Armi Ratia, imagining a future in bold for textile design and production, has created one of the biggest success stories in the 20th- century design history.
Marimekko is, without doubt, one of the great success stories in the history of 20th- century design. Founded in 1951 by the visionary textile designer Armi Ratia and her husband, Viljo, the company grew from a small textile-printing firm into an international phenomenon and gave Finland a definitive presence on the world fashion stage.
The exuberant colors and accessible cuts of Marimekko clothing as well as bold patterns of their printed textiles became a national symbol of a new optimism and equality in post-war Finland, and introduced a highly original vocabulary to the fields of fashion and home design.
Even more than sparking a revolution in printed textiles, Marimekko also introduced a groundbreaking marketing concept, proposing a definition of fashion that embraced the entire home environment and set the precedent for a lifestyle brand.
The name Marimekko derives from the vernacular Finnish form of the girl’s name “Mary” and mekko, which means “dress.” The combination of the modern and the traditional proved invaluable to the company’s success in Finland and internationally.
Marimekko grew out of a small company called Printex, which was acquired by Viljo Ratia in 1949. Ratia expanded Printex, which had focused primarily on the production of oilcloth, into the textile-printing business. It was his wife, Armi (1912-79), who, as art director, built Marimekko into a purveyor and advocate of a highly distinct and fashionable lifestyle concept. Armi hired young artists with a fresh vision and encouraged them to experiment. She gave them a free hand to respond to new artistic and social currents.
The results were spirited, non-traditional patterns with vivid colors that expressed an informal, contemporary, accessible way of life. Marimekko’s clothing, in particular, with its clean, unisex lines and free, loose-fitting style, conveyed a utopian feel of sexual equality and evoked the character of the 1960s. Marimekko was the first ready-to-wear fashion house that created a fashion sensation comparable to the renowned European haute couture houses.
When Marimekko introduced its first collection in Helsinki in spring 1951, the radical new designs, hand-printed on crisp cotton, invigorated the audience. The successful premiere helped launch the company’s brand identity in Finland, though economic success was still a decade away. The first Marimekko store opened in Helsinki in 1953, a year after Finland cleared its war indemnity with the Soviet Union. The export business was launched in 1958 at the Stockholm sales exhibition. The American audience was introduced to Marimekko in the late 1950s through architect Benjamin Thompson’s Cambridge-based chain of stores, Design Research. The publicity from that, as well as the extensive press coverage of Jacqueline Kennedy’s purchase of Marimekko dresses; the opening of Marimekko lifestyle stores in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia; and exhibitions in Boston, Paris, Stuttgart, and New York, brought the firm international recognition.
In the early 1960s, Ratia hired architect Aarno Ruusuvuori, whose work was considered Finland’s most ascetic. Ratia and Ruusuvuori collaborated to create various architectural projects. The Marimekko utopian community scheme, a comparatively unrecognized aspect of Marimekko that was of central importance to Ratia’s modern vision, was conceived as a village for 3,500 inhabitants, including Marimekko employees. In 1963 Ratia established the Marikylä Corporation with the intention of realizing Ruusuvuori’s vision of the village. The model house that was prefabricated at Bökars, the Marimekko company estate near Porvoo, a town located southeast of Helsinki, was described as a “minimum dwelling.” Numerous photographs taken of the house for advertising purposes reveal the primacy of the site in a thickly wooded forest and the colorful interiors, with prominent textiles hung from large windows. The press immediately identified with the project, describing it as Marimekko’s conquest of new architectural territory. In the end the ambitious scheme was never realized, due largely to economic factors and to the reluctance of employees to move permanently out of Helsinki to the countryside.
Ruusuvuori also designed an experimental sauna for Marimekko that was intended for the international market. The sauna, which, when Simo Rista photographed it overlooking the sea, became one of the iconic images of Finnish architecture, was also a prefabricated design that could be easily packaged and shipped. This concept was, in fact, in opposition to a refined version of the Finnish notion of a sauna built with vernacular materials according to vernacular traditions. Ruusuvuori’s sauna was another Marimekko idea that made a great impact when it was initiated, but never got beyond the prototype stage.
In 1967, Reijo Lahtinen from Ruusuvuori’s office designed Marimekko’s first printing factory in the industrial district of Verkkosaari in north-eastern Helsinki. In 1973, a new factory, designed by Erkki Kairamo with Reijo Lahtinen, was built near the center of Helsinki in Herttoniemi; to this day this location continues to be the center of Marimekko corporate culture.
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