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Patterns as binding agents

Tania Messell

 

From 19th-century densely ornamented wallpapers to repetitive laser cut ornaments in contemporary architecture, patterns have been and still are an intrinsic component of our material environment. Their pervading presence is particularly reflected in retail spaces conceived by companies whose visual identities rely on pattern design, of which they make extensive use in their products as well as shop spaces. These contexts has always intrigued me as they remind me of the environments envisioned by early 20th century Modernism, a view shared by the architecture historian Mark Taylor.

In an article on ‘immersive interiors’, which he designates as spaces where patterned surfaces respond to each other as in an act of mimicry, he indeed suggests that the contemporary instances of this phenomenon partly arose from the early 20th century Gesamtkunstwerks (total works of art).[1] Hal Foster furthermore adds that ‘the world of total design only came true in our capitalist present’[2], which is indeed reflected in the two companies I intend to examine here. Both create cohesive environments through the use of patterns,which sometimes immerse the space: the Finnish company Marimekko and Swedish firm IKEA.

Tekstileriet in Oslo, 2012, still from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azhOsWZLJWI

Tekstileriet in Oslo, 2012, still from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azhOsWZLJWI

Although IKEA is mostly known  for producing an extensive range of objects, by the end of the 1960s the company nevertheless gave a central place to its fabrics by commissioning numerous textile designers and promulgating a specifically Swedish aesthetic in its fabrics, which by the end of the 1970s constituted a quarter of its total sales[3]. This long-standing relationship with textile design was made clear at Tekstileriet, an ephemeral shop I stumbled upon in Oslo, which was established in conjunction with the company’s 2012 theme: ‘Create change with textiles’.

As shown in the picture, the shop’s content, so to say, spilled on the street, as fabrics had been wrapped around cars and signboards and a seemingly contagious pattern covered its facade. Created as a platform for idea exchange, customers were invited to workshops, to bring a personal item to customize using fabric, or buy a metre or two in order to personalize their interiors in an affordable and ‘crafty’ act. The event lasted two weeks and responded to a growing interest in DIY and the recycling of objects, which the communication agency which developed it had earlier identified[4].

While ‘inspiration’ has always been a dominant motif in IKEA sales rhetoric[5], the company’s sudden and concentrated promotion of its textiles, besides reflecting the popularity of the product, could be partly linked to the physical properties of the object. Indeed, when adding up their formal flexibility (which allows various uses), with the shop’s discourse on recycling, it is easily graspable that textiles and as such patterns are commercially profitable, as they accommodate any taste and any budget.

While fabrics remain only one portion of IKEA’s production, patterns play an even more important part of Marimekko’s visual identity, as the company started to produce textiles and fashion since the early 1950s, and by the end of the 1950s had reached international recognition. By then the company exported to America, and would for instance distinguish itself with matching set of clothes, accessories and upholstery at stores such as the American Design Research shop.[6]

In a public talk given in Brussels in 2012 by the company’s creative director Minna Kemell-Kutvonen and the designer Maija Louekari, it interestingly appeared that pattern designs from the early period regularly supplemented the company’s current collections. These were extracted from Marimekko’s archive, and as Minna Kemell-Kutvonen furthermore attested, ‘it is sometimes hard to recognise an older pattern design from those we conceive today’.[7] Thus whilst the inspiration behind the patterns stems from a variety of sources ranging from contemporary Western and Japanese art to abstract geometry[8], visual coherence can be found within collections as well as over time span of sixty years. This could be due to many reasons – the first being that Armi Ratia, Marimekko’s founder, drew from early Bauhaus principles of total design and visual cohesion.[9] In addition, whilst Finnish design, whose success from the 1950s had made its design production increasingly associated with national identity, Marimekko constituted a solid part of the national production. This could thus equally have contributed to the endurance of Marimekko’s pattern designs[10].

Marimekko factory, production of the Unikko pattern, still from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4oPtnI8i68

Marimekko factory, production of the Unikko pattern, still from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4oPtnI8i68

When examining both companies, is interesting to note that while their pattern ranges is extensive, the Scandinavian look is nevertheless maintained as reflected in the bold shapes, clean lines and strong colours employed throughout collections. I like to think that these patterns act as binding agents in the companies’ visual identities, which while their production goes beyond textiles, their patterns keep the heterogeneous object range within the company’s visual rethoric. As reflected in Marimekko’s new collaboration with the airline Finnair, where its Unikko pattern was applied to the company’s china as well as the plane itself, the power of patterns can even act beyond he company’s own production. Patterns offer a more flexible and as such more intrusive manner to perform branding compared to logotypes, for instance.

This phenomenon cannot be examined without acknowledging Jean Baudrillard’s semiological analysis in The System of Objects (1968), in which he re-defines the notion of functionality. For him, by the 1960s, functionality was not anymore associated with the real needs of human beings , but rather with the object’s faculty to adapt and integrate itself into a system of signs. This is particularly clear in his chapter on interior decoration, in which he suggests that:

‘Colours have become free and abstract values, we can therefore use them entirely as ambience determinants. This calculation of ambience relies on contrasts and assemblies. (Colours) are dissociated from shapes… and (as such) loose their singular value; (they) are relative to one another and to the whole. That is when they become functional.’[11]

More remains to be written on the properties of patterns in todays material environment, as this article intended to show. They indeed allow us to examine pervading branding techniques, as well as fascinating graphic applications, of which companies frequently make use of to diversify their production, whilst keeping their visual integrity. As such they offer tangible instances of Baudrillard’s sign system, and its tangible grip on our consumer culture.

 

 


[1] Taylor, Mark, ‘The Relentless Patterns: The Immersive Interior’, Architectural DesignVol. 79, Issue 6, November/December 2009, pp.42–47

[2]  Foster, Hal, ‘The ABCs of Contemporary Design’, October,Vol. 100, Obsolescence (Spring, 2002), pp. 191-199

[3] Jackson, Leslie, Twentieth Century Pattern Design, (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), p.172

[4] http://trigger.no/arbeider/ikea-tekstileriet/ (Accessed 15.02.2014)

[5] Garvey, Pauline, ‘Consuming Ikea: Inspiration as Material Form’, in Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, ed. Alison J. Clarke, (Vienna: Springer Vienna Architecture, 2010), pp.142-153 (143)

[6] Lange, Alexandra, Thompson, Jane, Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2012), p.73

[7] Talk by Minna Kemell-Kutvonen and Maija Louekari at ‘Brussels Design September’, September 9th, 2012

[8] Aav, Marianne, ‘Armi Ratia and the Duality of a Design Enterprise’ in Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture, ed. Marianne Aav, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), pp.18-43

[9] Lange, Alexandra, Thompson, Jane, Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2012), p.73

[10] Aav, Marianne, ‘Armi Ratia and the Duality of a Design Enterprise’ in Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture, ed. Marianne Aav, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), pp.18-43 (p.25)

[11] Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Le Système des Objects’, (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), p.48 (Traduction of the author)

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Suggested Reading:

Pauline Garvey, ‘Consuming Ikea: Inspiration as Material Form’, in Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, ed. Alison J. Clarke, (Vienna: Springer Vienna Architecture, 2010), pp.142-153

Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture, ed. by Marianne Aav,(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003)

Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes, ed. by Alexandra Lange, Jane Thompson, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2012)

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Tania Messell – 

Tania studied both graphic design and fine arts in Switzerland before joining the V&A/RCA MA. She has since then written on the relationship between craft and corporate identities by examining the Wiener Werkstätte’s visual identity and the marketing of Provencal ceramics. Her current research investigates the development of the first corporate and institutional identities in France (1950-1975), focusing on the encounter between design, fine arts, management theories and technology.

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© Tania Messell, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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