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Scandinavian Patterns Of The Past: Maija Isola (1927-2001)

A Finnish designer that you’ve probably never heard of. I’m here to tell you… you’ve seen her shit everywhere.

Scandinavian Patterns Of The Past: Maija Isola (1927-2001)

When Jackie Kennedy stepped into public, JFK by her side, during the presidential campaign in 1960... the world would stop and stare. Dawning a dress made famous by a Finnish Design House, Marimekko, little was known that the design would pioneer the textile industry into a Pop era.  An attack on conservative floral designs was born. Thanks to the famous designer behind the dress, Maija Isola.

Mostly associated with Marimekko, Maija Isola became a household name when Ben Thompson, founder of Design Research (D/R), crossed her work at the World Fair in Brussels in 1958. Nothing like it had been seen in America. And it became a hit.

Isola is a star. One you’ve probably never heard of. And with unique floral and nature designs that had never been seen for the times, there’s fine reason why she’s exhibited in famous museums like Milan Triennale, Victoria and Albert Museum, Design Museum Copenhagen, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

I think it’s safe to say that we can call her the Pattern Queen (heard it here first).

WHERE IT STARTED

soire maija isola photo op
@nordicdesigns

Born in Riihimäki Finland, Isola was the youngest of 3 daughters. Her father, Mauno Isola, was a farmer but also known for writing the famous Finnish Christmas Coral. What a fam.

Her life would dramatically change as the Second World War ended. Her father would pass, she’d become pregnant and marry commercial artist Geroge Leander in 1945. After getting her barrings, she would be inspired by an Oslo trip in 1948, visiting the Van Gogh exhibition. Coming across Edvard Munch's paintings at the exhibit created a burning fire that led to her first famous print, Amfora (Amphora).

She later studied at the Central School of Industrial Arts in Helsinki. Graduating in 1949, she joined a newly founded textile company, Printex. It was her official start. Through a partnership with Marimekko, she would eventually work directly with them, becoming the principal designer of the firm.

INFLUENCE

Isola was a free spirit. She traveled widely around the world, absorbing cultural influences that enriched her work. Like many Scandinavian designers, there was an affinity for nature and folk art. She embodied the photogram process, using real plants to create her patterns.

Between 1957-1963, she created her first series of works on a single them, Luonto (Nature). It contained 30 designs based on plants pressed by her daughter, Kristina. In another series, Ornamentti (Ornament) based on Slavic art, also contained 30 designs displaying a strong graphic style; crips outlines, flat patterning, and overscale repeats. With her bold sense of color and being in tune with the dynamic spirit of Pop art, a GOAT was born.

THE BIRTH OF UNIKKO (POPPY)

soiree maija isola poppy design
Unikko (Poppy) @alchetron

While at Marimekko, founder Armi Ratia and Isola had an interesting relationship. Some described it as “unusual creative power with vitality and inventiveness rather than harmonious understanding.” To say they clashed hard was an understatement.

Before Unikko was created in 1964, Isola didn’t dabble with floral designs. To her, it was a bore and not suited for her efforts. But Ratia was adamant about creating floral patterns… so she said “fuck it,” and defied Ratia. Which pushed her to create her most famous pattern.

The asymmetric design, clash of colors, and use of graphical contrast made Unikko an instant success. It embodied the design confidence in the 60s. And is still one of the most popular prints for the home market.

KEEPING THE TRAIN ROLLING

From 1965-1967 she began working within the theme of sun and sea. Creating designs like Albatrossi (Albatross), Meduusa (Jellyfish), and Osteri (Oyster). Her rise in the early 60s made these designs extremely popular and are still widely produced.

Then in 1970, a love affair with Egyptian scholar Ahmed Al-Haggagi would cause a style shift. Al-Haggagi encouraged her to work within Arab patterns. Because of this influence, she created wonderful work. It included famous prints like Kungatar, Naamio, Sadunkertoja, Tumma, and Välly.

soiree maija isola arabic patterns
Kungatar @alchetron

In 1974, she designed her Primavera pattern. It accentuated stylized Marigold flowers. You probably see it all the time on tablecloths, plates, and other home market items.

soiree maija isola primavera patterns
Primavera @scandinavia-design

LEAVING A LEGACY

Towards the end of her career, between 1980-1987, she worked closest with her daughter, Kristina, who at the time became a lead chief designer at Marimekko herself. Kristina was super talented. Like mamma like daughta. She opened a door to unique colorways based on her mother’s prints. And 50 still remain in production today.

Today, at Marimekko, Isola’s pattern books remain a staple in their design process. Her handwritten exercise books contain precise detail of her pattern repeats and are used as a production guide for their products.

Over her 40 year career, she created over 500 prints. And her prints have seen a recent revival with a renewed and fresh interest in decorative design. She later retired from the textile industry and design to focus on painting. A fitting ending to a pretty sweet career.

All, Story of the Week

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March 27, 2022

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