All images courtesy of Marimekko
By Casey Mollett
The success of Finnish design brand Marimekko has continued since the company was founded in 1951. And there’s no wonder why. Marimekko’s prints ooze bold colour and playful lines that evoke feelings of comfort and happiness. I regularly visit their London shop, going through the extensive fabric range and leaving with a bag full of cuttings. There is one design that I’m always drawn to – even the non-aficionados among you will recognise the vibrant, graphic flower of Unikko, probably one of the most globally recognised patterns. There is no doubting that Unikko’s creator, Marimekko, is the most famous of Finnish design exports, but how did it all begin? MidCentury spoke to Harry Kivilinna, Curator at the Design Museum in Helsinki, Finland, to find out where it started.
Marimekko: A One-Woman Wonder
Marimekko itself was born out of a post-war nation struggling to regain its strength. Finland, like many countries, had been devastated by the War; the country was suffering immensely, feeling dreary, grey and low in morale. One woman, Armi Ratia, had an aim to inject colour and positivity into the people’s lives, pulling them from the rubble of World War II. Together with her husband, she bought a textile company called Printex in 1951, a name she later changed to Marimekko. Ratia endeavoured to bring innovation and progression to Finland through colour and expression, to rebuild the country economically and emotionally through her energetic and bold prints. The company gradually grew in success but saw a rapid boost in 1960, when Jackie Kennedy was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a Marimekko dress, having bought seven already!
Unikko (meaning poppy) is the iconic print that has been used on an array of items, from fabric and homewares to fashion and stationary. It has even appeared on the side of Finnair planes and international buses. When first put into production, Unikko was a fabric only intended for interior use on products such as wax tablecloths, window blinds and parasols but its popularity has spread so much, the pattern is now used on every product thinkable. Beautifully curved and full, the petals of Unikko stand bold and proud. Yes, we all know the pattern well, but what about the story behind the design?
Marimekko: The Spirit of Unikko
The creative vision behind Unikko is down to Maija Isola, then Chief Textile Designer at Marimekko. Isola was employed by Marimekko’s founder Armi Ratia, who insisted on strong colour, but had however publicly expressed in the early 1950s, that her company would never print a floral pattern. She believed that flowers were much more beautiful in nature than in reproduction, instead aiming to create innovative designs for modern life, rather than adding to an already floral dominated textile industry.
However, in the spirit of defiance, Maija Isola produced a whole series of floral prints, one of them being Unikko – the bright red poppy. Others in the series included Maalaisruusu (Country Rose), Vihkiruusu (Wedding Rose) and Ruhtunatar (Princess). Harry Kivilinna, Curator at the Design Museum in Helsinki, explains, “Isola did this in a provocative way, since Armi had announced that floral patterns were forbidden, but the patterns she was speaking of were the small romantic type, which were typical of the 1940s and 1950s.”
Once Ratia had seen the boldness and graphic style of Unikko, she couldn’t resist it. It was debuted within the Marimekko collection in 1964 in at least three colour ways and has stayed ever since. The most known colour combination is the red, black and white poppy, but blue and black poppies have also been in production since the beginning. Unikko paved the way for the continued use of floral designs in the company, as Harry Kivilinna explains, “Marimekko have since been using floral patterns as part of every collection. Especially in the 1970s, Maija Isola designed many of the florals you see on fabrics from the time. Sometimes you may not recognise them, they may be stylised in a much more abstract and subtle way.”
Marimekko: 50 Years of Unikko
Unikko emulates the time in which it was born, full of expression and embodying the 1960s flower power revolution. It shows boldness, life and energy, continuously warming homes across the globe. “The simple design has a certain naivety to it. It seems anybody could make that kind of floral pattern, so people feel they can relate to it with a sense of familiarity. Once they see it, they will forever recognise it.”
In 2014, Marimekko celebrated Unikko’s 50th year in production, with international events to mark the achievement. To continue the celebrations, Marimekko brought out an anniversary Unikko range in new fluorescent tones, more vibrant and vivid than ever.
Now in its 51st year, Unikko can boast more than 80 different colourways, each very distinctive to its time. The 1960s brought strong tones of bright colour, very different to the softer, earthy tones of the 1970s. A range of pastel combinations were introduced in the 2000s. The evolution of Unikko’s colour ways show Marimekko moves with the times, which is a likely contributor to the brand’s huge success, as it continues to look as contemporary as it did 50 years ago. Harry Kivilinna says, “The Unikko pattern has become its own brand within the Marimekko brand. It is for Marimekko like the LV pattern is for Louis Vuitton. So in that sense, the future of the pattern is bright. It is not going to disappear anytime soon.”
Marimekko: Long-lasting Appeal
What is it about Marimekko and its simple yet lively prints that keeps the demand so high? The patterns and prints are brimming with positivity and a love of our natural surroundings. We asked Harry Kivilinna about the essence behind Marimekko’s timeless appeal, “Simply, Marimekko don’t always follow the trends. They have unique colour palettes for each collection and have been creating intriguing recipes for colour combinations from the beginning”. Scandinavian design has proved popular across the world for its beautiful simplicity, even more so recently with the current mid century style revival. And Marimekko continues to be at the forefront of this, with Unikko leading the way through its evolving colour ways, brave style and joyous design.
Visit the Design Museum, Helsinki, Finland
For more designs from Marimekko, click here
Visit the Marimekko product range at Skandium
Read about the work of another Finnish design Great, Tapio Wirkkala
For more on mid-century pattern design in Britain, see Peter Hall’s Verdure: a mid-century pattern revival and Sheila Bownas: a mid-century designer re-discovered