On Frippery…

A while back I put up a post asking people to guess which names when with which prints in Frippery and I just realized that I never really gave the answers. Now I know that a lot of shops (or at least a lot of those who are carrying Frippery) have picked up the names, but I’ve never really told the story of Frippery, which in my book is at least half the fun (and for me the designer, interest) of a collection. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned somewhere around here that I generally spend three to six months thinking about a collection before I even make the first sketch; I spend insane amounts of time puzzling out every component of a collection before aesthetics even come into play. Each collection is a rich (bordering on insane) network of references, symbols, and significations. I like to think of each one as a mash-up of a Sol LeWitt installation and a couple of chapters of Proust, but then I like to think lots of things…


Like most everything I do, Frippery started with a random thought. In this case the thought was: “Know what I miss? The old-school NBC peacock…” From there everything started running away from me. Well, not literally, but that would be cool; I can just picture my sofa running off in fear I might start rambling again…

Where was I??? Oh, Frippery. The peacock got set me thinking and let me to the idea of decorativeness, which is often seen as in opposition to modern. For many the idea of modern can be reduced to “clean, simple, and functional,” which drives me nuts. So I started kicking around the idea of doing a collection that doubled as a manifesto on decorativeness, one that embraced myriad perspectives on the concept. In my head Frippery morphed into a postmodern exploration of the decorative. (One of these days I am going to have to start writing about postmodernism… Oi.)

So, how about those prints? How did they come to be, and why those names? The answer to that is really a whole boatload of reasons, some long, convoluted, academic, and obscure, other really obvious and/or borderline inane. Yep, that’s just how my brain works…

So, Peacocks started with the NBC peacock, as I said, but then really became about setting up a decorative/minimalist dichotomy. At first I was planning on the print becoming insanely elaborate, borderline Art Nouveau, but instead went for a sketchier, line art style. I did this so I could give more space for the ovoids (recognize that shape from the jellybeans???) to play back and forth as a pattern within the clamshell design of the overall print. It wasn’t originally going to be a clamshell reference; first it was going to be crazy Nouveau, and then a scatter that let the illustrations (there were going to be more peacocks) be the focus, but in the end, I really wanted to play up the idea of patterns within patterns in this print, a reference to the many layers of patterning within a peacock’s plumes, as well as emphasizing a more subtle (in my mind) complexity. And of course the NBC peacock reference sets up the 60/70s feel of the entire collection, but more on that later…

Fireworks is another obvious one. Not a lot to say about this one other than the fact that I wanted to play a whole range of scales, not just in terms of repeat size, but also the scale of the reference. Several of the prints reference minute details, so I wanted one that spoke to decorativeness on the grandest of scales, the entire night sky. I also pulled in a bit of reductive abstraction, focusing on the energy of the bursts rather than the details of the explosions, invoking a bit of a Futurist aesthetic device.

Marquee was designed as a reference to old-school marquee lights, when they were made up of individual bulbs which often flashed on and off incessantly, each bulb a single color. I had been wanting to do a chevron for a while, and this seemed a great way to double, or even triple the decorative references: it is a chevron, a dot, and a reference to one of my favorite bit of aesthetic overload. Actually, even more than old theatre marquees, I love the insane lights around the merry-go-rounds at fair or in amusement parks. In a lot of ways the conceptualization of this print led me to start thinking about Asbury. Oh the convoluted tangles…

Orphic is a bit of an homage to Sonia Delaunay, both her paintings and her fabric design. It is called Orphic in reference to the Modernist art movement she helped found—Orphism—which was based on the idea that pure abstraction was best achieved through the use of powerful colors and geometric shapes. It involved all kinds of semi-mystical stuff about art that I think is kinda ridiculous, but it also invoked a lot of scientific elements in terms of color. In Orphic I wanted to take a really simple form and push it to transcend itself. The design started with simple, equilateral triangles, but by pushing them all a bit off of true (angles pulled a degree this way or that) and employing some harsh color contrasts here and there I get them to look like their sides all curve somewhere near the middle of each side. In fact all of the lines are perfectly straight, but I think that the effect takes a really simple design and turns it into an oddly resonant one.

Trivial is easy. When I was a kid, and Trivial Pursuit first came out, I loved playing with all of those little wedges and making color patterns within the pie-shapes playing pieces. Actually, I didn’t have much interest in art or color growing up (I was, and kinda still am, a total math geek), but I was a bit obsessed with those things. They were in many ways my entrance into decoration. While most of the other prints have bigger theoretical fish to fry, this one is all personal, though that itself becomes a theoretical position. In many ways I see this print as the lynchpin to the postmodernness of the collection; without the inside information of why it is entirely inscrutable, it defies explanation and calls into question any possible unifying narrative, that is until I write a post like this and screw everything up.

Eero is full of all kinds of inside references; it started off as a reference to the end of a peacock feather, but then got stretched and morphed to invoke the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which was designed by Eero Saarinen. Why the hell would I reference Saarinen??? Well, two reasons. First, I think the Gateway Arch is one of the most insane things ever; it is a giant, crazy bit of decoration in the middle of the middle of the country (yes, I double-middled) and it has crazy-ass elevator inside of it. While the Fireworks are my grand-scale reference, these are my crazy insane reference. Secondly, Saarinen designed the campus where I went to both high school and grad school: Cranbrook. This invokes another bit of insanity: think back to high school and then imagine going back there ten years later for grad school with all the same places and all the same ghosts. Of course there is an immense amount of logistical separation between the two schools, but the physically overlap, and some of those psychic scars just never heal. But mostly, this print is just a wee nod to Saarinen; the rest is just my craziness.

Swirl is obvious too, and is my way of working a bit of a Victorian reference into the collection. As someone who has spent way too much time ogling 19th century typography (I have little love for that whole Helvetica Modernism thing) I had to work that end of things in as a counterbalance to all of the Modernist references in other prints. Note that those shapes from the ends of the peacock feathers come back into play. I also liked the idea of my near-solid being, in some ways, my most decorative print, but I am kind of perverse that way.

And then there are the Jellybeans. These started off as the eggs from Pear Tree, but they’ve been scaled down and I am just going color mad with them. I hope to have a whole lot of these one day, like a big bowl of jellybeans (yep, I can be a right cheesy bastard). But seriously, I wanted a second near-solid in this collection so I could really have it be about an overload of color, a veritable cacophony. While the swirls were meant to be simple color-wise, the Jellybeans are a bit of a nod to Kaffe, using colors that vibrate against each other to create complex colors that seem to shift depending on what they are near, though I wanted mine to employ a clean but slightly synchopated design rather than the painterly feel of Kaffe, letting the optical vibration really be crisp.

And then there is the overall color feel of the collection. The aim here was to invoke a very particular kind of light, the light I remember from my father’s apartment in Summit, NJ back in the 70s. I have very few memories of this place, but I have this sense that the light was always yellow. It may be that all of the photos from that era have that yellow feel (like on Instagram for you youngsters), but I have the feeling that light bulbs were yellower then, and lampshades tended toward that burlap/canvas feel, and wood paneling certainly glowed yellow, and there was that abundance of gold and avocado and orange and brown in everything one bought (I think my father even had an avocado colored Chevy Nova) that must have imbued the universe with that slightly yellowy feel. Well, that’s what I wanted from all of the color in Frippery.

And then when it all comes together, say in a single quilt, I wanted the first reaction to be that it was totally scrappy, that the prints came from a bunch of different collections, but then on closer examination continuities emerged, a tenuous logic became evident. I wanted a collection that felt expansive, that occupied more visual space as a whole than as the sum of its parts. In a lot of ways it has a lot in common with Synthetic Cubism in that even as the parts are simplified and in many ways reductive, through the integration of all of the prints a vastly more complicated whole emerges, each print invoking references in the others, at times producing unexpected harmonies and in other jarring juxtapositions.

So, that’s Frippery in short. In reality I could go on for another ten thousand words easily. I could write thousands of words pointing out all of its flaws, but on a whole I have to admit I am rather happy with it. More importantly I am proud of it as a piece of design regardless of whether it is any good or it sells well or anything else. And that, in the end, means a lot…

Yay Frippery!!!


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10 Responses to On Frippery…

  1. 1
    Jamie Lee says:

    I read this post to my husband and we enjoyed learning more about the ideas behind your designs.

  2. 2
    Maggie Magee says:

    Thomas–Such and interesting read and thank you for giving us a glimpse (actually, much more than that!) of your inspiration and thought paths to, in, and around Frippery! I’ve loved all of your fabrics, but Frippery is my favorite in regard to how it makes me feel–the design, the colors are a kick–absolutely wonderful!
    Maggie Magee

  3. 3
    Casey says:

    I like this collection even better now that I know some of the ideas embedded in it. It would be fun to discuss your thoughts about the concepts decoration and craft sometime. 🙂

  4. 4
    Catherine says:

    I see this collection through different eyes now. Thank you. Plus, I look forward to you founding the ‘Post-modern Quilt Guild’ 😉 or at least writing about the subject :-).

  5. 5
    Dan says:

    I’m so glad I didn’t read this before I made my quilt. One is that I used the jelly beans (I still have to pause and backspace not to call them eggs) as solids. The other is that I designed a sort of big-idea quilt before I had a sense of your big-idea process or projects.

    So cheers! The fabric is fun and inspiring.

    • 5.1
      thomas says:

      I still have that problem with the jellybeans too. Oh, and this is just a fraction of the ideas and narratives buried in this collection; I’m really keen on making ridiculously polyvocal collections so that people can pull out the threads that are relevant to them at that moment.

      Oh, and the jellybeans are totally in the solid family, just a different approach to that problem than the swirls…

      And one more thing: yay you!!!

  6. 6
    Mary ann says:

    Oh I feel so enlightened Thomas, I actually thought NBC peacock when I saw frippery but thought that was my crazy thought process. All that said, its still a happy, clever collection and I love adding to the egg/jellybean stash.

  7. 7
    Cathy Kizerian says:

    Thanks for giving us a glimpse into your thought and design process. Frippery is such an upbeat collection and evoked a lot of those same thoughts and memories with me, such as the trivial pursuit wedges and the neon lights. I have 3 different projects planned with my Frippery stash. Four if you count just saving some to enjoy looking at!

  8. 8
    Jamie Lee says:

    Picked up the magazine with your interview today…I love how you speak your mind!

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