When I had my first child 20-some months ago, my thoughts immediately turned back to the things that made me happy as a kid—books, toys, music—that I wanted to provide for her, to surround her with the things that brought me joy. The first book I bought for her, even before she was born, was my favorite: Esther Averill's The Fire Cat. She plays with my favorite stuffed animal, a green pterodactyl, and sleeps with an embroidered pillow that's hanging on to its structural integrity decades after I did.
One of the memories that came flooding back were the designs of Marimekko. I grew up surrounded by very Southern furniture, some handmade by my grandfather, a second-generation craftsman, and some from the company my father worked for, lots of dark wood and complex veneers in a classic drawing-room aesthetic. But when you stepped into the bathroom, you were greeted by the pop flowers of legendary designer Fujiwo Ishimoto covering the walls and towels. It looked nothing like the rest of the house, a bright little corner from a Japanese designer by way of Finland. That design still brings back warm memories of my earliest childhood.
So when I learned that Chicago has a design and decor shop, Unison, run by two veterans of the Finnish firm, I wanted to talk shop with them. One, Alicia Rosauer, came to her love of Marimekko as I did, surrounded by its warm prints as a kid. Her husband, Robert Segal, was born into it—his parents, the founders of Crate and Barrel, were early importers of the fabric.
And, like Segal, I had some childhood exposure to the industry; two family members studied textiles in college, one going into fabrics at Fieldcrest in rural Virginia (though it takes its name and origins from Marshall Field). That might be how the Scandinavian design ended up on my towel rack: part of the reason Marimekko was so ever-present in that era was due to a licensing deal signed with Dan River in 1975, a textile company about an hour and a half from where I grew up, in the Virginia-North Carolina textile cluster. Out of place as they may have looked in my house, the towels were probably made just down the highway, not far from where that traditional Southern furniture came from.
As a result, we talked about a lot of things—what they learned at Marimekko, how their business works, and what the near future of textiles looks like in the era of digital printing and DIY.
When did you first become interested in Marimekko?
Alicia: For me, it was when my parents moved from a condo and bought a home. I was two, and my sister was eight, and we shared a room, and we each got our own twin bed. It was my mom's chance to revamp, and she bought Marimekko bedding from Crate and Barrel. We kept that bedding for years. My mom said I was two, and I literally threw myself on it and gave it a big hug.
I loved that bedding. We kept it forever. I was infatuated with it so much that at some point I took scissors and cut part of the bedding out and carried it in my pocket. My mom was so furious.
Robert: The pattern name was called "Happy."
Alicia: I loved it; like you, remembering it because your bathroom was all Marimekko. It had a lot of impact on kids. Robert, when was your first encounter? Birth?
Robert: It might have been at birth. You know the background, my parents founding Crate and Barrel. The exposure, at birth, is probably true. It was throughout my home, but I have more fond memories the immersion of the fabrics in use [in the business]. The throw pillows and pot holders and things that Crate and Barrel had were converted or made through my grandmother and other women in kind of a cottage industry—they had a lot of this fabric, primarily as banners, or fabric by the yard. Marimekko didn't necessarily make ready-made pillows as they do today. So, going to her house…
Alicia: Going to grandma's house, for Robert, was going to a little Marimekko mini-factory.
Robert: You hear that phssst, phssst. Her job was cutting it into yard increments and getting it all ready; another would sew; another would do the final zipper. There's just piles of fabric and color, it amazed me. In the house there were fabrics I remember being upholstered by the same designer that did the pattern that Alicia loves, "Happy"—Fuji Ishimoto—he did this other small Japanese print that I recall as one of my favorites. This was in the late '70s, so I'm like five, six years old at that point. It was a huge impact, this early impression of what's surrounding you.
What kind of work did you do at Marimekko?
Robert: I went there in college in '96 and back during grad school in '98. Alicia and I moved there in '99. I started out as a junior designer, doing various projects; Alicia was initially doing photo, marketing, and styling—assisting the photo shoots at the headquarters.
I started out designing prints for apparel, then trying bag design, also shirts—men's shirts, which I really loved and excelled. Then, gradually, fabric for the interior department.
Alicia: It was a total of five years.
Robert: In the last two years, the two of us started to collaborate. Alicia created patterns for women's apparel as well; together we had two or three interior fabrics.
Robert, your first experience was in college. Did you know you wanted to do fabric design?
Robert: My first time going there I didn't, but I loved it so much. It was a huge influence on my life, and I wanted to know what it was like. My family visited Finland when I was 13 years old, and that had a very big impact. A lot of vendors my parents had in the household were from Denmark, Sweden. That impact drew me to travel; I loved the style, sophistication, and the very warm people in general.
Alicia: One of the things you did was color selection for their classic lines of men's shirting. They always liked the ones Robert bought for his own collection. So they said, "Why don't you pick the colors?" And they sold very well—other designers in Finland were buying them.
How does the process of becoming a fabric designer begin?
Alicia: There's a lot of technology—it can be very simple, but there's a lot of science to achieving colors in printing. They have an amazing facility to do it.
Some designers would bring in their finished piece and it would still need work to become successful on fabric. That's where the development team, on the tech side, would come in. If you had, say, a watercolor-type design, how do I choose those halftones and get it to print right?
But also, the creative director would step in and be, like, how do we make this more Marimekko? The creative director helps guide the overall vision, make sure that patterns fit into the genre.
Robert: On the other hand, what was almost remarkable was that they broke the convention—you could make large-scale patterns non-repeatable. They gave a lot of freedom to the designer…After you get a pattern approved, color's so critical. There's a vast color library—before there was Pantone, they really had almost every single color on a lab dip. Thousands of colors and formulas to make those reoccur in production. And probably the best dyes. One thing people underestimate—the quality of it, and achieving that range, is probably the hardest thing.
People think they can just replicate the pattern. No, it's really the color that's unique.
How do you adjust things to have more of a Marimekko look? Or at Unison? How do you balance change and continuity?
Robert: There are patterns you default to, even if we don't intend to, it'll come about. There are some parameters that have a direct outcome—there's production requirements; our factory that makes our bedding requires us to produce so much yardage per color, so in some cases, those commitments are higher than what we can produce.
Alicia: Our scale of business has limitations. Since we don't own our own factories, we have some limitations on the outcome of our product. If we had our own, and we were screenprinting and owned our own equipment, maybe we could make patterns that have five or six colors, but since we don't have that, you're charged five times.
Robert: Our philosophy is wanting to make a balance of simple, everyday patterns—well-known, familiar, like a sailor stripe or buffalo check, and combining it off of a pattern that might be more organic or all-over. In that juxtaposition, they relate well.
Alicia: Not everything we make is an art piece; usability is a goal.
I noticed that in the children's bedding. It's very classic and simple.
Robert: That can be the result of seeing—yeah, there's too much overdesign in kid's bedding. It gets too busy, too overcomplicated, too frilly. This simple, timeless doesn't exist. And then it relates to the adult decor as well—it shares common elements.
Where does continuity come from that holds it together? Color. Even though we pull different colors each season, our sensibility towards color will come around. An old pattern and a new pattern….
Alicia: We're still a young company, though. We're only seven years old.
Looking at the catalog, some of it looks Marimekko, very organic; some is very clean, geometric, very rich colors. Coming out of there and starting your own firm, how did what you learned about pattern emerge into Unison's look?
Alicia: We really created this company because we had these really clear ideas for products while we were at Marimekko, and it didn't appeal to them for some reason. Or maybe we were just junior designers, and in time they would allow it. But we also felt like, we could either live in Finland the rest of our lives, or we could come home.
How do you find the companies to include in your collections?
Robert: Different ways. Trade shows, design blogs. Now people are approaching us, which is a surprise.
Alicia: People contact the store and send portfolios, because people see we're open to it.
Robert: And we know the seasonality of things. You can't always get it done then; you put it in your mental archive and use it in the following season. The cycle isn't so fast that you lose that opportunity. It's okay to be patient. It'll come together.
Alicia: One step we haven't gotten to do recently is travel and find things. That's how we found our initial vendors to make the soft goods.
Did you go out in search of them when you were traveling?
Alicia: One element of being in design school is that you learn about manufacturers in your last couple years, because the idea, especially at RISD is that you're either going to be on the design end, or the manufacturing end, or the marketing end, and you better start getting acquainted with your entire industry, and know where you're going to be.
Robert: When we started out, we sensed that spark of "made in America." American Apparel had been established in 2003, so when we were thinking about Unison in 2005, 2006, we were like, yeah, let's find it in America. And for other practical reasons as well—if you're working in China, you have to have huge minimum order requirements, 500-1,000 at minimum. We couldn't do that to start.
In India, you have the aspect of quality control; there are good factories there, you have to really be on them. So utilizing more domestic and local production, we could be on the phone, we could fly over there in two hours, or if the product is bad, ship it back. And lower minimums, so we could offer more color range, entering in to a very competitive market, show this much assortment.
One thing I didn't realize about Marimekko was how much of a point of national pride it was—how it came out of World War II. Manufacturing independence, and the colors as a response to the grimness of war.
Alicia: It's changed, though. Less and less is produced in Finland.
Robert: Printing-wise, fabric-wise, the majority is. But they've had to deal with the market demands of, let's say, children's clothing. It has to be at a certain price point, so they make it in Vietnam or China. The readymade goods, tablecloths or potholders, they construct it in Estonia, which is the equivalent of our Mexico.
Alicia: That happened with the growth of the country; wages go up, you can't export your goods anymore, because they're so expensively made. So they make more goods outside of Finland.
I'm interested to see where the "made in America" goes from here; I grew up in Virginia not too far from some of the big Southern textile mills. I'm interested to see if it'll expand again.
Robert: I think what will expand is digital printing. Fifteen years ago at trade shows in Germany and Italy, digital printing was on the forefront, but the consumer demand wasn't there. Now it's aligned—the crowdsourcing sites wanting to vote for this design and it'll be made…
Alicia: It's just instantly made—you wait a week or two. Made to order.
It probably opens up things for smaller producers, even individuals.
Robert: Yeah, coinciding with the Etsy market.
Alicia: It's funny. I order my holiday cards through Minted, and I didn't realize they're selling fabric by the yard—digitally printed, over 400 patterns, it's just crazy. You can order by the yard, $32 a yard. When we were graduating college, I remember having a roundtable family discussion about textiles, and it came up—I don't think anybody cares about fabric anymore, they just want finished goods.
And here we are 15 years later, and Modcloth is a very popular website. It's just totally happening right now. People want fabric.