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Marimekko's Unikko pattern is 50 years old: Why does it still feel fresh?

All images from Marimekko

Designs that don’t stale-date are a rarity. Nothing says 1994 like wall-to-wall beige. Floral chintz is painfully Victorian. The Unikko pattern – splotchy poppies in vibrant colours – is an exception. It was created 50 years ago by Finnish fashion and home furnishing brand Marimekko. It has the versatility and longevity of Meryl Streep – originally a textile, it is now emblazoned on everything from tea cups and couch cushions to airplanes and buses – with the freshness of Lupita Nyong’o. Despite being a half-century old, it’s still potently playful and wildly youthful.

When Unikko was created in 1964, it was timely. It reflected the growing optimism of the era (Europe was emerging from its postwar bleakness), and presaged the hippie, flower-power movement (poppies are tantamount to a peace sign, after all). But unlike other trappings of the decade – platforms and bell-bottoms – it doesn’t belie its vintage.

Maybe the reason for its timelessness is that it was created as an act of rebellion, and rebellion always has an exciting energy. Coco Chanel’s jersey suits, for example, which liberated women from corsetry, were created in 1916 but still look modern. Punk is pushing 40 but anti-conformist kids continue to show their angst with piercings and plaid.

When Armi Ratia founded Marimekko in the early 1950s (taking over her husband’s failed oilcloth business), she wanted to create uplifting, modern garments and textiles. Electric hues and striking, modern motifs were the brand’s hallmark, which attracted fashionable customers like Jacqueline Kennedy. But Ratia specifically decried floral prints, banning her designers from using them. She believed (pretty sensibly) that flowers were a cliché in fashion.

One of Ratia’s lead designers, Maija Isola, was determined to prove her wrong. She created a collection of eight petal-filled patterns. Unikko was one of them (there were poppies growing in Isola’s yard). When Ratia saw Unikko, “she couldn’t say no,” says Minna Kemell-Kutvonen, Marimekko’s current design director of prints. “It was so strong. It captured so powerfully the atmosphere in Europe in the early 1960s. It had a feeling of pop art. It was radical.”

Although Isola also designed some 500 other patterns over her career at Marimekko (she passed away in 2001, her daughter Kristina also worked at the company as a designer until recently), Unikko is by far her most famous. And it remains one of the brand’s top sellers.

“Marimekko is certainly not limited to Unikko,” explains Thom Fougere, creative director of EQ3, a national, Winnipeg-based retailer that carries Marimekko. “They put out new patterns every year. But Unikko is what they are known for. It’s iconic.”

But will we still be excited about Unikko in 50 more years, or will we all be bored with it?

The risk is that the poppies will become passé simply because of overexposure. The print is on rain boots and iPhone cases and hats and skirts and bags. It can be seen on a Finnair fuselage and a Taipei subway car. It comes in hundreds of different colour combinations (which is likely part of the appeal: “Marimekko is expert at selecting colours,” says Fougere. A new, saturated orange version of Unikko, for example, has a summery warmth).

Yet regardless of how many times or in whatever ways it’s reproduced, there is something inherently attractive about the pattern. It has an unfussy abstraction (unlike, say, the ornate florals of William Morris, which are gorgeous but can’t escape the heaviness of the Victorian epoch from which they came) and can be reinvented with a simple colour switch (it looks as good in black-and-white as it does in acid green and raspberry red – a versatility that isn’t as true for, say, Orla Kiely’s Stem motif, which seems to lend itself specially to earth tones). So it’s completely possible to get sick of seeing it over and over again, but the look should endure with new generations.

Either way, Marimekko isn’t worried.

“You never know when a design will become a classic,” says Kemell-Kutvonen. “Sometimes a design will grow with its users. And sometimes ‘why’ doesn’t require so much explanation.”

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