Bold prints, bright colours, lots of nature, and general happy-making: that's how I would describe Marimekko, a Finnish design company. This weekend, I got to check out the Marimekko exhibit at my local art gallery - total delight! I had a really great time. I love Marimekko's design esthetic and loved seeing some of their work up close and in person. The exhibit tour also raised some great questions and got me thinking.
The docent for our tour group asked us consider whether items produced by Marimekko, things like fabric and clothing and housewares, are still art. She told us that Marimekko sometimes called their fabric "Art by the yard". Does being on a purchasable commodity or consumer product mean that their images are no longer art? It seemed that nearly everyone in my tour group felt strongly that Marimekko's work IS art, absolutely, even though apparently some tour guests (in previous tours) had argued that it wasn't art and did not belong in a gallery at all.
I wish I had participated in the discussion more. The casual but thoughtful chat reminded me in a very visceral way of grad school seminar discussions. In particular, it reminded me of that feeling of being able to have an opinion in response to an idea, and then to articulate it coherently, with both respect for dissent and discussion as well as confidence and excitement. I love the exhilaration and adrenaline high of exchanging ideas like that, where if you're quick and thoughtful at once, it feels like a huge victory. Discussion groups were really what I enjoyed most about grad school.
Anyway! The gallery docent's central questions for us were around the relationships between art, craft, and consumerism, especially since Marimekko creator Armi Ratia's explicit intent was to create "a lifestyle", not just things for people to buy. I feel really strongly that wearable, usable, tangible objects CAN be and are often art. Why shouldn't they be? If they bring us joy, if they stimulate an emotion in us, if they challenge us or make us think, then to me, that brings them into the realm of art. Our docent quoted William Morris: “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Yep, that seems like a pretty excellent thing to strive for.
I'll also say that I think clothing and self-fashioning are important and can be deeply meaningful, artistically and creatively. Just because you buy something and use it or wear it doesn't empty it of meaning and value. On the contrary - I think that choosing items to put on your body and then to go out into the world can be a powerful moment of meaning-making and of communication. (It's not always: sometimes clothes are for utility or safety or necessity. But clothes can be rich with intentional and chosen meaning, if you have the means and opportunity for them to be.) When I choose clothing, what other items have I chosen to pair with the thing I bought? How do I wear them? Where? Why? How do I FEEL when I wear them? How do others feel? Wearable art isn't just a cliche. Not everything we wear at all times has to be art, but the point is that it CAN be.
The Marimekko exhibit also raised themes around feminism and freedom in dressing, which I love thinking about and wrestling with. Armi Ratia intentionally chose simple, non-fitted silhouettes for her garments, at a time (post WW2) when fitted waists and skirts with volume were much more dominant. Both as a historian (I study beauty and body history in Canada during WW2) and as a woman who gets to choose what I wear, thinking about why and how people, especially women, have chosen to dress and style themselves, as well as the societal constraints and freedoms around clothing, gender, and style, feels natural and meaningful for me. A few months ago, I read Women in Clothes, a book which gave me SO much to think about (worth checking out if you're into these ideas!) I find the shapes, boldness, and brightness of Marimekko's clothing exciting and compelling; I also really admire Ratia's original intension, for women to have clothing that they can feel free in. Of the dresses they had on display at the gallery, I would enthusiastically wear all of them.
Finally, textiles in general are especially meaningful for me, as a person who sometimes gets to make her own fabric with yarn and needles, or to make her own yarn with fiber and a spindle. Seeing these fabrics was a real pleasure. One of the prints on display even struck me as a perfect inspiration for a knitted blanket, in the same vein as Angles by Martina Behm. I just find colour and pattern to be so powerful and stimulating! Definitely art. Important, joy-making, art.