Fresh as a daisy
A landmark exhibit proves Marimekko designs are timeless.
If we were to pick one word to describe the Marimekko sensibility, happy might be the most apt. The Finnish textile company, which started in 1951, produced colorful, splashy bold flowers and geometric designs that were ubiquitous in modern homes for decades before losing their bloom. But this is great design we are talking about; if Marimekko was ever passé, it was for the nanosecond that it took to crossover into the realm of timeless.
“Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture” opens Saturday 10 at S.R. Crown Hall on the IIT campus. The exhibit was curated by Marianne Aav, the director of the Design Museum, Finland, in conjunction with the Bard Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture. The Mies van der Rohe Society is hosting the exhibit in Chicago with support from Crate&Barrel, and the exhibit couldn’t have landed in a better place: Crown Hall (built between 1950–1956) still glows from its recent makeover. It has modern icon status in common with Marimekko—both were born of the same period and the same spirit. Justine Jentes, the director of the Mies society, says the last time Crown Hall was used as a showcase for an exhibition was the Mies centennial in 1986. When Jentes first learned of the Marimekko exhibit a few years ago, she contacted Carole Segal, an IIT trustee and cofounder (with husband Gordon) of Crate&Barrel, to figure out a way to bring the show to Chicago. For the Segals, sponsorship was an opportunity to celebrate 40 years of collaboration between the two companies.
“When we first introduced Marimekko designs in our stores in the mid-’60s, our selection included apparel,” says Gordon Segal in a recent interview. “I remember one occasion where we actually hosted a fashion show in our first store on Wells Street. The models posed on the large crates that we used then as display tables.” (Marimekko fashion got a boost in the states from Jacqueline Kennedy who wore the dresses during the 1960 presidential campaign.)
Crate&Barrel’s kinship with the Finnish company continues to this day. “Marimekko shares our passion for clean, contemporary design that is unique, but accessible,” Segal says.
Marimekko was started by Armi and Viljo Ratia. Armi studied textile arts in Helsinki in the 1930s, but worked as a copywriter after college. When Viljo purchased an oilcloth printing works in 1949, he asked his wife to create some new designs. Armi was interested in printing on cloth as an alternative to weaving, so she contacted some artist and graphic designer friends and put them to work. Armi’s creative genius was in pulling together designers and running a company which she envisioned from the very start to be not just about cloth, but a lifestyle. She worked with more than 100 artists —the most prominent was Maija Isola who created some of Marimekko’s most famous designs. Voukko Nurmesniemi’s Jokapoika (Everyboy) shirt is still in production after 50 years. “At one time in Finland it was nicknamed ‘the uniform of the architects’ because it was used by almost every younger-generation architect,” says Aav in a recent interview.
The idea behind the exhibition is to tell the story of this innovative textile company and, with more than 150 works of fabrics and fashion on display, show how it developed from a small, hand-printing workshop to an internationally famous bohemian business. After Armi Ratia died in 1979,the company came close to bankruptcy. It was purchased in the early 1990s by Kirsti Paakkanen who managed to make the company—thanks no doubt to an appreciation for modernism—profitable again. This rebirth is partly what drew Marianne Aav to the project. “For me it was really interesting to explore all those—sometimes crazy—things that Marimekko has been producing during the years, and to try to understand why it became so famous, and what it represented in its historical context,” Aav says.
The exhibition at IIT includes mannequins on pedestals sporting fashion and textiles—14 to 18 feet long—that hang dramatically from the ceiling. “The point of [the exhibit] was to show off not just Marimekko but the glory of the building,” says Jentes. Mies might have preferred his pristine, glass box to remain unadorned, but his creation is the perfect backdrop for Marimekko’s exuberant designs.
“Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashions, Architecture,” is on exhibit at Crown Hall through Jul 28.