Fashionable Ideals

On the surface, Armi Ratia and Lilly Pulitzer have a lot in common.
Both women got their start in the 1950s and became famous for producing
fabrics printed with bright colors and bold graphics. Both had a
spirited, playful appeal—Pulitzer had her kitschy duck and turtle
patterns, and Ratia named her company Marimekko, which translates from
the Finnish as “little Mary dress.” And Jackie Kennedy brought a jolt
of publicity to both labels when she turned up in magazine features
wearing their dresses.

But in deeper ways, Ratia was the thinking woman’s Pulitzer. The latter
was an eccentric New York socialite who got into the apparel business
in the late fifties, after friends became smitten with the uniforms she
made for workers at her juice shop in Palm Beach. Ratia, however, was
ambitious from the start, a charismatic art director whose business
sense was as sharp as her eye for talent. In 1951, when Finland was
still emerging from the shadow of World War II, she was looking to make
her mark in the male-dominated design world—and did so in large part by
banking on inexperienced women fresh out of design school. She was also
looking back to modernist “gesamkunstwerk” ideals like Germany’s
Bauhaus movement, where designers of all kinds came together to apply
their individual talents to a larger, progressive, even utopian vision.
(Nevertheless, as with so many designer objects touted for their
accessibility, Marimekko was and is relatively exclusive—Old Navy it
ain’t.) 

These days, with companies like Target bringing “good design” to the
masses, it’s difficult to imagine how radical Marimekko was at its
inception. During a time when staid florals dominated Finnish textiles,
Maija Isola, one of the company’s first and most famous designers,
began turning out idiosyncratic figurative patterns and large-scale
abstractions of stones, birds, and leaves. Like her compatriot, the
architect Alvaar Aalto, she borrowed from Finnish folkloric traditions
while simultaneously blazing modernist trails. Then there was the cut
of Marimekko clothing. Even as Christian Dior’s wasp-waisted postwar
“New Look” was spreading internationally, Marimekko became possibly the
first label to put forth an “anti-fashion” message with the designs of
Vuokko Nurmesniemi. Aiming to create clothing to accentuate the
wearer’s personality rather than her figure, Nurmesniemi’s voluminous
shapes and simple lines were also well suited to Marimekko’s
large-scale patterns.

Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture, which is on view at the
Rochester Art Center (through August 20, 507-282-8629), traces the
evolution of Marimekko through the sixties, seventies, and on up to its
present-day revival. Interestingly, among all the suspended fabric
swaths and lovely, covetable dresses, it’s the video montage of
publicity and industrial footage that speaks most clearly about
Marimekko’s fresh, fun, and decidedly quirky sensibility. One
especially piquant segment shows a gaggle of rosy-cheeked,
Marimekko-clad youths cavorting on a rocky Finnish seashore. They
gather in a circle and, laughing all the while, pass around a massive
goblet of orange juice as a toast to clean living and tasteful
clothing.—Julie Caniglia