Vuokko Nurmesniemi | Wallpaper*
In Helsinki, it’s hard to miss Marimekko: the bold and cheerful prints of the much-loved textile house appear in restaurants and bars, on billboards and trams, on cushions and cutlery. They are as Finnish as the reindeer and the sauna. Ask any Finnish woman, and she’ll have a Marimekko item, vintage or otherwise, hidden somewhere in the wardrobe.
Today, the Unikko poppy print is the most familiar of Marimekko’s designs, but the brand was already famous when it was launched in 1964, thanks to the entrepreneurial strength of its founder Armi Ratia and its young designer and textile artist. Vuokko Nurmesniemi. Their unstructured dresses and unisex shirts and overalls, printed with stripes, zigzags and ovals in pink and orange and blue and green, brought color and joy to a dark, depressed country after World War II. Ratia and Nurmesniemi will lay the foundations of modern Finnish fashion.
A portrait of Vuokko in the Beautiful Finland book by Mila Pentti, as well as archival images and sketches, including a photo of the “Lab” dress, designed in 1970 and featured on one of Vuokko’s Christmas cards. Photography: Guy Bolongaro
Nurmesniemi’s first designs for Marimekko are part of an upcoming exhibition at the Helsinki Design Museum. “Antti + Vuokko Nurmesniemi” traces the long and distinguished career of the famous husband and wife of Finnish creativity; she, one of Finland’s most illustrious designers, he, a respected interior designer responsible for many modernist landmarks. Together, the Nurmesniemis have propelled Finnish design onto the world stage. “In the 1980s, they were very famous,” says Harry Kivilinna, the curator of the Helsinki Design Museum in charge of the exhibition. “People were always talking about them. It was very rare for a wife to be better known than her husband, but that was the case with Antti and Vuokko.
Marimekko is only part of Vuokko’s story. In 1960, she and Ratia fell out when Jackie Kennedy bought several Marimekko dresses and was photographed for the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine wearing a red shift dress by Vuokko. Rivalries and jealousies set in, Vuokko quit, and the couple never spoke again. Ratia carried the feud to her deathbed in 1979.
A ‘Myllynkivi 4-stripes’ dress on display at the Vuokko store in Helsinki. Based on the 1964 Pyörre pattern, the unstructured garment forms a circle when the wearer raises their hands. Photography: Guy Bolongaro
In 1964, Vuokko launched his eponymous label. The first was the ‘Myllynkivi’ dress, a circle of fabric in green, pink, yellow and red stripes. It was radical and a huge success. From the 1970s to the mid-1980s, Vuokko employed more than 100 people, and customers in Europe and Japan clamored for its color-saturated bag and tent-like dresses and unisex shirts. But by the late 1980s the simple silhouettes, lack of embellishment and uniformity of fabrics had lost their appeal, and in 1988 Vuokko filed for bankruptcy. She returned in 1990 with a new brand, Vuokko Oy, which today continues to operate a small boutique on Helsinki’s trendy street, Korkeavuorenkatu.
His career may have had its ups and downs, but Vuokko’s marriage was unshakable, lasting from 1953 until Antti’s death in 2003. “It was more than a love story,” describes Pirjo Hirvonen, Emeritus Professor of Fashion Design at Aalto University, who has known Vuokko since the 1990s. ‘Antti and Vuokko also found happiness together as designers. They were each other’s fiercest critics. But despite their synergy, the duo rarely worked together; Vuokko had his studio downtown, while Antti’s studio was at home, in the elegant modernist house he built for them in 1975 on the upscale island of Kulosaari. “Their marriage was very equal,” says Jutta Ylä-Mononen, a journalist whose biography of Vuokko was published in 2021. “Antti always had great respect for Vuokko’s creativity. He agreed with Charles Eames, who used to say, “Anything I can do, Ray can do better. The couple had their own careers, but Vuokko was more careful about saving samples and models; thousands are stored in Kulosaari and the Design Museum has over 1,000 pieces from Vuokko’s collections. These will be a highlight of the exhibition and will be displayed in the main hall of the museum.
A ‘Loikka Red’ jumpsuit at the Vuokko store in Korkeavuorenkatu, Helsinki’s design district. Photography: Guy Bolongaro
“Vuokko knew his worth,” Hirvonen points out. “She was the only female clothing designer to be so internationally famous.” Antti was also well known, having created the orange rolling stock for the Helsinki Metro (still in service today) and the furniture for the Palace Hotel on Helsinki’s waterfront. And he was extremely well connected. The Nurmesniemis have traveled the world, won prizes, thrown parties and welcomed Charles and Ray Eames to Kulosaari. “They have done so much to promote Finnish design,” says Ylä-Mononen. “And not just self-promotion; they also helped others.
Born in a working-class area of Helsinki in 1930, Vuokko was 15 when her mother died of pneumonia. As the eldest, she had to take care of her younger sister and brother while her father worked as a taxi driver. “I think her mother’s death is the reason why Vuokko became who she became,” says Ylä-Mononen. The young Vuokko was expected to be independent and strong, characteristics that landed her the position at Marimekko in the first place. Ratia was looking for a designer to copy a mosaic print she spotted and knew that Antti had a girlfriend who was a ceramist fresh out of college. Having never worked with prints, Vuokko agreed and presented a bold pattern of black, white and blue stripes that had nothing to do with mosaics. “She had to take responsibility,” says Ylä-Mononen. “She understood very early on that everyone had to make her happy. Yes, we Finns have sisu [toughness and resilience, a national trait that helped build an independent Finland after 1917]. But Vuokko is special.
She was a self-proclaimed “feminist” who also washed her hair in egg yolks and used paper bags instead of plastic bags. “In the 1950s, Marimekko made dressing gowns that were sold in the household section of department stores,” says Kivilinna. Vuokko’s loose, brightly colored dresses brought glamor behind closed doors and were soon deemed too beautiful to be confined to the nursery. Women started wearing them, ditching tight corsets along the way. In 1956, Vuokko went a step further by creating the unisex “Jokapoika” striped shirt. She fitted it with cheap aluminum buttons, like those worn by farmers, which she had picked up in a small shop in the countryside. ‘Jokapoika’, with its hand-drawn Piccolo stripes, is still a best-seller. In 2003, Finland’s first female president, Tarja Halonen, wore a Vuokko evening dress to an Independence Day reception. Made of silk taffeta, it was generally unstructured around the body and had a loose cape.
Despite such successes, Vuokko never called herself a fashion designer. Although she took a few fashion classes at the Institute of Industrial Arts in Helsinki, her degree was in ceramics. ‘Vuokko worked between fashion and design; she played with an idea and tried to find something new in it, cutting a fabric in different ways or using the same pattern in different ways,” says Hirvonen. “And she has always followed the Finnish tradition of simplicity.”
A portrait of Vuokko Nurmesniemi by Roberto Sambonet in his home office, along with a ceramic vase by Pablo Picasso and a bird figurine by renowned Finnish ceramicist Birger Kaipiainen. Photography: Guy Bolongaro
Antti’s path was clearer. By the time he graduated in 1950 from the Central School of Applied Arts in Helsinki, Finnish modernism was in full swing; Alvar Aalto worked for major American universities, Tapio Wirkkala’s glassworks won international awards, and in 1957 Kaj Franck said to Antti: “It’s up to you next. The approval spurred on the young Antti, who created interiors for Hyvinkää Church, a modernist landmark, and for the Artek drawing office, among others.
“His furniture is quite rare, as editions were often small,” says Antti Tevajärvi, manager of Artek’s 2nd Cycle vintage store in Helsinki. “The Triennale 1960 series is highly sought after and the lounge chair with the striped seat cover from Vuokko is one of my favourites.” The best known are the ‘Wärtsilä’ coffee maker and the ‘Sauna’ stool.
A pair of antique Japanese headrests and a plate by Picasso sit alongside a book on Antti Nurmesniemi. Photography: Guy Bolongaro
This fall, the ‘Sauna’ stool is reissued by Vuokko’s niece, Mere Eskolin. Eskolin started working for her aunt 23 years ago and is now the general manager of the company, guardian of the house in Kulosaari and guardian of the heritage of the Nurmesniemis. They never had children; a near-fatal attack of appendicitis while Vuokko was a student ruled out that possibility. “It was a huge problem for both of them,” says Ylä-Mononen. “But Vuokko is a positive person; she told me she thought she and Antti would never have stayed so close if they ever had a family. Antti’s ‘004’ chair, covered in Vuokko’s black and white and red and white stripes, will also be launched in the fall, followed by a sofa, a pendant lamp, an ‘Amer’ lounge chair and a ‘Pehtoori’ coffee maker.
Eskolin faces a huge task. The two-storey house, which 92-year-old Vuokko left earlier this year to move into a retirement home, contains Antti’s archive – hundreds of photos from the filming that took place there, works of art, books, family portraits and furniture, most of which was designed by Antti. Objects and photos are proudly exhibited: Vuokko, 17, with angular cheekbones and a pixie cut; the couple with the presidents and the Queen of Denmark; medals from triennials and art exhibitions and institutions. It looks like a museum in the making, which Eskolin hopes it will become.
Vintage Vuokko dresses photographed at the Design Museum in Helsinki. Photography: Guy Bolongaro
And what about the Vuokko label? It will continue to make bestsellers such as ‘Loikka’ jumpsuits and ‘Messu’ dresses, and produce new pieces from the archive. “There is enough to go on for the next 20 years. Vuokko was very creative; she was doing samples all the time,” says Kivilinna. But guiding the legacy of the Nurmesniemis is a great responsibility.
“It’s very strange to talk about them,” adds Eskolin. ‘Like I was someone. I’m not. Vuokko and Antti are. I have to make sure people don’t forget that. §
Antti’s designs include this 1980s coffee table, as well as 1960s ‘004’ lounge chairs and 1970s ‘001’ daybeds, all upholstered in Vuokko’s signature fabric. A black and white striped armchair will be reissued for the exhibition. Photography: Guy Bolongaro