From The Vaults pix
Historical patterns are inspiring a new generation of textiles and wall coverings
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 12/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
When all the new boxer shorts in the J. Crew catalog are suddenly sprinkled with penguins or martini glasses, people sometimes start wanting the same kind of novelty prints on chairs and curtains. And several of the biggest U.S. fabric houses can oblige, often buying vintage patterns from pickers and commercial archives—among the best-kept of design secrets. However, custom vintage-inspired patterns have been out of reach for individual designers working on all but the very largest projects.
That's something Kevin Lewis hopes to change. "We've been approaching designers directly," he says. As the founder of Crown House, a commercial archive near Manchester in the U.K., Lewis makes discoveries in the files of defunct manufacturers, in shuttered artists' studios, at antiques stores, and at flea markets, then offers the patterns for use in various ways.
Many materials can be reproduced without alteration or simply in a new color. For others, it's the color that's remarkable: They're purchased not for their pattern but as the basis for the palette of an entire new collection or just a room. (On an even smaller scale, vintage swatches themselves can also cover lamp shades and pillows or hang as framed art.)
Custom dictates that virtually anything more than 50 years old is fair game: wallpaper, fabric swatches, original paintings used in textile production, graphite drawings on tracing paper. Competition, however, is fierce. Lewis uses a digital camera to document additions to the Crown House collection—valuable in litigation when competitors produce patterns that look too close for comfort. Possession of documented originals and knowledge of their recent sales history become important in court, too.
Each archive is as individual as its proprietor. On sales trips to the U.S., Lewis brings American wallpaper, Italian damask drawings, and mod novelty prints. The swatches go for $600 to $1,800 outright, depending on quality and on size, which can range from just a few inches to more than a yard.
In New York, Andrea Aranow Textile Documents is a wealth of Peruvian knits, Japanese modernist abstract patterns, and such rarities as French 1860's silk velvets. Prices range from $425 for small swatches to $1,200 for large paintings. Dimitrios, A Design Archive, sells or rents patterns to the likes of F. Schumacher & Co. and Clarence House, a five-year licensing fee going for approximately $2,000 to $3,000. When the leases expire, owner Dimitrios Apostolou often donates the samples to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Fashion Institute of Technology.
For a $350 annual fee per person, the FIT museum's swatch collection will lend 30 pieces at a time for periods lasting up to a month. To maintain a user's competitive advantage, the museum will then honor embargo requests on any borrowed card for as long as a year. Some interior designers keep current by visiting FIT to look at the pile of swatches that have been returned or put on hold.
For one-of-a-kind production, Lewis offers wallpaper digitally printed from high-resolution scans of archival material. At about $110 dollars per roll, this process isn't cost-effective for extremely large runs, but the lead time is only three weeks. The Holy Grail remains digitally printed textiles that aren't synthetics—Lewis is experimenting with cotton and linen.
Lynn Haude, a consultant who has worked on fabric development with Maharam and Barbara Barry, mentions other technical challenges of expanding small swatches into repeating patterns. For example, wovens remain out of reach for all but the established fabric and fashion houses, and furniture is often smaller than in the 1960's, so the boldest, snazziest patterns need to be scaled down. She says she also finds herself taking out the orange and avocado in pursuit of a "bluer, cleaner look."
Orange may be coming back in upholstery, thanks to fashion's influence on interiors. Which would be good news for Apostolou, who owns nearly all the Chanel swatch books from 1928 to the mid-1960's. For him, the question is less about changing tastes than changing technology. But he sees bright prospects for his textile documents, even in the digital age. "The computer is an animal," he explains. "It needs something to eat."