Over the last few days The Guardian have flung themselves into Finland.
First, in the Guardian Review, an overview of Finnish popular literary action including Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins:
“Tove Jansson wrote her last cult Moomin book for children in 1970, but lived till 2001. English-speakers were reminded of her later adult fiction by the reissue two years ago of her 1972 novel The Summer Book. Its publishers, Sort Of Books, are now working on a short story selection, and the novel Fair Play. In Jansson’s Helsinki penthouse studio-turned-museum, her niece, Sophia Jansson (the model for the six-year-old granddaughter in The Summer Book), tells me the elliptical fiction often explores relationships among artists, but leaves much unsaid. Tove grew up in a Bohemian household with a sculptor father and graphic artist mother, while her lifelong partner was the woman artist Tuulikka PietilÃ¤. They spent time on the rocky islet in the Gulf of Finland where The Summer Book is set. And, says her niece, she still answered 2,000 fan letters a year by hand.”
Then, Monday saw Marimekko get the Grauniad once-over, highlighting the brand’s female-led work culture.
It is a proudly female company, run by women, for women, employing generations of women. From the moment you enter its low-rise building outside Helsinki, you know you are on female territory. The wide, open-plan interior is blindingly white in the late summer sun, devoid of the phallic statues that traditionally adorn business HQs, and its famous printed textiles – oversized geometric patterns in vibrant colours – hang down the walls…
…From its inception, Marimekko was in the hands of women. Even now, women occupy all the top positions. Founded in 1951 in Helsinki, it was initially intended to be a collaboration between textile designer Armi Ratia and her husband Viljo, who ran a small printing company. Legend has it that Ratia, as a woman, couldn’t get a bank loan, so it had to be done through her husband. But it was she who saw the potential for a designer-led textile house; she took charge and recruited Maija Isola, the first and most important of many young female designers, to create original prints: Marimekko was born…
The clothes were unconventional, informal, accessible to anyone – young or old, fat or thin. The name itself means “a dress for Mary” – ie the woman on the street. “Marimekko’s clothing in particular, with its clean unisex lines and free-flowing style, conveyed a utopian feel of sexual equality,” says Marianne Aav, director of the Design Museum in Finland. When Ratia was accused of peddling “sexless” clothes, she replied: “A woman is sexy, not a dress.”
…Paakkanen thrusts a sales chart into my hands. The graph shows a steady increase in sales from the 1950s to 1985, then the graph dips under the axis until 1991 when it skyrockets. Her two-inch painted talons jab at the dip: “During these years, men were in charge of Marimekko,” she laughs. “When I arrived in September 1991, it was like the end of the world; there was low morale, dirty windows, a broken building. The first thing we did was clean the windows…
…No one was surprised a woman was running Marimekko again. “I got flowers and faxes when I took over. People hoped I would take the company back to how it was when Armi Ratia was in charge,” Paakkanen says. She believes women have better business heads. “Men in business start at the top, they create positions for themselves then work down. Women work from the bottom up, and value their workers.”
…Isola’s daughter, Kristina Isola, who works at Marimekko, agrees. “If ‘feminist’ in business means women can take care of affairs themselves, then yes, Marimekko is a feminist company,” she says. “We don’t have to lean on men. Marimekko’s success has much to do with the fact it is a woman’s company: we’re practical, we don’t waste, we can do many things at the same time, we’re less nervous about our positions, we express our feelings better.”