Saturday, February 1, 2014

Patterns of the Past: A Visit to Patrica Nugent Textiles Design Studio

This week our fashion design class visited Seattle's Patricia Nugent Textiles. Lucky us! It's rare for beginning designers to get this kind of opportunity to meet with an expert in historical textiles and design, and we're fortunate to have a teacher like Julie Snow, who set up the studio visit.

Pat has a textile archive that numbers in the thousands, dating from the 1790s to 1970; that's a lot of fabric and paper. Her customers are designers of textiles, apparel, stationery...anyone who wants a unique pattern or design treatment pulled from the fabric bolts and graphic artist imaginations of the past.

Stacks and stacks of fabric tied neatly with ribbon.
The studio space is brightly lit, with tidy bundles of fabric and baskets with swatches mounted on cards. The textiles are categorized by labels a customer would use to describe what they're looking for, so when someone tells Pat, "Show me something that's kind of floral and art deco," she goes right to the category they need.

When a customer buys a design from Pat's archive, they have exclusive use of it. And often, they're not getting just one design. For example, say a print has separate floral and paisley design elements. The customer's designer can take apart the design elements and create new motifs. They can create a border treatment, make a new repeating design, reorient the elements—with one swatch purchase, they're getting as many different designs as their imagination allows.

In addition to fabrics, the archives contain original designs on paper.
Pat showed us some designers' books from the early 1900s, and for me these are some of the most fascinating parts of the archive. A book had page after page of designs from a single, unnamed designer who likely worked for a textile manufacturer. Painted in gouache, many of the designs were no larger than a half-inch across on a paper swatch not much bigger. Who were these designers? Were they artists in their off-hours? Their creativity and skill at the small scale was amazing. There was one tiny illustration of a man and a horse on its hind legs enclosed in what looked like a Hula Hoop. What the...? I should have got a picture, but didn't.  Coulda woulda shoulda.

Today I was telling a friend about the studio visit, and we talked about how common it is for artists to use their skills for making a living in a job that's not really related to their art. For example, my friend has worked as a graphic designer, but painting and photography are where her heart is. I've worked for years as a technical writer, but that's not why I studied Comparative Literature and poetry. But we all need to buy groceries and cat food, right?
Martin: house painter, artist, all-around Dude.

My husband's grandfather was a house painter, but an artist as well, and painted a mural of exploding Mount Vesuvius in his living room. Here he is at his easel; I wish I'd met him. Look at this guy! He's grooving on painting on canvas, and he'll get up in the morning and go paint someone's grocery store. I like to think that it's unnecessary for artists to fall into some sort of Gordon Comstock despair and think they're selling out if they make a living using a portion of their natural skills to put food on the table. That said, it's a pain in the rear to not get any time in one's life to work on one's art and instead use all one's skills to describe software menus.

Pat Nugent shows us vintage Suzani textiles.

Anyhow, there were plenty of designs to look at. After showing us some highlights of her collection, Pat was kind enough to let us (carefully) peruse the categorized baskets. If you have any interest in vintage textiles or design, this would be your candy store. Just looking at the swatches is inspirational, and got me thinking that instead of solids, I'd like to use some vintage patterns in my designs. I'm a big fan of prints from the 20s through 50s, and somewhere in Pat's archive is the perfect design. I think many of the students in our cohort will be returning to the studio as customers.

Thanks for the tour, Pat! And thank to Julie for setting up a very fun and educational evening!
UW students peruse Patricia Nugent's archives