Text by Mandi Keighran / Photos: Johannes Romppanen & Tuukka Koski
Marimekko’s Unikko print might just be the most recognisable textile pattern in the world – a field of boldly impressionistic poppy flowers that adorns anything from bedding, clothing and shower curtains to buses, Volkswagen Beetles, and even a hot-air balloon. The famous pattern celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, with a host of celebrations planned. However, if it weren’t for the defiant spirit of its creator, Finnish designer Maija Isola, Unikko would never have been – in fact, none of Marimekko’s thousands of floral patterns would exist.
It’s a surprising realisation given the pervasiveness of the pattern in Finland and around the world. In Helsinki, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the poppy. Wander down Esplanadi, Helsinki’s upmarket main shopping street, and you’ll find Marimekko’s flagship store – a huge, two-storey, glass-fronted space, whose ground floor is entirely dedicated to Unikko. Even the walls and floors sport enormous psychedelic impressions of the poppy. Around the corner is the newly opened store for children, where Unikko in miniature can be found on everything, from backpacks, baby bibs, and beanbags to jumpsuits for newborns. At Spis, an upmarket restaurant leading the way in the city’s food scene, you’ll find Unikko on the hand towels in the bathroom, and at café Marikahvila in the Galleria Esplanadi, you eat your meal from poppy-themed tableware. With fans that range from Anne Hathaway to Kim Kardashian, it’s clearly a pattern with wide appeal.
To some, this kind of adoration of a simple floral pattern might be bemusing. Yet, there’s no denying the cult-like appeal that Unikko holds for millions around the world. Marimekko fans – particularly those from Japan, where the brand is hugely popular – frequently make the pilgrimage to the company’s headquarters and factory. Stepping into these headquarters, located just outside the centre of Helsinki, is akin to stepping into an alternate universe in which grey doesn’t exist and everything is bright, graphic, and happy. Here, the cult of Marimekko is apparent everywhere: dozens of fans eat lunch from Unikko-patterned tableware with Marimekko-clad employees at the in-house restaurant, Maritori (which translates as “Mari’s Market”), shop at the cavernous outlet store, and tour the production facilities, where over a million metres of fabric is printed each year. Everywhere you look, there are installations showcasing entire bedrooms, living rooms and dining settings in Marimekko patterns. Just where did all this Marimekko madness begin?
Marimekko has its origins in Printex, a company founded in Helsinki in the late 1940s by Viljo and Armi Ratia when the couple’s failed oilcloth company was converted into a textile factory. It was the aftermath of World War II, and Armi wanted to bring colour to the everyday lives of Finns who were recovering from the economic and social effects of the war. “She had this idea to encourage young, mainly female, artists to design something new for the fabrics, something graphic and artistic that no one had ever seen,” says Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, marketing director at Marimekko. The resulting patterns represented a new approach to textile design that was at stark odds with the bleakness of the period.
According to company legend, people loved the prints but weren’t sure how to wear them. So, on 20 May 1951, a fashion show was held at restaurant Kalastajatorppa in central Helsinki, showcasing the patterns on a collection of simple dresses designed by Riitta Immonen, a respected Finnish fashion designer and boutique owner. The loose-fitting, casual style of the dresses teamed with the bright, bold patterns was an instant success, and Marimekko (“Mari’s dress”) was registered as a company the next day.
The following years saw rapid growth for Marimekko, and it began to play a crucial role in how the world perceived Finnish design. In 1954, the Jokapoika shirt – a simple, striped unisex shirt designed by Vuokko Eskolin-Nurmesniemi – heralded the start of a revolution in how women dressed and quickly became a staple of Finnish fashion. By the end of the decade, First Lady Jackie Kennedy had posed for the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a red Marimekko dress, making the Finnish brand a household name in the US. The product range expanded at a dizzying rate to encompass tableware and household accessories alongside fashion, and Marimekko became synonymous with a Finnish way of life that embraced nature and a free spirit. Marimekko had 20 retail shops around the world and over 300 retailers, but still no flowers.
Armi, believing no textile could ever match the beauty of nature, publicly forbade her designers from creating floral patterns. So it wasn’t until 1964, when Maija Isola – the first full-time designer to be hired by Printex – presented Armi with a floral collection in protest, including the now-iconic pink, red and black poppy pattern inspired by the poppies growing in her backyard. What followed has become Marimekko lore: Armi recognised the graphic beauty of the pattern and its resonance with the ideals of Marimekko. An icon was born, the ban on florals was lifted, and Isola went on to design over 500 prints for Marimekko – many of them florals.
It’s no surprise that Armi was quick to embrace the pattern. While it is undoubtedly the work of Isola, there is something inherently “Marimekko” in its graphic forms and bold use of colour. From the very beginning, Armi favoured this kind of work that showcased both the individual style of the designer and the Marimekko design philosophy.
“Still today an essential part of Marimekko is that we foster the individual storytelling or handwriting of the designers,” says Alahuhta-Kasko. “There is a common Marimekko philosophy, but we have many different languages – from very simple and bold, like Unikko, to rich, ornamental patterns that stem from the »
Slavic influences in Finland, like those of Sanna Annukka. That is the secret of Marimekko – each of our 3,500 prints have their own story.”
Of all these patterns, however, Unikko is the company’s biggest success, having remained in continuous production since its creation. Despite this, the pattern’s popularity has fluctuated over the decades – rather like the fortunes of Marimekko itself.
Following its creation in the 1960s, Unikko blossomed, thriving on the flower power movement, and propelling Marimekko into the global spotlight. In 1966, Printex and Marimekko merged – the company employed more than 400 people and was the go-to fashion label for independent modern women around the world. By the mid-1970s, however, the trend for big patterns wilted, and Unikko faded into the background. In October 1979, Armi passed away, signaling the end of an era and launching Marimekko into a decade of uncertainty.
By 1985, Marimekko was struggling. Armi’s heirs had little interest in the company and sold to the Amer consortium. Under the control of what was essentially a faceless corporation, the once-booming design house lost its identity, and by 1990 was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Rescue came in the form of Kirsti Paakkanen, a retired advertising executive and friend of Armi’s who took ownership of Marimekko in the autumn of 1991. Like Armi, Paakkanen was a strong, female leader, a formidable woman who put design first. “She was a very patriotic woman,” says Alahuhta-Kasko. “She felt it was her duty to save Marimekko from bankruptcy because it was a national treasure. Despite all the risks, she bought Marimekko and turned the company around within six months. With her help we were able to re-ignite the hearts of Finnish people.”
Under her leadership, Marimekko took on the new decade. Paakkanen disposed with the bureaucracy that had been introduced under Amer, brought design back to the forefront, and re-introduced the unique Marimekko company culture. Her vision looked both to the future – through a new line of businesswear that catered to the ’90s career woman – and, importantly, to the past and the patterns that Marimekko had been built on.
As retro styles experienced renewed popularity in the mid- and late-1990s, Paakkanen directed her new guard of young designers to Marimekko’s extensive archives, where they rediscovered Unikko and translated it to today’s world. As the new millennium bloomed, so did the popularity of the poppy, which found its way onto everything from Converse sneakers to televisions. Even Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was a fan.
Today, the poppies are as popular as ever, with dozens of new colourways and scales launched each season. Celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the pattern kick off in April during Milan’s design week, with a poppy-themed installation at gallery Studio Rossanna Orlandi. Then, in May, Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma, will host Together, an exhibition of work created by Finland’s top contemporary artists in collaboration with Marimekko designers – a project described by Kiasma’s director, Pirkko Siitari as “a joint effort by two acclaimed actors in Finnish culture who join forces to create something new”.
A special anniversary website has been set up, and around the world Unikko “pattern places” – unexpected spaces that could house anything from a café to a gallery – will pop up. Then there are the special editions – new colourways and scales for the pattern, plus a host of limited edition products adorned with the poppy, and a summer 2014 fashion collection that puts the focus on Unikko.
“We want to bring an injection of positivity and energy into people’s everyday lives,” says Alahuhta-Kasko of the celebrations. “The story of Unikko has acted as a symbol of the freedom and power of expression and creativity. Maija Isola decided to follow her heart despite the rules, and eventually this poppy became the icon of our brand.”
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