Finnish Line: Designers Discuss Spirit of Marimekko

The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum recently kicked off “Design by Hand,” a new series focused on the craftsmanship, innovations, and merits of contemporary global designers, with an evening that spotlighted Marimekko. We sent writer Nancy Lazarus to get an inside look at the Finnish design house, renowned for its original prints and colors.

Marimekko’s Jussarö cotton fabric, designed by Aino-Maija Metsola, is part of the Helsinki-based company’s new Weather Diary collection. Below, Sami Ruotsalainen’s teapot uses the Räsymatto pattern designed by Maija Louekari.

While the name Marimekko is based on “Mari” a girl’s name, and “mekko,” the Finnish word for dress, to its legions of worldwide fans it stands for fond memories and cheery graphic prints. The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum recently hosted an event featuring three Marimekko designers: fashion and textile designer Mika Piirainen, ceramics and product designer Sami Ruotsalainen, and print designer Aino-Maija Metsola. While each designer offered a unique insider’s perspective, selected themes surfaced that shed light on the brand’s impressive longevity:

Potpourri of patterns: “While Marimekko is known for bold designs, it’s not all about massive prints, it’s also about contrasts,” Piirainen said. “We’re crazy about dots, and circles are the friendliest shapes in the world. We’re crazy about stripes, too,” he added. Flowers and their textures are also popular motifs, even black and white solids. Recently these designers have also turned their focus to smaller prints.

Individual inspirations and influences: “It’s important that inspirations for products are close to you so people know there are emotions behind them,” Metsola said. Finland’s islands in the archipelago, seasonal weather patterns, and vegetation form the basis of much of her work, such as her “Weather Diary” aquarelles or “Midsummer Magic” collections. Piirainen is also influenced by nature, and takes photos during his travels to Lapland and Australia. For Ruotsalainen, food and items of everyday life impact his designs.

Merrier vs. moodier motifs: The Marimekko brand is expressive and playful, and happiness is central to Piirainen’s designs. As he observed, “rain is a happy thing when you dress it up with happy colors.” That theme was echoed during the audience Q & A, when a longtime customer said she’s been using the brand’s duvets for several years, and she always goes to bed happy.

Core of classic colors: Marimekko typically uses bright primary colors, black and white, said Ruotsalainen. Now the spectrum has evolved towards green and earth tones. For Marimekko’s flagship store opening in New York, Metsola said they “built a big wall with a splash of color.”

Painstaking process: Marimekko’s process involves sample fabrics printed by hand and a Lapland-based pattern cutter, though selected fabrics are digitally produced. While each designer’s approach is different, they use a combination of sketchbooks, mood boards, color maps, inspiration boards, and photos while on-the-go or in their home studios. “I experiment with all kinds of techniques so I don’t get too comfortable,” Metsola said.

Finnair’s new flair: A recent project representing a departure for the brand was Finnair’s commission to design the exterior of their planes and their business class tableware and blankets. As Ruotsalainen noted, “it’s the biggest design work I’ve done,” and Finnair selected him based on his ceramics designs. He said he “glued the flowers on a 3D model plane, then Finnair painted a real-life plane model since there was no place for mistakes.”

Timeless and trendy: Around since 1951, Marimekko has managed to stay au courant. “I think it’s more sustainable to make things that are timeless,” Metsola said. First Lady Jackie Kennedy popularized Marimekko in America after wearing several of the brand’s dresses. The Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever” inspired the brand’s “Strawberry Mountains” pattern (pictured above, on tote bag), which is still sold today.

Piirainen said Marimekko brings back selected designs from their archives. When asked how the brand keeps up with the latest trends, he paused. “Marimekko doesn’t need to buy trend books since our designs are already in there.”

Writer Nancy Lazarus is a frequent contributor to UnBeige. Learn about her here.