Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Mirja Puppel: Momentary Beauty


Mirja Puppel: Preserving Momentary Beauty

Along with an avid curiosity for collecting insects such as beetles and butterflies, the Victorian interest in cataloguing the natural world included collecting and pressing flowers. The Victorians are, in fact, attributed with inventing the flower press (ironically now existing in a variety of speedy microwave varieties) to preserve the fleeting beauty of flower petals, grasses and leaves. When put between pages of absorbent paper and held under pressure in the flower press, petals and leaves dry flat and can be partially preserved. Often the delicacy of the structure and color remain, but the inevitable result of the press is that the dimension of the flower is lost.

German textile designer Mirja Puppel is a flower collector of sorts. She explains where her inspiration lifes: “In that moment, when a flower is not fresh anymore, but also has yet to waste away… I preserve this delicate and sensual state and the beauty of this moment.” In returning to the repeating patterns that flowers display in nature, Puppel hopes to create a “synthesis of plant and textile.” Her technique literally presses petals and stamens between layers of silicon and silk to make ethereal fabric wall hangings and garments that act as the artist’s own visual flower press. The transparency of the materials allows the compressed forms, which in the flower press remain a secret temptation until properly dried, to be revealed on the fabric surface.

Puppel’s work is defined by its exploration of materials. Latex, silicon and plastic are paired with natural fibers such as silk, wool, and cotton. The marriage blends organic elements with the contemporary sensibility that synthetics command. Fertile looking forms rest just below the surface of the fabric with the synthetic layer producing a shimmer through which the delicate objects peek. This technique, which Puppel likens to the preparation of a biology slide, captures her harvest and helps protect the stamens and petals from decay. The delicate organic shapes that pattern the layered fabrics also act as an inspiration for screened prints that reproduce similar motifs on a variety of synthetic and natural fabrics. For example, when printed on clear plastic, the floral motif cracks and breaks apart in much the same way that a dried flower, perhaps found between the pages of a book long unopened, eventually crumbles.

In works such as Shadows, petals from a gladiola are scattered randomly across the black chiffon fabric. Silicon is applied to both sides of the silk chiffon to preserve the petals and hold them in place. A second cotton fabric hangs behind the silk and appears to be capturing shadows projected from the silicon coated petals on the silk fabric. In truth, the second fabric is screen printed with images of cast shadows and hung behind the first fabric. While the number of surfaces one can count seem capable of changing with the time of day and the viewer’s perspective, the reality is that both layers contain a static pattern: the screen printed simulacra of the shadows and the real petals.

Other studies take on the form of a garment. In Kimono, Puppel takes the curve of a stamen from the amaryllis flower and establishes a simple repeating pattern that reminds us that surface patterns have long drawn on the simple beauty of nature. The silicon-coated stamens catch the light and pucker the outer silk fabric of the garment, creating a tension between the natural fiber base, the organic motif and the synthetic medium used to bind the two together. The silicon also preserves the stamens and allows the garment to withstand hand washing. A second layer of plain silk lining offers stability to the sheer outer layer. In the spirit of the Japanese kimono design, Puppel explains that the second layer turns golden in certain light to “give the kimono a sense of dignity.”

Shirt is a web-like work. Too fragile for functional use, it plays on the cast shadows and built up layers explored in Shadows. Puppel explains that the piece was intentionally designed in a child’s size rather than an adult’s to “avoid associations with fashion and to underline the fragility and delicate nature of its meaning.” Pieces of clematis flowers are embedded in webs of latex that help to stabilize the structure. The delicacy of both materials means that the latex needs the support of the flower pieces just as much as the stems need the latex as ground.

The small size and delicate structure evoke some of the freedoms costume design enjoys and are reminiscent of such dreamy landscapes as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, where Puck and his entourage eventually explain to the befuddled picnickers that their world is a reality composed of shadows and dreams. Here, as with many of Puppel’s works, the traditional floral motif is handled with a delicacy and innovation, creating pieces that are both experimental and, like pressed flowers, unashamedly beautiful.

Born in Germany, Puppel studied textile design at the University of Figurative Arts in Hamburg, graduating in 2000. In 2002 she was awarded a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Association. Recent research involved with the documentation of Finnish flowers has resulted in a series of works on paper that continue to develop natural motifs in mixed media. Her technique of silicon-coated flowers, which she is understandably reluctant to explain in great detail, has now been applied to scarves which are for sale directly from the artist as

Surface Design Journal (fall 2003: 28-31)