Marimekko: Design Icon 1951–2018

This article was first published on Open Journal on March 30, 2018. Image courtesy of Bendigo Art Gallery.

Bold and bright prints and simple designs are the signatures of Finnish design house Marimekko.Bendigo Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, ‘Marimekko: Design Icon 1951 – 2018’, showcases the brand’s evolution and pays tribute to the designers who have helped shape its timelessness. Leanne Fitzgibbon, their senior curator, talks to us about the exhibition, which is an Australian exclusive for the gallery.

A collaborative company

“There’s a nostalgic connection to Marimekko,” says Fitzgibbon on what makes Marrimekko special. “Even though people may not necessarily know the name Marimekko, they will have a visual memory of its design work. Whether it’s from their family home in the seventies or their mum’s curtains in the kitchen, Marimekko’s design touches all aspects of life – in terms of interiors, homewares, fabrics and garments – so that’s something that people connect to and find familiar.”

Drawn from the collection of The Design Museum in Helsinki and curated by Harry Kivilinna, the exhibition brings together 60 Marimekko works, including garments, fabrics, homewares, sketches and other archival materials.

‘Marimekko: Design Icon’ has toured internationally, most recently being shown at seven venues across Japan. In wanting to update the exhibition to include Marimekko works up to 2018, Fitzgibbon supplemented it with some additional loan pieces supplied by Marimekko (which have since been donated to The Design Museum).

“What I think is fantastic about the exhibition is that it highlights the timelessness of Marimekko and their collaborative approach to design,” says Fitzgibbon. “We are looking at the work of a team of artists, designers, and fashion designers who have worked together collaboratively over the decades to create something really unique and, at the time, revolutionary in fabric and quite anti-fashion.”

Bold by design 

Established by Armi Ratia in Helsinki in1951, Marimekko is credited, through its free-flowing and colourful printed designs, for changing the way women in Finland dressed. Pioneering a look that centred on simplicity, practicality and freedom of movement.

“Marimekko was founded by a very strong female figure with this unique vision for something that was going to be completely modern and bold – and Armi Ratia herself was very modern and bold. In the fifties, she must have been quite an astonishing figure to encounter,” says Fitzgibbon. “Marimekko is a company and a design house that has – even until this day – the majority of its input come from female designers and contributors.”

In the sixties and seventies, Marimekko flourished. Expanding into international markets and counting the likes of Jackie Kennedy, activist Jane Jacobs, and Modernist artist Georgia O’Keeffe amongst its fans. The design house continued to evolve in the decades that followed, maintaining a focus on nurturing young designers and creating products that were distinctive and timeless. ‘Marimekko: Design Icon 1951 – 2018’ is an exhibition that chronicles their journey to becoming the iconic textiles, fashion, and interiors brand they are today.

An enduring legacy  

Fitzgerald notes that the exhibition is displayed thematically, rather than chronologically, highlighting the key designers who have worked with Marimekko. Among them, Maya Isola, the designer behind Marimekko’s well-known poppy design, Unikko.

“I really love Unikko because it’s so recognisable and timeless. I also love how it also tells the story of that dynamic between the founder, Armi Ratia, who said to all of her team, ‘We will never be a floral design company’ and then off Maya Isola goes to the studio and designs a complete collection based around the flower. I think it is to Armi Ratia’s credit that she recognised the potential in those designs. Unikko recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Maya Isola’s daughter and granddaughter both design for Marimekko, so there’s also a beautiful family connection that continues today.”

The Unikko also speaks of Marimekko’s ability to grow as a business. Fitzgibbon muses: “When I look at Unikko, it’s such a simple motif yet it’s quite versatile. Marimekko change the scale and colour – all with the permission of the designer’s family. It continues to evolve and I love that.”

‘Marimekko: Design Icon 1951 – 2018’ is on at the Bendigo Art Gallery until June 11.