x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Finland's Marimekko is a bright spot in 20th-century design

The Finnish company, known for bold floral and geometric shapes, celebrates the centennial of its founder, Armi Ratia, this year.

Marimekko's flagship store in Helsinki has everything from fabric to bedding. Courtesy of Marimekko
Marimekko's flagship store in Helsinki has everything from fabric to bedding. Courtesy of Marimekko

At the start of her career, the textile artist Armi Ratia said: "One has to dream. And one must stand out from the rest." The woman who founded Finland's famous design company, Marimekko, in 1951, certainly did both.

Known for its prints and cheerful designs, Marimekko has been described as one of the greatest success stories in the history of 20th-century design. Even if you don't necessarily know the brand by name, you'll know its signature look: big, bold, simple floral and geometric prints that find their way onto cushions, linens and ceramics.

Last year, the company celebrated its 60th anniversary; this year, it has something else to commemorate. Ratia, who died in 1979, would have been 100 years old this July.

All this year, Marimekko will honour her memory, starting with a year-long competition launched last month in Ratia's name, which encourages people to share their stories of everyday happiness.

Marimekko has also revived an original archive print from 1951, featuring hand-drawn scenes of Helsinki's landmarks to celebrate the capital's appointment as World Design Capital of the Year 2012. It's a simple yet fitting tribute to both the city's deserved design status and the company's founder.

Ratia set Marimekko up with her husband at a time when a disheartened Europe was putting itself back together after the Second World War. Her vision injected playful colours into a bleak Finnish landscape, making homes stylish yet warm and, on the fashion side, giving real women (with real shapes) flattering clothes to wear.

But what is it about Marimekko that has led to its long-lasting, worldwide appeal?

"Marimekko is always about strong emotions," says the company's creative director, Minna Kermell-Kutvonen. "Our passion for bright colours and bold black-and-white contrasts is unmistakable. Every day we work with the entire gamut of emotions: joy, calm, relaxed, energetic or even silent and brooding. It is this desire to combine seemingly contradictory emotions that makes Marimekko distinct in today's world."

In London, Selfridges opened a Marimekko pop-up store at the start of this year. Caitlin McCann, the head buying manager, says: "There's something about Marimekko that is timeless. It combines a mid-century modern flavour with retro heritage and that's very, very cool right now. But also, it is quite simply a lovely, joyful brand. The first thing you think of when it comes to Marimekko is colour - it's bright and it's fun, and that's what makes it so enduring."

It also helps, of course, that Scandinavian design is coveted the world over and sets the scene for interiors styles. That demand explains why Marimekko has 84 stores worldwide, including a flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue that opened last year. In the UAE, Marimekko can be found in Crate & Barrel stores in Dubai.

Marimekko's Helsinki flagship, which will also be the home of all sorts of in-store events as part of the WDC year celebrations, is spread out over two, huge floors, with reams of fabric for sewing projects and shelves full of folksy-style crockery and teapots, colourful glassware and bold bed linens and towels. It's a rainbow of sherbet colours, and anyone wanting to introduce the look at home would have to be careful not to overdo it.

"Marimekko's unique style creates the strongest impact when statement printed pieces are mixed with plain accessories," says Gillian Anderson, the trading director at Heal's in London, which set up a Marimekko pop-up store for London Design Week last year. "So a black sofa would look stunning when teamed with the brighter, printed coloured cushions and accessories."

Some might find the chirpier side of Marimekko's palette too much. The ubiquitous Unikko print, with big, childlike hand-drawn flowers, comes in lime greens, acid yellows and the most shocking of shocking pinks. The colour explosion can leave you shell-shocked, but it's easy to tone it down.

"For those who find the colours too bold, there are gentler, calmer, more watery shades. My favourites include the Lumimarja range, which is full of beautiful, soft pistachio greens and almond browns and a cherry blossom-style print," says McCann. "Or stick to the monochrome. Another of my favourite designs is the Hetkia print, which has a lovely line drawing of a street scene in black and white."

The interiors stylist and blogger Will Taylor, who runs Bright Bazaar, a blog on how to style your home with colour, says the best way to work with the bold colours that Marimekko loves is through layering with textiles and accessories.

"Build up the look over time as you live with different hues, and see what works in the space," he says. "Start by adding a few new cushions on your sofa, perhaps in complimentary colour block shades, and then add an accent colour in the form of a throw or a rug to tie in the scheme. As well as textiles, think about creating colourful vignettes with collections of items - vases, trinkets, framed prints - from the same colour palette but in varying heights, shapes and sizes, and arrange them on your coffee table or sideboard. This will break up space and create an interesting talking point."

Kemell-Kutvonen says there are colours to suit every style, even those with more sober, streamlined tastes. "Our passion for bright colours and bold black and white contrasts is unmistakable. And we also use silent tones and muted hues to bring out subtle contrasts."

Part of the Marimekko philosophy is to encourage creativity, so sewing your own cushions or curtains is positively encouraged. Last year, it published Surrur, a craft book full of do-it-yourself guides that had craft and design bloggers going crazy over its unusual sewing ideas, which included a scalloped patchwork tablecloth and a giant fabric owl for children.

"There's still a real trend for make-do-and-mend and learning to sew," says McCann. "It's something more and more people are spending time on, and it's easy to see the attraction. The great thing about Marimekko fabric is that even if you are on a tight budget, you can introduce a little pop of colour through stitching something small. After all, there's nothing nicer than making something totally unique with your own hands."