Rebekka Bay

Rebekka Bay

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Marimekko’s vivid Unikko pattern, we’re exploring the aesthetics of the innovative environments where iconic designs are born. In a first-time collaboration, Apartamento and Marimekko will welcome visitors to Bar Unikko, a takeover of the classic Milanese café Bar Stoppani. From this creative base during Milan Design Week 2024, we’ll host a series of mini interviews offering insight from the fair’s artistic community, forming a series of dispatches from Milan. We begin with a more in-depth conversation featuring Marimekko’s creative director, Rebekka Bay.

Copenhagen: Every so often, someone offers a blueprint for inspired living. Rather than a set of rules, their path takes shape as an ethos, a driving force, guidelines set out with room to play and explore. While much has been made of Danish minimalism, Rebekka shows that practicality is best utilised to carve out room for whimsy and inspiration: space for big branches of whatever’s in bloom, opportunity for spontaneous swims in the sea.

Our conversation unfolded a wealth of these fruitful paradoxes; Rebekka loves overgrown buildings and studying where organic curves give way to man-made angles and vice versa. Looking forward, she’s excited to steer Marimekko towards these ‘happy contradictions’, focussing on the more scientific or animalistic side of flowers and celebrating their forms through a less ‘pretty’ lens to tap into the unexpected. This spirit of innovation is what established Marimekko as a leader of bold, memorable designs. Created by Maija Isola in 1964, the Unikko pattern made a joyful mark across fashion and home goods, as adaptable as it is unique. Unmistakably floral yet playfully abstract, the design came in response to a problem posed by Marimekko’s founder, Armi Ratia: How can print ever ‘faithfully capture’ the organic beauty of real flowers? Instead of rigid accuracy, abstraction allowed for an understanding of flower which could be felt beyond a textbook reproduction. As Unikko turns 60, it feels wholly appropriate to remember that diamonds are a traditional symbol for 60th anniversaries due to their enduring beauty and strength, marking a convergence of natural elements that are only fortified over time.

Beyond the bigger design philosophies driving creative direction, we were curious to discover what goes into Rebekka’s creative processes behind the scenes and eager for a glimpse of her vibrant backdrop at Marimekko’s creative studio in Copenhagen.

Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay

You’ve spoken about not considering yourself a designer per se or being directly involved only in fashion. How do you define yourself now?

I don’t know if I’ve ever had a need to define myself. I think the reason I’ve spoken about not defining myself as a designer is that I never really designed. I never went through this career of being someone’s assistant and a junior designer and a designer. I sort of fell in from trend forecasting, and then I found myself as a design director which is more about orchestrating or conducting a process. So, I see myself much more as someone organising people or organising processes, creating clues for design or references for design. It’s very truthful that I was never really someone who was sketching, and I was never someone who had an ambition to be a designer.

And in your personal life, how do you design your living space? I know it’s not just you living on your own, but how do you arrange your environment, and what is your relationship to objects?

In general, I’m quite pragmatic. I’m Danish, and there’s very little choice not to be obsessed with functionalism or modernism. We have a pragmatic view on life and furniture, and I’ve very much grown up in this tradition where things cannot be beautiful without also being functional. At least, that’s how I identify myself, as someone who appreciates architecture, art, and design.

I live with my husband of almost 30 years and my teenage son. So, the way we’ve organised ourselves is focussed on shared space and really putting all the emphasis into the kitchen which is very much at the centre of everything we do. We have this larger-than-life kitchen island that literally takes up the majority of our space, and everything happens around it.

We purchased and refurbished this place almost two years ago, moving from a very large space to a space half the size, and this is the first time we’ve really organised a home around our way of living. We’ve gotten rid of all the unnecessary stuff, all the things that just clutter up the space we have. We’re travelling a lot and entertaining a lot, so we’re focussing on what’s important in our lives.

But the most important space is the kitchen? 

I think everything in our life happens around the kitchen. It’s where you have the last coffee of the day or the first of the morning, but also the first working session or the first emails. It’s where we meet when we come home from work. It’s where we cook and host friends. A lot of hosting happens around the kitchen island, more so than formal sit-down dinners. We’re also preparing food while hosting and chatting at the same time.

Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay
Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay

I love that, and we have a very similar setup where we wanted to be able to host while doing things, cooking as we were speaking to people. Thinking more about the structure of your days, what are your routines?

I’m so fortunate that my days are very different depending on where I am, depending on whether I’m working from Copenhagen or Helsinki, or whether I’m travelling to our markets. I rarely have days that are the same, but when I’m in Copenhagen—and I’m always blushing to admit this—my husband literally serves me coffee in bed every morning. I’m really not a morning person. I’m most alive late at night, and I struggle to wake up, so I have this sort of half an hour of just waking up with coffee in bed.

And then, being someone who loves what I do, I don’t really distinguish between what is work and what is not work or what is private and what is my working life. So, the morning is getting up and continuing the coffee and checking the schedule for the day or answering the first couple emails or messages. From there, I’ll go out with my husband, and we’ll take a walk or go out for coffee or have breakfast together. Either with him or together as a family. Having lived abroad most of our lives, we have this very New York tradition of going out a lot.

Now we have this amazing studio above our store in Copenhagen, and when I’m there the day will be a mix of online meetings and meetings with our design teams, as a lot of the freelancers are based in Copenhagen.

If it’s a good day, I’ll finish in time to go to the food market and shop for that night’s dinner. If it’s a bad day, I’ll leave the office so late that we just end up going out or cooking something quick like pasta. There’s a lot of pasta with lemon and parmesan. Depending on the season—I don’t know if you’ve ever visited Copenhagen during summer—we bike out to the ocean for an evening swim. We feel so fortunate that we’re surrounded by water, and in the summer, that really informs the rhythm of the day. We have these long evenings with light until really, really late, and we can bike and go swimming in the ocean.

That’s really beautiful. I’ve not made that a routine in Barcelona, but I’m thinking I need to now. So, in that transition from home to work and work to home, does getting dressed a certain way play an important role, or is it more an automatic part of your routine?

That’s a really good question. In my dressing, I’m as pragmatic as I am in everything else. I think I’ve worn more or less the same uniform, with tweaks, of course, and the volumes change. We think we dress the same, but the volumes change, or our preferences change. I have periods where my jeans are really baggy, and then they’re slimmer. I can see these shifts, but I rarely change what I like or how I like to dress. I’m very much a white jeans and shirts and sweaters kind of person. I have this evolving wardrobe of more or less the same, and I often find myself buying two of the same thing. If I really love a sweater, I will have both the grey and the off white, or the black and the white. I have a fairly small wardrobe, and when something enters, something needs to exit. I’m not adding any more hangers. I’m trying to take the stress out of dressing, so I can’t have too many things at any given time. It doesn’t make me happy to have more.

Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay
Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay

That’s really nice. I’ve been wanting to find a uniform that takes the mental energy out of deciding what to wear. How does your personal style mesh with Marimekko?

It’s really interesting. When I joined Marimekko, a lot of people were questioning how someone like me who is very neutral and very uniform would work with Marimekko. For one thing, I can really appreciate Marimekko for a pattern and appreciate the garment as a canvas for that pattern. This is where we’re coming from: the dress as a canvas. I can totally appreciate that. I’ve also always taken myself out of what I’m working on. I think you need to have a degree of objectiveness towards the material you have on hand. For me, what was so intriguing with Marimekko was not only its more than 70-year heritage, but also its archive of more than 3,500 prints. You know, to really get your hands on a material that needs to be discovered and rediscovered and then also the opportunity to continue to build that archive.

Marimekko also fits my wardrobe if it’s one piece I really love, and I learnt a pattern works much better for me on a skirt. I can wear Marimekko together with my shirts and my sweaters, and I really favour our artist collaborations. We protect the integrity of the artists’ work in a pattern, and I also love going back and wearing some of the archival pieces.

I love those pieces where it’s black on black or the near white on white where the patterns almost disappear like camouflage. It’s a very romantic or subtle way to honour the patterns to have the colours so very close.

And that’s very deliberate. In that collection, we distinguished patterns that are almost textural or tonal versus the ones that are more like a canvas, you know, where you really celebrate it like it’s a piece of art and you can frame it. You have a sense you can add the image to a piece of fabric and can hang it in your space, or you can apply that pattern to a skirt. We distinguish between what we refer to as the solid, barely terrazzo, or panels that are more textural.

Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay
Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay

And how do those bold patterns shape design and silhouettes?

At Marimekko, the dress has always been a canvas for an artwork. Whether it’s a dress, or a plate, or a bowl, we really see the object as a canvas for a piece of wearable or functional art. In everything we do, it starts with the print first. At most brands I’ve worked for, we would start with colours or colour influences; we would identify the fabrics, identify the silhouettes. But at Marimekko, the silhouette is merely the canvas for the print, and very often the silhouette will have to adapt to the scale or the type of prints that we are applying.

What’s really interesting with Unikko more than any of our other prints is that we are literally using Unikko across all our different product lines, from ready-to-wear to our bags and accessories and all our different home categories. We’re exploring how to apply new techniques, and in recent years we’ve created Outline Unikko where it’s a more minimal expression of the pattern. We’re also using techniques like engraving, stitching, creating this broderie anglaise, and in the fall collection we have these beautiful laser-cut Unikko edges on skirts. It’s a pattern that can be reanimated and reinterpreted over and over, and it’s also a print we use from the smallest scale (sometimes we refer to that as our camouflage or Tetris Unikko) to the super large or super imposed scale of Unikko.

How has Maija Isola’s history influenced your work and your vision?

Maija Isola was such a spirited creative, someone who really enjoyed travelling, was highly cultured, and then she had this rebellious spirit where she didn’t necessarily do exactly what she was asked to do. The birth of Unikko was inspired by Armi Ratia’s wish never to create a floral pattern because she found that flowers were more beautiful in nature. But still, Maija Isola created a whole series of flowers that later became what is now one of our most recognisable prints. Not only Unikko, but many different bodies of work. My favourites are especially those works from the ‘60s that are these super large-scale, very architectural prints, prints we can rarely use in ready-to-wear, and we use them in home goods.

Have you taken inspiration from how she worked?

You really saw her hand in many of the prints, and that’s something we always wish to recreate in the new prints we’re creating today. She was using collage, paper cutting, brush strokes, all these different techniques which we still utilise today, and we’re constantly working with a whole new generation of print designers. Most recently, we’ve worked with Finnish artist Antti Kekki who is, in his own words, ‘painting with scissors’, so he’s creating these paper cuts as the starting point for his patterns.

More than anything, it’s inspiring how she was looking to all these different sources of inspiration; she’s created a series inspired by the movement of the body or contemporary dance or nature. Her print naming is also out of this world.

Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay
Maija Isola often worked in the evenings, sitting on the floor, and painted the original artwork across the entire width of a canvas.

I love that. What are some of your favourite wearable keepsakes, if you have them?

From Marimekko?

From Marimekko or maybe from your childhood or anything that you inherited like jewellery or clothing. Or are you not sentimental in that way?

I’m not sentimental. I have no nostalgia, and I don’t think I have any keepsakes. I’ve collected a few vintage Marimekko pieces that I assume will stay in my life. I try not to clutter my life with things, but of course I have a few art pieces and stuff that I borrowed from my dad. I’m not going to give these things back to him, so I guess those are my keepsakes, but I’m really not very sentimental. I’ve also travelled too much, and we moved so many times. I lived in London for 14 years and then New York for 10 years, and in New York we travelled almost every second year. Boxing things up and unboxing things really doesn’t speak to me, and it might be because we had to that I’m not sentimental, if I was ever sentimental.

You’ve also spoken about being more interested in process rather than the end product. What is your ideal creative process and where does it take place?

I think the creative process can take place everywhere. More often than not, my ideal creative process is when it just happens and it’s unplanned. But of course, when working with larger teams, you need to have discipline around your process. So, the ideal process is when something speaks to me, you know, when I don’t have to look for inspiration, but something speaks to me.

For example, now in 2024, we’re celebrating Unikko. But in 2025, we’re working around this idea of the anatomy of flowers, and this just came about with me rediscovering Nick Knight’s Flora. When a work speaks to you, and you start to think how to explore or how to translate that work into collections, into colour, into print—the ideal process is when something speaks to you, and you don’t have to look for it. It feels relevant, and you see how it’s translatable, and you start.

And this is how we work. At Marimekko, I start by identifying a theme or a thread, and it can be very abstract. Perhaps it’s always visual, but I really believe that the fewer visuals you have for your brief, the stronger the brief, and the more it will speak to you.

Instead of creating all these different directions, you focus on one, and this is the starting point. Then our design teams will start exploring and expanding, and the creative process needs to be a sort of expanding and editing, expanding, editing, expanding, editing. You need to work freely, but then you also constantly need to make choices on how to proceed. That’s the ideal process. Ideally, this also happens in person, so everyone is seeing the same thing or the same pattern or the same colour that speaks to you, and everyone is having the same experience at the same time. I believe in this super intuitive approach to creative process; sometimes you just need to steer the eye or steer the mind.

Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay
Maija Isola’s office in Helsinki, photographer Arto Hallakorpi
Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay
Maija Isola’s office in Helsinki, photographer Arto Hallakorpi
Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay

You’re moving more towards anatomy, more towards scientific botanical.

Yeah. We have a kind of anatomy of flowers looked at through the lens of different artists. Nick Knight is one example, and I love this body of work; he was working with the Natural History Museum in London, and I believe he was photographing 3,000 or so specimens. We’re also looking at a German photographer, Karl Blossfeldt, who was photographing plants and flowers in an almost mineral or at times animalistic way. So we’re looking at flowers through a less ‘pretty’ lens. You know, there’s often this tendency to think they’re cute or pretty or feminine, but our interest is more architectural or graphic. It’s really interesting to focus on these happy contradictions or the dynamics or the energies in which things are not what we expect them to be.

But even going back to Unikko, what I appreciate and enjoy about it is that it is universally recognised as a joyful pattern. The power of Unikko is that it is as much a floral pattern as it is the idea of a flower, an abstraction, or a conceptual flower. So as much as we tend to describe Unikko as a floral pattern, to me it’s also an emblem or a piece of graphic art or an architectural pattern. Unikko captures the real spirit of Marimekko; it captures the spirit of the happy contradictions, this meeting between architecture and nature.

Expanding on this link with architecture, how do you see botany and architecture interacting, and how do those natural and constructed elements interact in your home and within the creative process?

This is what I am most intrigued by. I’ve found the most inspiration throughout my career at this meeting between architecture and nature, where architecture blends in or stands out, when it works against or works with. I love overgrown buildings. One of the inspirations for this year was the Casa Sperimentale, which I believe is somewhere outside of Rome. It’s this overgrown piece of brutalist architecture. I’ve always been intrigued by this meeting between organic material and the control of man-made material, straight lines and curved lines. In my home, we’ve worked with a lot of different woods, very much inspired by the Judd Foundation on Spring Street in New York, but also inspired by Alvar Aalto, the Finnish architect. This idea of different woods is that they age beautifully and age differently.

In Nordic tradition, we’re so focused on blonde wood with birch and oak and larch. But in our home, we work with pines and all different materials because we want them to age differently. We really like that. They age fast, and they get these sort of patinated or honey-coloured tones. At Marimekko, we’re always concerned with creating this dynamic with patterns that are more architectural or shapes that are more architectural and shapes that are more organic. You can also translate a shape into something more organic or botanical, and we are really conscious of finding a healthy dynamic between different influences and different shapes.

Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay

So, you’re bringing these different woods into your home, but the immediate effect is not really the end result. That evolution over time is what you’re going to enjoy. That’s so beautiful. Alongside those different woods, are there other patterns in your home, or are you thinking more subtly like appreciating the change in the woods?

Well, my home is actually an old drying loft, so there are very few straight walls. So much is slanted, and there are a lot of beams which means a lot of lines. For someone who really needs—well, I try to refrain from referring to myself as a minimalist—but I’m definitely someone who likes clean, clean, clean, and organised, and our space is anything but. There are tons of different lines because it’s a very old building from 1784, I think. It’s the old carpenter’s guild. So, we have a huge painting that takes up the only straight wall, and we have a few things leading from the floor. We have a lot of ceramics, a mix I’ve collected over time, but not as a collection. They’re all functional pieces, but they add to the pattern and the tactility of the space. We have all these different woods; we have different textiles, but we don’t have a lot of patterns. I think for me, patterns live at work where I’m surrounded by them every day.

What most inspires you now, and what brings you joy at home? It’s interesting that you’re somebody who really likes clean lines, but you’ve chosen to live in a place which must be pushed towards having those clean lines.

It’s been amazing to build a space of our own. I mean, it’s a wild luxury to be able to say, This is how I want to live. This is how I want to store things. I have a drawer in my home which is divided into these little sections, and the drawer holds my sake cup collection. I love to say it’s my sake cup collection because I never collected to collect. I just fell in love with pieces, and over time I’ve accumulated more. When we were designing the space, one of the designers was like, ‘Do you need a drawer for your little ceramics?’ I was like, ‘Yes, that’s what I want. That’s all I’ve ever dreamt of!’

What brings me joy in this space is also that we have amazing light. We’re so above the city lights that it feels like living in a tree house sometimes. We have the light sort of falling in through these windows in the roof creating amazing patterns. I think I’m quite basic in where I find joy. So, the light at night, even if I wake up in the middle of the night, but the light in the morning is amazing. For the first time, I also have shelves where some of my ceramics are on view, and again, it’s not just decorative because we use them every day, so we are creating these functional still lifes. Unfortunately, I have no green fingers. I am someone who kills plants.

I was going to ask if you have a lot of plants with all that light.

No, but I buy cut flowers or branches, and I think of it like bringing the season into our home. I only buy seasonal flowers or seasonal branches. Just now it’s magnolia and cherry blossoms. That brings me joy. But in general, I have all these rituals. You know, for someone who’s not sentimental, there are actually a lot of rituals I enjoy, like wearing your pyjamas until midday on a Saturday, or listening to the Bill Evans Trio on a Sunday morning. Cooking elaborate dinners on Monday night. My husband and son make fun of me because I put the most effort into Monday-night cooking, which is the day when everyone is sort of like, eh. That’s when we have three-course meals, and everything is homecooked. So, I really, really enjoy everyday things—not the fancy, but the little things.

Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay

Oh, that’s really beautiful because Monday is actually when you need it. You need that boost of something a little bit more special.

Yes, on weekends you don’t need to do anything. It is special. But Monday night you really need a pick-me-up or a boost.

Exactly. Yeah, to really put some joy in there. Do you have a favourite object that you’ve added to your home recently?

This is so hideous, but I added one of those—it’s not a beautiful thing, but so practical—one of those bad metallic pizza restaurant oil canisters. We buy all this organic olive oil from friends in big cans or bags, and I was always struggling with how to store it because it’s messy. I bought this takeaway pizza canister can and it’s so—it brings me joy. It’s really working. And it’s one of those things that I find both functional and beautiful because you can really understand the function. I like when things speak intuitively to how you use them and what’s inside. That’s the most recent purchase, and it brings me joy every day.

I love how a beautiful piece of ceramic can live alongside something that is just infinitely practical and necessary. Lastly, how important is creative community for you?

It’s extremely important. Community is important to me, but there must be creative community within food or music or literature. Creative community is exchange; it’s what makes you wonder; it’s what’s make you question. It’s where you learn. I’m really into food, and I think food is as big an inspiration as textile or design. And it’s not like I’m thinking, Oh, now I’m creating this dish that will be translated into design. It’s more just this constant feeding of creativity, constantly challenging. In food, just as in design and creative direction, I’m minimal, you know, fewer ingredients, less presentation—the principles or the processes are the same in everything, just across different mediums. I’m sure if I played an instrument, it would also have been a process of minimalising. I used to play the piano, and I bet if I could still play today, it would just be plink, plink. But creative community is definitely the fuel, and I’m so fortunate to be surrounded by so many people of different ages, different generations, and different fields. I really thrive in the exchange where all these perspectives are so different.

Apartamento Magazine - Rebekka Bay
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