Kaffe Fassett

Kaffe Fassett’s Collection of Quilts and Costumes at The American Museum in Britain
22 March – 2 November, 2003

A minimalist approach to design may have run its course, but few dispute that it continues to sustain a dedicated following. Kaffe Fassett’s design sensibility stands in bold contrast to design that is ruled by a desire for the simplified, reserved or austere. Instead. Fassett’s motto that “more is more” holds true to an unashamedly decorative approach to the textile arts. His approach may be unique to our times, but it is far from unique to the history of textile and costume design. As Fassett explains, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Always go to extremes. If in doubt add 20 more colours.”

Born in the US, Fassett has lived in the UK since the 1960s. His career in the textile arts includes numerous publications, television shows, workshops, lectures and an impressive list of solo exhibitions. Perhaps most indicative of his far reaching appeal was Fassett’s 1988 retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The exhibition marked the first retrospective to be held at the museum during an artist’s lifetime and was popular enough to cause attendance at the museum to double during the period of the show was on display. Fassett works in a variety of textile techniques: knits, patchwork, tapestry and surface design as well as other media, such as paintings and mosaics. Throughout all, colour and pattern are piled together in overwhelming quantities. The busy surfaces which the artist creates many not be to everyone’s taste, but the are nothing other than the embodiment of his philosophy that combines countless colours and textures.

“Quilt Bonanza” is Fassett’s second show at The American Museum in Britain. This institution has long been a source of inspiration for him as it houses, quite fittingly, the largest collection of American quilts outside the US. Fassett has always looked to the decorative arts for inspiration. At the American Museum several historical quilts from the artist’s private collection which clearly acted as reference and inspiration for the artist, are paired with their contemporary versions. The layout gives us some insight into the design process of an artist who is so well known for his how-to books and workshops that do much to inspire others. The paired quilts also shed some light on slippery definitions, like reference, source, derivation and inspiration. Here, Fassett responds to a variety of aspects that the historical quilts offer as inspiration for new works. At times it is a pattern or rhythm, in others it is the fabric weight or texture, in still others it is a concept that is drawn out and reworked to create differing visual responses to a similar theme.

One example where the “more is more” ethos has created a surprising vision of simplicity is Shirt Stripe Boxes. Inspired by a historical quilt comprised wholly of men’s shirting cloth, the delicate stripes and understated colours of both versions create a pattern of simple intersecting lines. While Fassett’s historical reference is quite arbitrary in pattern, his contemporary version controls the pattern to a greater degree and builds repeating blocks from four triangles to create a series of cube shapes upon which the quilt pattern is based. In a handful of other works on display inspiration is drawn from outside the textile arts; for example the Moroccan Door Quilt which is based on the colours and depth of a pained wooden door Fassett saw in Marrakesh.

Displayed alongside Fassett’s historical and contemporary quilts is a selection of stage costumes made for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It. Created in a variety of materials, the costumes are a melodrama of colour and texture. While they are visually overwhelming when seen close up, one must remember that theatrical costumes must contend with a far different environment from the home or gallery. Fassett’s trademark colours are required to hold their own against stage makeup and dramatic lighting so that those of us sitting, or standing, in the back of the theatre can still appreciate them. Taken with this in mind the costumes display, ironically, a great deal of control in Fassett’s skills as a designer. Here pattern, texture and colour are pared down and simplified to withstand the audience’s distance from the theatre stage.

The use of quilting in fashion is also explored with a display that presents examples of quilted clothing from various time periods and cultures. Quilted apparel is thought to have its roots in China, likely arriving in Europe with the Crusader knights. It has been used as protection against harsh winter climes, as a form of armoured protection against war and fire in Edo Japan and, of course, not least as a highly decorative statement. The breadth of examples demonstrates the longevity of the quilting technique with samples drawn from the 17th century to the present. The conclusion to be drawn is that over the course of history quilting has played an equal hand in function as it has in decoration. The section also includes works which are in striking contrast to Fassett’s own pieces, such as Jenni Dutton’s Walk in the Woods. Pieced sycamore and holly leaves, snail shells, feathers, dead spiders and snake skin, Dutton’s work stemmed from research at the Pitt Rivers Museum where the artist studied shaman’s clothing. The mystical apparition of the ghostly dress lies in stark contrast to costumes commissioned by the RSC and contemporary examples, such as an Italian leather bomber jacket from the 1980s.

In the grounds of the museum Fassett has worked with the head gardener, Simon Woollen, to create his quilted patterns in flower and leaf. This touch typifies Fassett’s encompassing approach to colour and pattern, one that impacts on every surface, in every material and every aspect of life.

Craft Arts International No. 59, 2003: 105-106.