemi. He also selected Marimekko gowns for the waitresses. These, dubbed “anti-uniforms,” were also worn by the fair’s tour guides.