I suppose I’ve been a designer for about a decade now; at least that is when I started teaching design. Before that I had never really thought of myself as a designer; heck I barely thought of myself as an artist. For me art was the means through which I talked about things that were important to me, much as I might write an essay. The whole aesthetics thing was secondary at best; I just found that there were certain things that visual formats could say that the written word alone didn’t. But I digress…
Design was always a weird thing to me, something done for a client, which, for an idealist like me, was a dreadful thought. There was always more than enough that I wanted to talk about to bother trying to say things for other people. Then I started teaching design and developed a different perspective. That whole designing for others was just a part of the show, albeit a big one. Thinking of my work in terms of the vocabulary of design led me to think of my relationship to audiences in a different, more reciprocal way, making my work more of a conversation instead of a spectacle. But again I digress…
If I had never thought I would have ended up a designer, I certainly never thought I’d end up a fabric designer, but life is a strange and twisty thing. As I have said many times, I am incredibly happy to be here, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was unexpected. Being the diligent academic that I am, though, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my emerging practice as a fabric designer, how I want to approach it, what I want to do with it, and how it fits in with and expands my practice thus far. This, of course, is an on-going process of reflection, but I kind of want to share a few thoughts here, to give a bit of insight into the madness…
1. I like design archeology
I don’t mean this in the sense that I am looking to find or revive specific designs or styles from the past. What I mean is that I am really interested in examining a time, a moment, and trying to capture the sense of that period with a collection, to make sense of it in my own head and translate that bird’s eye view into designs. It isn’t about mimicking a period, and it isn’t about referencing aesthetic themes; it is about everything around the aesthetics, the context, the reasons things happened as they did in that period.
Right now I am fascinated by the mid 1970s. Some of that is because I was a small child in the mid-70s, but that is only a small part of it. More importantly I see the mid70s as the end of Modernism, when coherent world-views began to truly crumble. Aesthetics went haywire with the rise of Conceptual art, the seemingly endless prosperity that followed WW2 ground to a halt, the idealism of protest turned dark with the assassinations of the late-60s, race riots, Kent State, Watergate etc, etc. The American dream was falling apart and there was as of yet no new narrative to replace it. In short the mid-70s were something of a gap in history, and that is what draws me to it.
The aesthetics of the period were all over the place: part futurism, part folk populism, part kitsch, part industrial, part craft, part readymade. Macrame and space ships went side by side. This is exactly what I am fascinated by; it was a period of ecclectism, to coin a word. A cursory look at the popular culture of the time shows a certain widespread confusion, which betrays a searching, wandering sensibility, a restlessness. That idea of restlessness is actually a good segue into my second thought…
2. I do not want to have a look
I want to surprise you all a bit with each collection, to have you ask, “Where did that come from?” before you take a moment to look, to think about it, and then see that it indeed makes sense, that it does fit with everything else I’ve made. It’s not that I want novelty for the sake of novelty; there are just so many subtle issues I want to explore, even if I don’t make those issues overtly visible in the fabric.
After Flock, each collection I’ve designed (there are more that you haven’t even heard about yet) has a character at the core of it, a persona that the collection describes. This character isn’t in the fabric, but is the reason for the fabric. The fabric tells his or her story, and the specific aesthetics come from the story that needs telling. Of course all of these characters know each other, so there will be certain commonalities. And it is entirely possible that they may share motifs here and there. At the same time, though, they are very different people, and I hope the collection reflect that.
Also, I don’t want to drive myself nuts. If I had to stick to a look I don’t think I’d last very long here, and I need to give Andover a big shout-out for letting me jump around as much as I do.
3. Fabric is weird
After spending most of my life as an artist, designer, whatever, making things, obsessing over the details right up until the moment when things are finally done, I am still getting used to making fabric. I’m not talking about the degree of control I have to give up when the designs go to the mill and I cross my fingers for weeks on end hoping everything will turn out okay (they don’t always). What I mean is that fabric is not the end product; I am designing an intermediary, trying to make something that anticipates how it will be used without limiting how it might be used. I’m perpetually thinking about how it will look as a dress or as a two-inch square. For someone who once spent eighteen months working on a single piece for an exhibition, micromanaging things down to the 1/128th of an inch, this uncertainty is at times unnerving, but I’m getting used to it. I just keep repeating the mantra, “Fabric is weird.”
Now, this is far from everything, but I think it is time to call it a post. I need to make dinner, and maybe get a little more quilting in before bed. I hope to pop in from time to time and share a bit more of my thinking as it comes to me. I really do spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about this stuff, trying to make sense of what I am doing. Hopefully some day it will all pay off and I’ll actually have a clue as to what I am doing…