A funny thing happened on the way to the Marimekko headquarters in Helsinki, Finland. I saw a woman walking down the street in an outfit of brown, olive, taupe, and three shades of blue—from navy to sky. It was the exact same combination of colors I had seen a day earlier at the Helsinki Design Museum in an exhibition of fabrics by Rut Bryk, inspired by the colors of Lapland. It was a coincidental echo, but an interesting one, because Helsinki’s apparent love of color combinations and patterns was the reason I was heading to Marimekko in the first place.
It’s not that Finland don’t value understatement as much as other Scandinavian countries. Known for their mindful design taste, the Finns have designed some of Northern Europe’s most iconic “functional furniture,” such as the three-legged Alvar Aalto birch stool, the very essence of simplicity. But these quintessentially Scandinavian pieces always coexist with an abundance of bold patterns, prints, and colors. You see it everywhere. At a third-wave coffee house, a modernist teapot with a striking graphic pattern and matching cups sits on a simple wood table. Iconic Kaj Franck goblets in every color are center stage in seemingly every kitchen cupboard.
In Helsinki I stayed in an apartment furnished with the aforementioned Alavar Aalto stools as well as Aalto’s covetable serving cart, but the focal point was a bed covered in Marimekko’s Fall 2017 Pieni Letto print in dark green, brown, light oranges and a riot of patterned throw pillows. The space felt far from the clutter overload minimalists fear. Nor did it feel “craftsy” (my own pet peeve)—just sleek and modern. “Finnish people don’t go bold, colorful, and fun on everything—the opposite actually,” says Helsinki-based interior designer Linda Bergroth. “They tend to like peaceful, timeless, and simple design like the Japanese, and on the other hand choose very wild, bold, and crazy prints. What’s nice is that these two opposites—neutral and crazy colorful—can coexist in an interior or person at the same time.”
A close relationship with nature drives a lot of Finnish style: bold graphic prints and rich colors are often inspired by forests, the sea, islands, rocks, and berries. The joy taken from nature—even the darkening days of autumn and the lightless days of winter—and its presence in the home is, you might say, the Finnish equivalent of hygge.
“We have four different seasons. A very long, dark winter and very short, nightless summer feeds our need to use colors. But our Finnish stolid character keeps our design simple,” says Päivi Meuronen, an interior designer and architect who was just awarded Finnish architecture’s top Finlandia prize.
“Finns need colors and love colors . . . today we talk about chromatic colors that have a healing effect. Maybe colors are as healing, give as much energy,” says Mirkku Kullberg, former CEO of Artek and current marketing director of the Kämp Group, which is behind the upcoming Hotel St. George. Kullberg is a fan of the work of graphic designer Klaus Haapaniemi, who has designed mugs with fairy-tale and animal motifs for Iittala. “Prints and graphics have always been part of the design language, like storytelling,” adds Kullberg, who is working with Haapaniemi on a wallpaper for St. George’s Winter Garden Room.
The brand that is most obviously associated with the Finnish tendency toward color and pattern is, of course, Marimekko, the home furnishings and fashion company known for its large, joyful prints. Founded in 1951 by Armi Ratia at a time when the country was in a kind of cultural vacuum and a “young generation needed statements for the identity,” as Kullberg says, Ratia hired young female artists to print fabrics with distinctive patterns and bold colors at her husband’s oil cloth production company. Her vision was a liberating utopian view of decorating and dressing, one that encouraged optimism, egalitarianism, freedom, and a certain kind of courage in self-expression. It was, as she said, “a cultural phenomenon guiding the quality of living.”
“Fun came when Finns started to use tablecloth prints as garment fabrics,” Kullberg says. Petri Juslin, Marimekko’s artwork studio manager, can testify to this: He grew up with printed fabric in his home and saw it in his friends’ homes. “You could buy a piece of cloth and frame it as art, or use it as a curtain,” he explains.
Juslin, who has worked at the company for 30 years, oversees a team of designers that adds fresh prints and inspirations to the more than 3,000 patterns already in the archives. He shows me books of swatches, a riot of bright patterns and some of the 5,000 colorways in the company. “We don’t use Pantone or anything like that. They have nothing compared to us.”
Marimekko’s team of designers still uses pencils, brushes, and scissors to make the prototypes, creating the imperfect brushstokes and cut-outs that give much of the charm to their prints. All the fabrics tell a story. Kivet (Stones), designed by Maija Isola in 1956, is a pattern that builds on circles cut with scissors, inspired by stones she saw on the ground of her atelier. “You can see the cut-outs. They are a little bit imperfect and childlike, and I think that’s something that touches people’s hearts,” Juslin says. That particular Finnish way of appreciating nature and expressing it through a direct relationship with design seems so appealing as we move into a transitional season and toward colder weather. Even better? It’s a design philosophy that states you can never have too much.
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