As Finland continued its slow recovery from World War II in the early 1950s, textile designer Armi Ratia seized the opportunity to bring hope and optimism to the country–—in the form of brightly colored and boldly patterned fabrics and clothing. From the remnants of her husband Viljo’s oilcloth company, the couple launched Marimekko in 1951. Less than a decade later, Jackie Kennedy graced a December 1960 cover of Sports Illustrated in a pink Marimekko dress, and the company took off, gaining renown for its bright, modern, fashion-forward textiles and clothing.
Today, a visit to Marimekko’s 43,000-square-foot factory in Helsinki reveals that its printing process and emphasis on big, bold patterns–—which continue to bring the company great success–—have changed little over the years. "Screen printing is a tried-and-true old technology, and printing large, six-foot-long patterns is rare these days," says Petri Juslin, manager of Marimekko’s artwork studio. "This, however, is what we are known and loved for and what we excel at." While many of its competitors are outsourcing their manufacturing, Marimekko continues to keep its production right at home and at the heart of its business, printing more than a million yards of fabric each year.
The magic starts in Marimekko’s artwork studio, a simple room dominated by a large table surrounded by six skilled employees–—many trained as designers. These workers interpret drawings from contributing designers and convert them into patterns. Marimekko gives contributors carte blanche on how to present their ideas to the artwork team: Some paint, some draw, some design on computers.
"One designer, Erja Hirvi, even came in with real branches she had attached to a piece of paper with tape," Juslin says. The result was Lumimarja, which became one of the company’s best-selling textiles.
Once a design is approved, the artwork studio team determines the necessary number of colors. Marimekko designs can have up to 12 colors, though overprinting layers of ink can create additional shades. More colors means more work–—though pricing is based on material and possible treatments and not on the color quantities. "We don’t charge more for more-expensive-to-produce fabrics," Juslin says. The most difficult pattern to date is Vattenblank, designed by Astrid Sylwan for Marimekko’s Fall 2011 collection. The textile resembles a contemporary painting and is a tour-de-force of the company’s printing know-how. Its gradient effects, overlapping colors, and the sheer size of the repeat make it more a work of art than an industrially produced product.