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Colour, joy and timeless designs: Behind the scenes at Marimekko

Posted on 07 May 2021

Step into a world of printmaking at the much-loved Finnish design house and discover the perks of a ‘colour kitchen’, the simple pleasure of a coffee cup, and why Marimekko might have been an ice cream shop instead.

Among the rotary printing screens in Marimekko’s factory, Herttoniemi. Osma Harvilahti, pre-Spring 2021. Models: Melanie Bangura, Simona Porta.

Marimekko was made to be different. Established in 1951, the brand’s founder Armi Ratia was a charismatic force, and in many ways well ahead of her time, building her company on principles of sustainability, women’s empowerment and creative freedom. Over the last seventy years, Marimekko has grown into a global success, but its Finnish heritage remains key to everything – from bright prints designed to combat winter blues to the company’s extraordinary printing factory in the heart of Helsinki.

In celebration of Marimekko: The Art of Printmaking, we spoke to four members of the Marimekko creative team to discover what inspires their iconic prints, and how their designers and technical specialists bring timeless designs to life.

Creative Inspiration and the Printmaking Process, with Minna Kemell-Kutvonen, Director, Home Design & Prints

Where does the life of a Marimekko print begin?

When we create new collections, we start by taking inspiration from our design archive, which contains 3,500 patterns from all seven decades of Marimekko’s history. We also work closely with freelance designers, to complement this legacy with new thinking. It’s always about finding a type of balance, working things from the archive together with new interpretations. Our archives are so big that we often find things we haven’t seen before, even those of us who have been at Marimekko a long time!

What happens next is that we brief print designers and product designers on a theme for a new collection, and we have them send us their own interpretation on that theme. We really cherish creative freedom, so that designers can bring their own ideas to things. There is a lot of room for dialogue throughout the whole process, as we further develop their great ideas. Everything is very collaborative and cooperative, so it’s really a creative community.

The influence of nature can be seen throughout Marimekko’s designs, most recognizably in the iconic Unikko flower print. As well as nature, where do you draw inspiration from?

I have to say that everyday life is our main source of inspiration. Our designers always say that: it’s just everyday life! You can find everything there. That is the most inspiring thing, and it means that our designers are really living and enjoying their life, and then taking influences from there and transforming them into designs.

Throughout Marimekko’s history, and today, it’s been really important that we invite many different types of designers to join our community, in order to have different hand styles and design languages. Marimekko’s aesthetic really comes to life when there are combinations of different aesthetics. You might call them happy contradictions, or opposites. They power each other, and they become something more.

Unikko, Maija Isola, 1964.

How does an idea become a finished Marimekko print?

First we brief the designers and they begin to work. Once they have a design ready, they’ll show us their first sketches and then we’ll give them some feedback, and we continue like this. We have a lot of in-house technical expertise in terms of printmaking, so it means that designers have complete freedom in the creative process, knowing that the technical team will be able to support them and capture their designs on fabrics or other products.

Can you tell us about the Marimekko factory in Herttoniemi? What takes place there, and how are prints brought to life?

The printing factory here in Herttoniemi is about six kilometres from the Helsinki city centre. It’s part of our headquarters, and it’s the heart and soul of Marimekko. The factory is an absolutely crucial part of our creative process, where craftspeople and designers are able to come together to share their knowledge. The factory is also where innovation happens, when technical specialists and designers meet. It’s a kind of test lab for innovating with materials and dyes.

The factory is the only one in the Nordic countries operating on an industrial scale. A lot of our home textiles, kitchen textiles and dresses are printed here.

Hand-screening the Armi Ratia-designed Tiiliskivi (Brick). Tony Vaccaro/Tony Vaccaro Studio.

How do designers and printmakers work with colour? Are there any limitations?

If we have a colour we want to create on a print, we can give a real-world reference to our colour kitchen, and they can prepare it for us. But we also have a library of thousands and thousands of colours – many nuanced tones, and a lot of yellows, blues and so on. So we are able to come back to beautiful tones we used earlier.

How has the printmaking process changed since Marimekko’s founding 70 years ago? What has stayed the same?

There have been changes in terms of technical solutions and digitization, and also dyes have changed for environmental reasons. But what has stayed the same is the integrity of our designs, and the focus on originality and creativity.

As the book explains, ‘It is always possible to find a human touch, a trace of the hand, in a Marimekko print’. What role does ‘perfect imperfection’ play in the making of prints?

Human touch is absolutely one of the key features in Marimekko prints. It’s such a strong part of our design language and it makes our products approachable, and also better to look at. This ‘perfect imperfection’ makes the designs more pleasing to experience. Being mechanical would not feel good or interesting.

Collection building and the Marimekko dress, with Satu Maaranen and Emmakaisa Kirves, Head Designers

Why is the Marimekko dress such an important part of the design ethos of the brand?

Emmakaisa Kirves: It all starts from the Marimekko name itself. ‘Mari’ is a typical Finnish name for a woman, and ‘Mekko’ is actually Finnish for ‘dress’. So it’s ‘Mari’s dress’.

Satu Maaranen: And there’s actually even deeper meaning in the name. ‘Mari’ is a woman’s name, but also, if you turn the letters in a different order, it’s the first name of our founder, Armi Ratia. So it’s like her dress, kind of.

EK: I think ‘liberating’ is a good word to describe Marimekko. When you use our clothing, you have to feel free to do whatever you want. And a dress is such a good product for that.

Anja Vaccaro in New York, wearing a brightly coloured, collared dress designed by Liisa Suvanto. Tony Vaccaro/Tony Vaccaro Studio.

What inspires Marimekko’s collections?

EK: Something that has always been super important is the people – the people with whom you create the collections and the people around you. We very much create collections together as a community, and so that’s something that always inspires us.

SM: Another aspect is architecture. That has been there throughout the decades, and I would say that many of Marimekko’s patterns are very architectural.

Sustainability was a key focus for Armi Ratia right from the beginning, and is something that remains crucial to the company today. Can you tell us about Marimekko’s ethos of sustainability? 

EK: Sustainability has always been important for us, every day. While we of course follow what’s happening around us, we focus on timeless and beautiful design, instead of being too trendy.

SM: We believe that the products of tomorrow leave no trace, and that’s a part of our sustainability strategy that we really focus on. It’s about creating something that lasts for a long time, and then goes back to the planet.

EK: In each collection, we bring in new and more sustainable ways to create prints, and we are always led by that.

SM: It’s one of our main goals at the moment. Everything starts with it, every decision. At the designer’s table, if we have two options to choose from, we always choose the more sustainable one. Fairness and equality are also an important part of this subject. Who we work with, and what kinds of factories and production places we use, is super important.

EK: It’s also in-house. It’s very much a community that we have. Inside the company but also outside – everything is equally important.

SM: Another thing to mention, which is our speciality, is cutting tactics. We really think carefully about how we place the patterns on top of prints, so that we leave as little waste as possible.

EK: There are a lot of mathematics in designing!

SM: Exactly, and sometimes we make products where the purpose is that each and every one is unique, and it leaves nothing leftover.

Marimekko founder Armi Ratia left a powerful legacy. How do her ideas influence your day-to-day work?

EK: Armi once said that Marimekko could be anything – it could sell chairs, or it could be an ice cream shop or a flower shop, or anything. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a philosophy, instead of a strict business plan.

Looking back and forward, with Sanna-Kaisa Niikko, Chief Marketing Officer

With characteristic optimism, Armi Ratia once said that ‘crisis situations have good effects. They bring about new thinking’. Has the pandemic offered any surprising sources of creativity at Marimekko?

It’s been a really tough year for everybody around the world, and we were in a similar type of situation when Marimekko was founded. In post-war Finland, people were yearning for positivity, optimism, fresh ideas and energy, and I think that’s something that Marimekko can bring to people. It’s maybe one of the biggest learnings for us, that people do come to us for positivity. It’s really meaningful for our everyday life and work, to be able to bring that joy to people.

We’ve been super impressed by our community, especially on social media, and how they have interacted with us and created content together with us and taken part in different kinds of activities. The meaning of that community has become increasingly important. The underlying purpose of our brand, of bringing joy, has now become even more relevant than it was a year ago.

The other thing is that we’re a lifestyle brand, and we have our home collection. Here in the Nordic countries especially, decorating your home is something that a lot of people do, it’s not prestigious or precious. Now of course people spend so much time at home, there’s a whole new kind of world that’s opening up to more people around the world, and that’s been inspiring for us as well.

Three nature-inspired designs by Maija Isola. Claire Aho. © Jussi Brofeldt.

The past year has forced us all to find joy in the simplest of things, but the ‘elevation of the everyday’ has always been a driving force for Marimekko. Can you tell us more about this philosophy?

I think that this purpose, of bringing joy to everyday life, comes from the Nordic and maybe more specifically Finnish kind of thinking. We tend to think that there’s even more power in the everyday than in the festive moments. It’s actually super meaningful to have your morning coffee from a nice cup, or to be able to look at beautiful curtains in your home.

Sometimes people might ask, ‘How did this brand with so much colour come from Finland?’ Because it’s a country that’s very dark, with long winters. But I think that’s exactly the secret, that we spend so much time at home. I think the rest of the world is now joining us in that! But in the dark months, it’s so important to have something to cheer you up in your everyday life. And that’s definitely something that we are happy to do.


Interviews by Grace Flahive

Marimekko: The Art of Printmaking

Laird Borrelli-Persson