The Intersection of Plants and People
Kaffe Fassett, the textile designer whose colors and patterns have elevated what were once considered crafts to a high level of sophisticated artistry, confesses to being interested in adding another type of work to his creative plate: garden design.
Not surprisingly, Fassett says he’d like to add “more color,” changing people’s perceptions of what a grand estate’s groomed grounds, or perhaps even a suburban backyard, should look like.
Color is to Fassett what flavor is to a chef whose boutique restaurant is booked up months in advance. While research has revealed that some people have extra taste buds, dubbing these ultra-sensitive, picky eaters “supertasters,” Fassett would be a good subject for a complementary study on color-sense and pattern-recognition.
“Things just do strike me as being indescribably powerful and unusual,” Fassett says, adding that people sometimes react in bafflement to his observations or simply ask him, “Why do you care?”
Fassett notices tiny details everywhere, from patterns on time-worn, Moroccan carpets in a Fez marketplace to lotus flowers on an urn from China. It seems that he can’t help it. But he shares what he sees so remarkably in his exquisite quilting fabrics, needlepoint designs, sweater knit patterns and paintings, that it’s hard for anyone not to join in his enthusiasm. Just listening to him describe a setting is as delightful as peering into a sugary, Easter egg diorama.
“It’s a vast, tree-ladened, grassy meadow in the middle of London, which is a major metropolis,” he says, describing a recent walk through Hyde Park.
Fassett was born in California, and raised in the wild beauty of Big Sur. Despite the remoteness of the location, his parents built and ran an avante-garde restaurant called Nepenthe in a stunning spot overlooking the Pacific. Celebrities came in droves, and Fassett’s childhood placed him both in the midst of nature and in the exotic, sophisticated world of the creative elite.
In his recently published autobiography, Dreaming in Color, the seventy-something Fassett describes his childhood in Big Sur and chronicles his life all the way up to his current projects. His youth sounds fictional at first, and even the most open-minded reader might accuse him of name-dropping. But as the story follows Fassett’s ventures out into the world as a young man to New York City and to London, it becomes clear that meeting Anybody Who’s Anybody is another talent that Fassett cannot help but excel at. He also just happens to be extremely talented, good-looking (which, as any grandmother would say, doesn’t hurt), and more often than not, in the right place at the right time.
Famous personages whizz by in Dreaming in Color — from writer Henry Miller (a neighbor and family friend) to actor Dustin Hoffman (a classmate at theater school) to Princess Michael of Kent (a customer and patroness who helped to arrange Fassett’s one-man show at the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum, an unprecedented accomplishment for a living textile artist, and an American to boot).
Even the composer Leonard Bernstein appears in the book at a New York party, commenting flirtatiously, “How does it feel to be the most handsome man in the world?” Hovering over six feet, with a chiseled, California-boy face and twinkling blue eyes, Fassett did spend some of his youth as a fashion model. Luckily, he did it only to pay for oil paints and to help eke out a starving artist’s living, and luckily again, it exposed him to people who encouraged his eventual entrance into the world of textiles.
Fassett is certainly gracious, well-spoken, and makes sure to compliment everyone he has come into contact with, whether the relationship ended well or not. In many cases, his friends appear to be longterm, loyal collaborators in the pursuit of the aesthetically outstanding, and often become part of Fassett’s adopted family of artists.
Fassett’s early, vibrant still life and portrait paintings translated to Technicolor stripes when he first took up knitting at the age of 28. Soon after creating his first, improvised sweater, the Missoni family — Italian knitwear royalty — wanted Fassett to create designs for their massive knitting machines. From there, Fassett’s textile work took off, and he happily joined the fashion and crafts business, leaving his former struggling-painter days behind.
As they did in his still lifes, garden plants continue to play a starring role in much of Fassett’s work. ‘Brassica’ is the name of a very popular quilt fabric line that features cabbages.
“It’s the most glorious plant ever,” Fassett says, citing the vegetable as a favorite model.
Fassett’s first needlepoint featured a cabbage, and it became a huge success when introduced to crafters as a kit.
Color-rich blooms are such a staple in Fassett’s how-to quilt books and fabrics that he considered naming a publication that came out this spring as, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? because of the relatively pared-down, striped, geometric patterns it demonstrates. While the book, (named Shots and Stripes) is still full of exuberant patterns that appear complex to the eye, Fassett says reassuringly that it’s a great book for beginners.
In October, another Fassett quilting book is due out, called Quilt Grandeur. In this how-to, readers will be presented with images of quilts draped all over an ancient estate in Cornwall, England. As Fassett says from his home studio in London, England, “I’m back to my wonderful florals and baroque richness.”
Fassett’s books have the visual opulence of an opera set. Backdrops for his handiwork are carefully chosen for their charisma: vast gardens, mansions, castles and old hotels. A quilt might be draped over an ancient wall or against a thicket of green, looking as if that regal, sophisticated spot was waiting for centuries for the colorful arrival.
“They gave us free reign to go through the house, even up to the attic, to take photographs.” Fassett says of the photo shoot at Port Eliot, a former medieval monastery whose origins date back even further, to the Iron Age.
A photo shoot in such a setting provides more fodder for Fassett’s busy brain. Accompanied by his studio manager and longtime friend, Brandon Mably (a textile designer in his own right), Fassett will point out an intricate design in faded wallpaper or in the surrounding period furniture. Mably then quickly takes a photograph of the detail for later reference. For many of his floral designs, Fassett says his inspiration comes from old artwork. He mentions a book of antique needlepoint that sits on his desk as an example, but also the old botanical and classical paintings he has admired in museums.
While strolling down a Belgian street, Fassett saw something that sparked the new design, ‘Antwerp Flowers.’
“That came from looking in a shop window in Antwerp in Belgium at an antique piece of needlepoint that was all these kinds of flowers in a lattice,” Fassett explains, adding that he did a quick sketch of it while peering through the glass.
This October, the U.S.-based Westminster Fibers (whose U.K. sister, Rowan, publishes Fassett’s knit patterns) is introducing ‘Antwerp Flowers’ in the Kaffe Fassett Collection of quilt fabrics. Another floral pattern set to debut for fall is called ‘Dianthus’.
“I just love little flowers that have a sharp look to them,” Fassett says, comparing the perky dianthus with the expressive pansy.
“A little face, I call it,” he remarks about its brightly splotched bloom.
For his Spring 2014 line, Fassett hired fabric designer Philip Jacobs to create a pattern of gloxinia. In one of several ongoing collaborations with other designers, Fassett asked Jacobs to draw a “basic print.” Fassett then hand-painted color variations of the print, called “colorways” in hues like red or deep cobalt, and sent those on to Westminster Fibers for the final production.
Hearing Fassett speak about gloxinia offers another insight into his highly active visual senses. He describes a “wonderful halo of light, or dark outline, around the flower,” further translating what he sees as a “big, bold stripe of color inside the flower, because it’s kind of like a series of circular stripes.”
In his adopted homeland of Great Britain, Fassett discovers new gardens all the time. There, plants transcend their earthly status to become part of the living museums of greenery that are English gardens.
“That’s the soul of the English, is in their gardens,” he says, mentioning that Great Dixter, an estate and garden in East Sussex, is a favorite of his.
While he notes that “armies of gardeners” tend to a venerable property like Great Dixter, he himself enjoys the labors of just one in his own home garden. It includes big tree ferns from New Zealand, towering cypress trees, a row of sedums which “turn a wonderful dark rust in the autumn after a wonderful dark pink” and three rose bushes.
The roses are new. About a year before, Mably revealed to Fassett that for two years, a specially hired hybridizer had been developing a rose in his honor.
“It’s the most wonderfully extravagant present I’ve ever had,” Fassett says.
The multi-petaled bloom has the playful look of a crepe-paper flower, just like many of Fassett’s ecstatic floral prints. With a citrusy fragrance and an antique presence, it simultaneously captures the artist’s sensibilities.
Though Fassett is quick to admit that he wouldn’t call himself a gardener, he has designed some, most notably one for a Hillier Garden Centre display at the world-renowned Chelsea Flower Show in 1998. Multicolored mosaic tiles were painstakingly applied to columns, pottery, and black swan containers, while a patchwork of richly hued plants filled out every space in-between. The exhibit was a hit, earning a gold medal.
Even though Fassett works day and night to keep up with the immense workload that his textile projects provide him, the potential opportunity to revolutionize color and pattern in a tamed landscape is too tantalizing for him to ignore:
“If anyone would want me to design a garden,” Fassett says, “I’m up for it.”
For more information, visit www.kaffefassett.com.