The merry kingdom of Marimekko

poppies.jpgAround this time last year I was visiting my friend Julie in Seattle and I had about an hour to kill. Naturally I went straight to the Pike Place Market because hey, if someone’s throwing fish, I’m so there.

As I was walking through the little indoor marketplace I passed a store selling a bunch of housewares in this red floral pattern I knew I’d seen a million times before. While it looked familiar, and I was pretty sure it was famous, I couldn’t quite place where I’d seen it. The bright amoeba-like petals tugged on my brain as I walked up towards the food stalls. It was a slow afternoon—there were no airborne fish—so I went back to that store with the flowers. Besides, I still had a good 45 minutes.

Captivated by the way they had beckoned to me from the window, I bought a small purse printed with those pop-art poppies. From the moment I slung it over my shoulder I realized this tiny purchase somehow made me inordinately happy. The red flowers, as I soon learned, were the signature pattern Unikko from the Finnish textile company Marimekko, designed by Maija Isola in 1964. Later that day, I proudly told the story of my new purchase to my mom, knowing she’d be impressed by my talent for re-discovering this lost gem of midcentury design. “Well of course you like it,” she said. “That fabric was hanging over your crib when you were a baby.”

While I was stunned that my still-soft skull had managed to file this rather important detail, it was no surprise that my mom had discovered Marimekko more than 30 years before. As legend has it, Jackie Kennedy bought seven Marimekko dresses during John F.’s presidential campaign, and as we all know, Jackie Kennedy only needed to buy one of your dresses to make you an unequivocal success.

As I learned today when I toured the factory, the Marimekko brand could have been anything, really. Armi Ratia founded the company in 1949 with the intention of inspiring a war-ravaged Finland to find “everyday happiness.” It just so happened her husband owned an oilcloth company, and it just so happened Armi was able to recruit a legion of savvy young designers who continually breathed new life into this technicolor universe. Jackie Kennedy (my fashion idol, I might add) wore those textiles at John F. Kennedy’s side in 1960 for same reason my mom stretched Unikko and another Marimekko pattern, Pikku Bo boo, onto canvases for the nursery of her baby girl in 1977. Marimekko symbolizes hope.

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Marimekko’s press director, Tiina Alahuhta—whose personality, if made into a textile, would look like Unikko—said that as part of her job, she hears stories just like mine almost every day. Children of the 60s and 70s especially love to tell her their very specific encounters with Marimekko’s wild optimism. The vibrant textiles seem to be embedded in the subconscious of an entire generation.

My earliest memories are especially sharp; I can answer detailed questions about that house where Unikko hung over my crib, a place we moved away from when I was three. But as much as I imagine I can see them there, I can’t say I remember those red poppies at all. What I do know is that wandering the halls of Marimekko today, with these wide swaths of fluorescent fabric unfurling from the ceilings like some kind of United Nations of Positive Thinking, I realized a place has never made me so happy.

More photos from Marimekko. Sadly I wasn’t allowed to snap any of the not-yet-released prints, but I guarantee you’ll love them!

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  • http://bestexcuses.com Ellen Lutwak

    Delightful writing — as always. The nuggets of history — the company’s and yours — are delicious. (And what brought you to Finland?)

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  • Alissa

    Hey Ellen! I’m doing a story for ID and chasing down a bunch of other great stories, too. I highly recommend Helsinki for design fanatics!

  • http://Gelatobaby Susanne Pelikan

    Hi Alissa, I loved your story. I too loved and love Marimekko. It makes me happy to see your work and hear about your accomplishments from your mom. It seems her good taste has rubbed off on you.

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    thanks much, brother

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