BY JESSICA HEMMINGS
The American textile designer Mark Pollack has long cornered the textile design market for high-end fabrics for interiors. From his design studios in the SoHo district of New York City, Pollack and Associates continues to rise to the challenge of exacting standards of quality and innovation that have become their trademark. Jessica Hemmings met the company’s founder, namesake and lead designer in New York City to discuss the state of textile design today and to inquire about the importance of a particular tree stump he stumbled across while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.
M: Yes, the checkerboard! It was drawn on a tree stump and allowed you to see the rings of the tree trunk through the drawn checkerboard. This just seemed like a perfect metaphor for a good woven cloth – even a good printed cloth. Since my primary interest was in weaving, and still is, it was a good visual reminder of how pattern in a woven cloth can grow out of the structure rather than just being an afterthought that you slap on at the end. To me designing is solving a problem. It is coming up with a solution. Even if the program is self-imposed, design is meeting a need. Anything that you design can be used, but how well it can be used, the extent at which it can be used, is a good measure of how well designed it is.
J: You have recently introduced several environmentally friendly fabrics into your collection. How do you define an environmentally friendly fabric?
M: These first fabrics that we have introduced are all made from recycled materials that are in themselves recyclable. There is one fabric that is wool and viscose and is dyed with environmentally friendly dyestuffs in a closed loop production. In closed loop production the water keeps getting recycled and the level of pollutant in the water is very small. The interesting thing about the fabric is that it is biodegradable. This is not a quality we developed; it was developed by a scientist who believes that anything we put on the earth should go back into the earth and become food for the next generation.
J: Do you aspire to brand recognition or do you try to keep clients surprised by the each collection?
M: We try to keep them guessing. The minute they have you pegged, if they don’t need that type of fabric they have no use for you. But we have such varied interests anyway that we don’t want to be pegged. We always try to surprise in terms of the big picture so that they have to come into our showroom to see what is new and won’t necessarily leave saying, “its the same old stuff.’ Once they are in the showroom looking at the fabrics I do want them to think, “yes, this has their hand” or “this is why it is different from everyone else’s.” And there are different telltale signs that they might not be able to recognize consciously.
J: Is there a different atmosphere in the industry than there was working as a designer ten or twenty years ago?
M: There is definitely much more of a fashion influence but it is actually something that we try to ignore. If we wait for fashion to dictate the trends, by the time we come out with a fabric that responds to that trend, it is out of fashion. The trick is to do fabrics that have a timely quality, but aren’t so specific that they become dated. The fabric does not necessarily have to be fashion related but it needs to be a good foil for other things. So that it never looks out of fashion but at the same time is never in fashion, but it supports the fashion. It is like the classic little black dress. One of the big changes I have seen in the industry is that there are now fewer restrictions. The market is much more accepting of different types of pattern and bigger scales. But designers have become – I shouldn’t say all – but many designers have become a lot more creative in finding ways to use materials.
J: You mentioned that Fine Art is a source of inspiration.
M: When I say that something is inspiring it isn’t in the literal sense. I don’t run home from a gallery having seen a new painting show and immediately start sketching ideas for fabrics. I don’t work that way and to be perfectly honest I don’t think a lot people work that way even though they say they do. Everyone wants a story, wants to know where this came from. I don’t know why we have gotten to this point in society where everything has to come from something else and can’t just be an idea. Everyone wants to know what inspired this fabric. Fine Art works its way into my fabrics in a way I can’t point to, you’ll just have to believe me. That is what I believe inspiration is. You can look at a lot of things, but the trick is actually seeing it. Sometimes it sparks an idea immediately, but other times it really does just get stored in your brain and works its way out. You may not even recognize it as a direct result of having seen something three years ago. Often the connection is uncanny.
J: What changes has the use of CAD made to the industry?
M: On one level I love that the whole industry is computerized because it means that the mills can turn things around so much quicker. I can remember when I first started waiting six months for a sample. I did a collection in Italy and I would go and see my design on the loom and if it was wrong I had to leave because there was no sense staying there – it took days before they could make the correction. So I was making trips to Italy, which was silly. But that was the restriction of industry at the time. I can remember the very first design I faxed to a mill and I had a sample a week later. It was unimaginable before. CAD certainly has made the design process faster but I don’t necessarily think that is a good thing because to me designing is very much a process. You may not have to take it from a to z, going through b, c, d. . ., but I think you need to consider it that way. I don’t think people’s brains work as fast as computers do sometimes. Yes, you can get to an end result much faster but I don’t know that it is necessarily better. It is also eliminates the whole serendipity of designing. The worst thing for me about CAD is that it has made everyone think that they can be a textile designer. That is the biggest difference. There is a very subtle but important distinction; the computer has made everyone able to be a pattern designer not a textile designer. Pattern is not fabric. It has fostered the whole “celebrity designer” phenomenon and it really irks me. The prefect example is repeats. I don’t care what you say putting a pattern into repeat is an art. It is very hard to teach and it is very hard to teach if someone has learned on the computer that all you have to do is push a button and it tiles it and you are done.
J: It sounds like a lot of the mills you work with are overseas. Is that a disadvantage for American designers?
M: I don’t think so. Sometimes I have better communication and service with a mill that is three thousand miles away than I do with a mill that is three miles away. I think the days are gone where you have to go to a mill to know what they are capable of. I always say that if you are smart and you know what questions to ask you can get to the heart of a mill without ever going there. They all do the same thing. Every once in a while you will discover something that you never thought to ask. The trick is to know what questions to ask and you only know that from experience.
J: What are your thoughts on the state of textile design education today?
M: I don’t know that what I am about to say was ever all that well taught, but I think its become even less so when the emphasis has become the mechanics of doing a pattern in the computer. By that I am talking about the qualitative things about a fabric: the hand, how you can mix lustres, how you can mix yarn sizes to create a depth that you would not get looking at a computer screen. The tools of a textile designers’ trade are not just the pattern. It is the yarn, the finish, the colour, the twist on the yarn, it’s is everything. That goes back to that concept of process I talked about. When you sit down at a computer screen, you are starting with the pattern. Maybe you have in the back of your mind how that pattern is going to be made. But I think more times than not, especially with non-trained textile designers sitting down at the computer you are really working from the pattern backwards. I think you should work from the other direction. I would be lying if I said that the pattern always comes last, but it doesn’t always come first and sometimes it really does come last. I’m making it sound like an assembly line, but very often it is all really organic and, yes, it might be in some sort of progression like that but it is all happening in a very short amount of time and condensed in your brain to maybe five minutes. I just don’t think someone sitting at a computer screen as their first point of reference is thinking of that. Good ones are. But I don’t think there are many good designers of any type out there. I’ve sat in enough uncomfortable chairs to say that!
J: Does hand weaving play any role in your design process? I know the finished fabrics are not hand woven but does it act as a sketchbook for you?
M: It used to. The mills are now so fast that they are much more willing to do your research and development. Now we will send drafts to the mills or we’ll send ideas and they will do them very quickly. And in a way they prefer it, because then they get you hooked. We work with a mill in Switzerland where one of their set ups is 116 ends per centimetre. I’m not going to put a warp on my handloom and start weaving structure samples on that scale. What you can do is send them drafts that they then have to expand to fit on all those ends. And you can send them descriptions. But it is very difficult to send them a woven structure sample.
J: Do you picture future generations of weave designers that no longer have hand weaving skills?
M: They are already out there. I don’t want to name any names but there are a lot of designers getting a lot of attention and they don’t know anything. More power to them if they can get through life without knowing how something is made.
J: Seems sad.
M: Yes. But I must add that everything I have said about textile design applies to all design. Like I said, I have sat in enough uncomfortable chairs to know furniture designers often work the same way as textile designers, they work from the picture first and forget about the functionality of the chair.
Selvedge Magazine (issue 11: 52-53)