Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts


Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts

Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts has taken up the unusual cause of producing just what its name claims. Launched in the summer of 2005 the company produces hand embellished one-off pillows that toy with the traditional imagery of historical textiles. “I like to use old techniques in modern ways,” explains owner and founder Richard Saja. “My intention is to continue the decorative art tradition and be part of its evolution by making functional pieces that convey bigger concepts.” Bigger concepts they may be, but from the tone set by the company’s self-proclaimed title to a variety designs that upset expectations, a mischievous brand of humour is at the heart of this work.

Based in New York City, Saja believes that by “tweaking” historical motifs one can “keep history alive.” While motifs are revitalized, Saja, who works with the assistance of an embroiderer and a seamstress, believes that sweatshop production practices should be left to the past. As much material as possible is sourced within the States from dead stock – yardage that did not sell the first time around – and all the production and embellishment takes place in country. While the company has developed several distinct lines, each pillow is unique in the sense that the fabric is cut from a different section of the pattern and the added embroidery placed in a different area of the repeat. The hand embroidery that embellishes the pillows aims to be distinctive rather the precise and Saja explains that he does not mind if the stitching even “looks a little crude.”

Hand embroidered on linen, “Paper Pillow” has a sheet of lined writing paper stitched onto each pillow face. In its blank tidiness the work evokes school days, the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, but also the possibility of a story waiting to be told. If one thinks back to the tradition of embroidery samplers and Saja’s desire to create “historically inaccurate decorative arts” then “Paper Pillow” may be one of his most sophisticated responses.  Samplers often replaced paper in teaching women the basics of writing and arithmetic, but the phrases and sums they stitched were often set, rote work. “Paper Pillow” empowers the embroiderer with the space to introduce their own authorial voice, to narrate as they wish onto the page before them. While it is certainly not sold as an interactive work, there is the sense that one could take this pillow home and use it to begin a new sampler on the lines it provides. The updated sampler need not repeat the clichéd though endearing adages of old but could record a contemporary – albeit a “historically inaccurate” – record.

The popular “Rose Garden” series is infested with black beetles, wasps, roaches, caterpillars, moths, aphids, mosquitoes and bees. The embroidered addition of these creatures onto an otherwise innocuous floral print overturns domestic and decorative values of cleanliness and beauty. The series confronts our expectations of just what decoration for the home should contain by introducing what everyone else would banish from the domestic setting or flower garden. In scale, it is also just the sort of thing that you catch out of the corner of your eye, demanding you to look again. “A Little Nippy” similarly plays with the boundaries of what is appropriate decorative content as well as what one sees out of the corner of their eye. In their subtlety the pillows, which are stuffed with small prosthetic balls, can really only be accused of revealing what one wants to see. “You have to know what you are looking for,” Saja explains. It is a subtle sexiness that could easily go unnoticed by those not interested.

A series of six twenty inch square pillows in black moiré fabric and white silk grosgrain ruffle make up “Pour Yvette.” Saja suggests that there is a “French flavour” to the work in the white grosgrain ruffle often used as trim on typically French maid’s uniforms. When properly arranged the six pillows make up the outline of a fallen body chalked onto the ground at a crime scene. The title, a word pun on the “poor” Yvette as well as a homage “for” her is only one part of the puzzle which requires not only that one acquire all six pillows but that they are assembled in the correct sequence to reassemble the outline of the body. Alone, each pillow suggests an abstract limb, leaving the mystery of Yvette unsolved.

With a similarly light hearted aesthetic Saja tackles a more loaded political commentary in “Diversity Zebra” a black and white woven print with multi-coloured embroidery. In each pillow, select stripes on one animal in the group have been singled out and stitched with the colours of the rainbow – an emblem often used to celebrate gay rights. Saja seems to suggest that the group is not identical, but nor is difference, with each patterning entirely unique to the individual. Thus difference is both overt and subtle, for we all know that no two patterns on a zebra are alike in the first place. Stitching portions of these stripes with the colours of the rainbow does not change the zebra’s pattern it simply reminds us that we are all alike in our differences, even if some are initially more obvious than others.

Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts offers a humorous alternative to the earnest discussions held by contemporary curators and historians of preserving the crafts and domestic history through the conservation of objects. Ironically, while this work claims to celebrate historical inaccuracy, it also acts as a reminder of the rich and vibrant tradition that is the inescapable foundation of contemporary textile design today. As Saja explains, “The important factor is not to only replicate what has been done before, but to bring it forward.” Be it through new zebra stripes, or samplers waiting to be written, the company confirms that we are in the midst of craving the individual and the handmade, but in the case of textiles this may not be anything new.

Embroidery magazine (Nov./Dec. 2005: 24-25)