Quick History: Marimekko

Marimekko is one of the rare brands that seems to evoke universally positive reactions, evoking memories of childhood or of first apartments. So what is Marimekko, and where did it come from?Marimekko began in the late 1940s, when a Finnish couple, Viljo and Armi Ratia, bought Printex, a company that produced printed oilcloths and textiles. Armi, Viljo's wife (image 2), was the creative vision behind the new company, hiring young designers to create new patterns. Her main directive in those early days was that the patterns and colors must be bold, and that she did not want any floral patterns.

Although people liked the new patterns, no one was buying, since they weren't sure how to actually use them. Armi hired her friend, the clothing designer Ritta Immonen, to create simple clothes out of the fabrics. The collection was an enormous success, and though Immonen left shortly after to return to her own projects, other new designers continued to inspire their female customers with modern, clean-cut, easy clothing.

Marimekko — whose name contains an anagram of Armi and 'mekko,' the Finnish word for 'dress' — was at the vanguard of mid-century lifestyle revolutions: the sexual revolution and what we can call the 'casual revolution,' when white-glove luncheons gave way to backyard barbecues. Marimekko presented clothes to be worn without a corset or hose — sometimes even without shoes! Though Marimekko dresses and textiles were gaining traction in America throughout the 1950s, the company's popularity exploded in 1960, when Jackie Kennedy bought six Marimekko dresses for the campaign trail and wore one on the cover of Sports Illustrated (image 3).

In its informality and its flouting of European tradition, Marimekko fit neatly into 20th-century Scandinavian design in general. Scandinavian design is characterized by simplicity and practicality, clean lines and hygiene, bright colors, references to nature, and, fundamentally, the idea that things must be easy and comfortable for all people to use, including children. Marimekko embodied these traits not only in their designs but even in their marketing. The famous Marimekko spread in Life magazine in 1966 situated the designs — and the women wearing them — within the Scandinavian landscape of birch trees, crystalline lakes and rustic farmland (images 1, 4-7). The models, naked, in bikinis, or wearing loose Marimekko frocks, embody an innocent, happy sensuality that could be read like a creation myth for both Woodstock and Carnaby Street.

Although Marimekko became known as a clothing company, it was still fundamentally a textile producer. The first to introduce Americans to Marimekko textiles as furnishing fabrics was Ben Thompson, an architect and Harvard professor who opened a design store in the 1950s called Design Research. He sold Marimekko textiles starting in 1959, and expanded his stores during the '60s to Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York (image 9). In 1966, Crate and Barrel founder Gordon Segal, visited Design Research for the first time and organized his own business plan around Thompson's paradigm. Crate and Barrel also began buying Marimekko fabric wholesale from Design Research, and using them in upholstery and other designs.

Armi Ratia died in 1979, and the company endured a decade of shaky ground, facing bankruptcy. In 1991, Kirsti Paakkanen, a former advertising executive, bought the company, and is credited with reinvigorating the brand and creating its current successes. Staffed by talented young designers, Marimekko is now run by its first male president and CEO, Mika Ihamuotila, who took over in 2008. They continue to produce new patterns and have expanded into more decorative goods including tablewares (image 10) and wallpaper.

(Images: 1, 4-7 Tony Vaccaro for Life Magazine, 1966, via solothais.com; 2 & 8 zavodbig.com; 3 David Drew Zingg for Sports Illustrated's December 26, 1960 cover; 9 Thisisluster.com; 10 via AlwaysMod, the Marimekko blog)

Sources: For more information on the company, I recommend the book Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture by Marianne Aav, a book that accompanied a fabulous 2004 exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center. The co-owner of Design Research, Jane Thompson, recently co-wrote a book about the iconic store, Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes.

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Originally published 11.30.10 - JL

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