CAMBRIDGE — Marimekko , the Helsinki-based purveyor of bold Scandinavian prints began business more than 60 years ago. But the Marimekko look and graphic lexicon as we know it today was defined 50 years ago when Maija Isola designed the iconic Unikko (meaning poppy in Finnish).
Today that flower pattern, immediately identifiable with the brand, is on everything from oven mitts to dresses. If you’ve ever stepped into Crate & Barrel, you’re very familiar with the big, balloon-like blooms. But it’s a pattern that almost never happened.
“In 1964, the owner of the company [Armi Ratia] was a bit bored with flowers,” said Mika Piirainen, a designer for the company who was visiting the Huron Village store last week. “She told the designers that they were not doing any more floral prints, only graphic prints. She told them that they would never be able to replicate the beauty of natural flowers.”
But Isola ignored Ratia’s edict, and designed a floral pattern. Actually, a lot of floral patterns. Unikko was one of them.
“She was quite rebellious,” Piirainen said. “I guess most artists are. I’m often told not to do something, but I’ll do it anyway.”
Piirainen sat down to talk about Unikko, and also a special line he designed for the brand to celebrate the pattern.
Q. There are only nine Marimekko stores in the US, and we have two of them here. Why the focus on Boston?
A. We have a history here in Boston and Cambridge. People remember us from Design Research [a now-defunct store in Harvard Square that specialized in Scandinavian design]. I heard about this place so much that I went to the building yesterday. There’s now an Anthropologie in there. It’s just an amazing space. [The 1969 concrete and glass building was designed by Benjamin Thompson and Associates.] There’s a Marimekko feeling in the architecture. My plan is that they’ll leave in a couple of years, and we’ll reclaim the building. If they don’t leave, we’ll chain ourselves to the walls until they do. You can write that, so they’ll start getting scared now.
Q. It sounds serious.
A. Yes, we’re coming, the Finnish invasion. But don’t you think that would be the best thing? That would be the perfect ending to the story.
Q. You have such an important role working with all of these revered, classic patterns. Do you ever feel it’s a challenge to get them out to the world in new ways?
A. Always. That’s why after 20 years I’m still working at the company. It feels like I’m just starting because there are thousands of prints, some that have never been issued, in colorways that have never been outside of our archives. I can play with the scale, and I can play with the colors. I’ve designed everything from umbrellas, clocks, pillows, and fashion.
Q. Did you have a hand in designing the new Marimekko capsule collection for Banana Republic?
A. No, not at all. A team from Banana Republic came to our offices, but we weren’t directly involved. I very much like what they did. I’m a bit jealous of what they did, but in a nice way.
Q. The Marimekko point of view feels very Scandinavian, and in some cases very retro 1960s pop. Why do you think it’s survived?
A. The company was born in 1951, and Finland was still struggling to come out of the war. I think the company started because they wanted to bring colors and happiness back into people’s lives, and we still do that. We have long winters such as you have them here. So it offers a bit of brightness, and I think that’s part of the appeal.
But when you think about it, a lot of companies ended up taking our ideas of being a lifestyle brand. You have H&M and Ikea. They were founded before Marimekko, but evolved into lifestyle brands. I don’t think they’d be where they are today if it wasn’t for us.
Q. What was the inspiration behind the clothing line that you designed for the 50th anniversary of Unikko?
A. Just the joy of the print. The happiness of it, and also the ability to show how many ways it can be used. I really want to keep telling the story of Marimekko. There’s an entire generation that doesn’t know about Marimekko, and so we need to keep reinventing ourselves to reach them.