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Ratia, Armi (1912 - 1979)

founder of Marimekko Ltd.

Armi Ratia
Uusi Suomi Photo Archives

Armi Ratia established Marimekko Ltd, which made industrial use of artistic product design. The modern style of clothing which it marketed found especial favour with leftist intellectuals - but also with such international celebrities as Jacqueline Kennedy. As the founder and managing director of Marimekko, Ratia turned a relatively small firm in the textile industry into a national and international success story which later entrepreneurs have attempted to imitate.

Armi Ratia's name is inseparably linked to that of Marimekko Ltd, the textiles firm which she founded in 1951 and as whose managing director she served. Under Ratia's leadership Marimekko developed into an international pioneer as a result of the way in which it made industrial use of product design featuring artistic and other cultural elements. Despite the relatively small size of the firm, Ratia is one of the best-known Finnish entrepreneurs of all time. Marimekko and its products are a part of the Finns' conception of what it is to be a modern Finn. Many Finns have attempted to imitate Marimekko's audaciously innovative and successfully international approach. A surprisingly large number of leading figures in Finland have at some stage had something to do with Marimekko: as managers, product designers, PR people - or at least as faithful customers.

Armi Ratia was born at Pälkjärvi in Ladogan Karelia, on the present border between Finland and Russia, in 1912. In her early twenties she married the officer cadet Viljo Ratia and studied textile design in Helsinki at the Central School for Applied Arts (Taideteollisuuskeskuskoulu), now the University of Art and Design (Taideteollinen korkeakoulu). Before the Second World War she ran a small craft workshop where weavers produced textiles under her supervision. The Ratias moved to Helsinki when war swept over Karelia. While Viljo Ratia was on military service, Armi Ratia made her own contribution at headquarters, working on a code development project.

From copywriter and consultant to full-time businesswoman

After the war Armi Ratia began work as a copywriter for the Erva-Latvala advertising bureau. Viljo Ratia left his job as a military college teacher and went into business. Together with Arvo Nurmi he founded Printex Ltd, which produced oilcloth fabrics.

In addition to her own work, Armi Ratia acted as a consultant to her husband in the management of Printex and gradually became more closely involved in its business activities. In 1949, when Printex's sales did not live up to Viljo Ratia's expectations, Armi Ratia suggested that instead of concentrating on oilcloth, they should start seriously marketing modern textiles.

Armi Ratia had good contacts with Finnish artistic craft work and applied art circles. She engaged Maija Isola to work at Printex, and Isola became the firm's first full-time product designer. Experts appreciated Isola's textile art, but the public would not buy the uncluttered fabrics with their large patterns and bold colours that she designed.

In May 1951 Armi Ratia decided to hold a fashion show (later to become famous), which was originally christened the 'Marimekko Project'. In order to protect the Marimekko Project and keep it separate from the pressures arising from Printex's day-to-day business activities, Armi Ratia also founded a firm named Marimekko. The designer of the show, the haute couture artist Riitta Immonen, became the other main shareholder of Marimekko Ltd. In this share company financed by Printex, the women held the majority of the shares, and their husbands the minority.

Armi Ratia's aim was to use the fashion show to 'educate' people to buy Printex's most expensive textiles. For the show, pattern clothes were made from the artistic textiles in order to illustrate the intended use of the fabrics: housewives could make clothes for themselves by following the patterns. The public did not, however, want to buy the textiles but the pattern clothes that they saw. Without a moment's hesitation, Armi Ratia sold the clothes, which were literally snatched from her hands. She then announced that the sale of clothes would continue the next morning.

Viljo Ratia did not believe in Marimekko's future, however. He was worried that Riitta Immonen, who had more or less blundered into Marimekko, was becoming involved in Printex's and Marimekko's financial difficulties. Without telling his wife, Viljo Ratia bought Immonen's shares from her and quietly registered them in his wife's name. It irked him that he did not have as much faith in his wife's business as she had in his.

Armi Ratia exhibited a rare combination of entrepreneurial toughness and the sensitivity needed to spot trends in demand. She coaxed Viljo Ratia and Printex into helping Marimekko on its way, and by 1953 she had already hired a second full-time designer, Vuokko Nurmesniemi, who officially worked for Marimekko but was on the Printex payroll. Nurmesniemi had trained as a ceramic artist, but she open-mindedly set about learning the business of designing and producing clothes.

The priority given to Marimekko, which had been established to market Printex fabrics, drove Printex into bankruptcy in 1953; but the bankrupt's estate, including the machinery and equipment essential for Marimekko's success, were then bought from the bank, the staff was rehired, and Printex was founded anew. At this point Armi Ratia received half of Printex's shares as well.

The Golden Age of Printex and Marimekko

Armi Ratia audaciously attempted to exploit the opportunities of the postwar international market. When one of the first large consignments of textiles produced by Printex turned out badly and both firms were threatened with bankruptcy, she came into the storeroom, picked up a pile of cloth and announced: "I declare these seconds first-class." The quality requirements of the market were still so low that nobody noticed anything.

Marimekko and Printex were pioneers in that they did not operate like other design firms: unlike the glass-seller Iittala, they were not financed by a large concern or assisted by a network of contacts; and unlike the furniture-seller Artek, they were not a side business (of an architecture firm in Artek's case); instead, their business effectively started from scratch. The risk of failure was ever present. The general strike of 1956 and an economic recession almost halted the growth of sales, but the devaluation of the Finnish mark saved the firms from bankruptcy, and demand began to rise again.

Benjamin Thompson, an American architect and entrepreneur in the area of furnishings and interior decoration, had seen Printex fabrics at the Brussels World's Fair. After some communications between them, in 1959 Armi Ratia went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with two cartons of Printex fabrics and Marimekko clothes. Ben Thompson was involved in organising a show with a Finnish theme, and Printex and Marimekko were accorded a prominent position. The show was a great success, and word of Marimekko spread rapidly. John F. Kennedy was then campaigning for the presidency, and his wife, who was very much in tune with the times, appeared in Life magazine wearing Marimekko dresses. Jacqueline Kennedy had bought the dresses directly from Ben Thompson, as Kennedy and Thompson both had summer houses at Cape Cod near Cambridge. This was a real international breakthrough. It sent Marimekko and Printex sales skyrocketing. Armi Ratia was a splendid PR woman, and she knew how to further stir up the enthusiasm. On the international stage, intellectual, liberal and leftist circles formed an unprecedentedly warm attachment to Armi Ratia and Marimekko. For the first time Marimekko's annual turnover exceeded 100 million marks (1 million post-reform marks).

Armi Ratia's weakness lay in the fact that she regarded the success as due especially to herself. She saw Vuokko Nurmesniemi as threatening her conception of how products should be designed and of who should get the credit. Nurmesniemi resigned in 1960; to a large extent, the continued success of Marimekko was in fact due to the designs that she left behind her. For example, the Jokapoika ('Everyboy') shirt that she designed in 1956 became the best-selling Marimekko product ever.

On the credit side, it should be mentioned that Armi Ratia compensated for her weakness with her ability to motivate people to great achievements. Maija Isola and Annika Rimala, a new designer engaged in 1959, succeeded in filling the gap left by Vuokko Nurmesniemi. In the late 1950s Armi Ratia, her product designers and their 'court' held legendary parties lasting days at the Bökars summer villa; there was food and drink in profusion, people had fun, and new ideas were born at an ever wilder tempo. The cream of the Finnish art world participated. Foreign visitors whom Ratia invited to these parties had an unforgettable experience of Finland.

In 1962 Armi Ratia determined that Marimekko was to be "a cultural phenomenon guiding the quality of living". She moved in the circles associated with Aarno Ruusuvuori's architecture firm and became a devotee of Marshall MacLuhan's idea of the 'global village'. She drew Marimekko and Printex into the utopian Marikylä ('Mari-village') Project, whose aim was no less than to function as a laboratory for Marimekko's and Printex's product design, to house the staffs of these firms and to develop new ways of life.

Marimekko and Printex grew at a furious pace and also showed a reasonable profit until the rising costs of the Mari-village Project got out of control in 1966. Marimekko had become too big for accountants to be able to check whether there was enough money left for the day's expenses after the previous night's party. According to a Karelian proverb "you can drink all your money, but you can't drink on credit". But quite apart from the parties, Marimekko was consuming enormous amounts of money. Marimekko and Printex were merged in 1966 in order to control the rambling overall enterprise and keep track of the level of debt. The annual turnover of the new joint firm bearing the proud name of Marimekko was more than 10 million marks. In the late 1960s, however, more people with an understanding of economic realities were needed in order to control the costs of the parties given by Armi Ratia and her 'court' and to decrease the level of indebtedness. It was no longer possible to continue as before.

For Armi Ratia, the late 1960s also brought changes in her private life: her marriage to Viljo Ratia ended in divorce. Armi Ratia became even more involved with work, planning, amongst other things, to engage Japanese and American product designers in order to liven up Marimekko's general image. She became less social. It was time to rest after the frenzied sixties. Viljo Ratia also left the firm, going into retirement.

Swan song

Armi Ratia was the personification of Marimekko. The staff also identified with her. However, Marimekko's financial difficulties meant that outside financial expertise was needed in the firm's management. Jaakko Lassila, who had been the managing director of the Industrialization Fund, the body which had financed the Mari-village Project, and who had later held such posts as head of the Pohjola insurance group and the Kansallis-Osake-Pankki Bank, became the chairman of Marimekko's board for a year in 1969. The consultants and professional managers whom he called in brought Marimekko into financial balance by steadily cutting away at its tangled thicket of activities and expenses until the firm began to show a profit. Many ambitious plans, including the Mari-village Project, were abandoned, stocks were reduced and the product range was cut back. The staff was reduced from 440 to 270. Armi Ratia should have personally given notice to staff, but she did not have the heart to do so, and the job was done for her by her friend Jörn Donner.

It was, by way of contrast, precisely at this point that Annika Rimala made her breakthrough with the Tasaraita ('Even-stripe') line that she designed. This was a range of clothes for men, women and children; it included T-shirts and long unisex nightshirts. The Tasaraita line and its further developments became a Jokapoika-type classic.

After an interval of several years, Armi Ratia once again rose to the position of undisputed leader of Marimekko. Behind her new position of power was an improvement in the financial situation. Japanese and American firms had begun to acquire licences for Marimekko-designed textiles and to produce these at their own plants, paying for the right to do so. Armi Ratia considered this procedure so advantageous that a few years later she also began to sell franchising rights to foreign firms.

At home Marimekko won enormous popularity in 1972 with the Kuski ('Coachman') clothing designed by Pentti Rinta; it became the uniform of the young radicals who rose to power in 1968. It was typically worn in combination with a Jokapoika shirt.

With the slowing down of the firm's excessively rapid growth and thanks to the income from rights, Marimekko's funding situation and profitability attained a record high. The exuberant parties began again, and absurd ideas were aired at them. Armi Ratia also gained entrance to the closest circle of friends of the President of Finland, Urho Kekkonen, and in 1974 Marimekko was awarded the presidential prize for exports. Inspired by success and her ever more influential circle of friends, Ratia launched a project "to give Marimekko as a present to the Finnish people". Marimekko was listed on the stock exchange in 1974, and as a result Ratia had more money at her disposal. Yet again, the money was disposed of in such a way that Jaakko Lassila had to be called back as chairman of the board.

Under financial supervision, Armi Ratia restricted her attention to Finland. Many of her closest foreign friends - Ben Thompson, for example - had also become the victims of their own success. The ideas championed by the international leftist intelligentsia and the representatives of art and design had spread effectively among broad sectors of the population, so that society had to a large extent been 'equalised'. At the same time production technology in the textile and clothing industry had advanced so much that it was easier than ever for Marimekko's competitors to copy its once unique style.

In her final years Armi Ratia led a less hectic life, accepting the fact that her brainchild had become too large and international and its business activities too complex for her to be able to manage it any longer as she saw fit. Right to the end, however, she remained interested in new ways of keeping Marimekko's designs up to date. In particular, she vetted the hiring of new designers. Armi Ratia died in 1979, and the voting majority in the company went to her children, Ristomatti Ratia, Eriika Gummerus and Antti Ratia.

Armi Ratia's legacy

Even in her old age, Armi Ratia's lifestyle had been expensive for the firm. After her death, costs decreased, and in 1981 Marimekko was the most successful company listed on the Helsinki Stock Exchange in terms of return on capital invested.

However, the heirs differed over Marimekko's future direction. In 1985 they sold their shares to the Amer consortium, which had great plans for Marimekko. These plans did not, however, work out, and over the following years Amer lost many times more than Marimekko's then annual turnover of about 100 million marks. In 1991 Amer sold Marimekko to Kirsti Paakkanen, who also became its general manager.

Armi Ratia's status as an element of the Finnish identity became even stronger when Paakkanen dug up her speeches - especially those dating from the mid 1970s onwards - from the archives. Phrases and expressions of Ratia's circulated again among the Finnish public. Kirsti Paakkanen's message was: "During Armi Ratia's time things went well for Marimekko and Finland." Finns once more remembered Marimekko's golden age and swan song, and the firm rose again from the ashes.

The essential elements of Armi Ratia's legacy to the Finns' view of doing business in a way that is growth-oriented and international and that exploits the opportunities provided by industrial product design include instinct, emotions, passions, open-mindedness, boldness and good luck. People's ideals concerning key figures in Finnish enterprises are in part shaped by the eventful career of Armi Ratia.

Antti Ainamo

Translated by Roderick Fletcher

Appendix

Armi Maria Airaksinen, from 1935 Ratia, born 13.7.1912 Pälkjärvi, died 3.10.1979 Helsinki. Parents: Matti Airaksinen, merchant, and Hilma Korvenoja, formerly Korander, primary school teacher. Husband: 1935 - 1969 Lieutenant-Colonel Viljo Olavi Ratia, businessman, husband's parents: Anton Ratia, sea captain, and Eeva Emilia Kaukiainen. Children: Ristomatti, born 1941; Anttimatti, born 1944; Eriika (Gummerus), born 1948.

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