Threadbare Beauty: Worn Away Patterns

Threadbare Beauty: Worn Away Patterns

Rarely is a worn surface considered an attribute. Blue jeans may be the one exception to this rule, but on the whole, surfaces that are frayed, scuffed or torn typically signify that a material is nearing the end, rather than the beginning, of its valued life. Along with blue jeans there are, of course, a few other notable exceptions to the rule: stone steps, for instance, worn down to a soothing dip in the centre acquire value because of the sheer time it has taken for stone to accumulate the imprint of human or animal traffic. Similarly, flannel sheets washed to a softness that is ready to tear cannot truly be replicated by any industrial finishing process. It is the time that has gone into their washing, drying and use that is impossible to replicate. In cases such as these, a material’s value is directly related to the time required to reach an age-worn state. But these positive examples of admired wear are few and far between. On the whole, today’s consumers are quick to discard anything that shows signs of wear as ‘damaged’.

Many even go to great lengths to protect surfaces prone to wear from recording their use: chair arms find themselves covered with extra bits of cloth or wrapped in dust covers; entrances are graced with doormats and stairs with carpet runners; even teacups are set upon coasters or cloths to protect the surfaces beneath. Off the beaten path that considers wear a flaw, are a group of designers and artists working with a variety of materials that have taken up the challenge of making wear-and-tear an attribute. This group designs and creates with wear in mind. But rather than consider how to protect the surfaces around us from the traces of wear, textiles, wallpapers and floor coverings are now being designed to only improve with age. Often they reveal new imbedded patterns throughout various stages of their life. Rather than face banishment and obsolescence at the first sign of scuffing, wear-and-tear is becoming a prerequisite to full appreciation of a surfaces design. As well as responding to contemporary issues such as sustainability, this emerging ethos requires that a surface actively be used – rather than concealed under protective layers – to be fully appreciated. Each of the following examples suggests an increasing desire to accept, even to celebrate, what we have long noticed: textiles do not last forever. What designers and artists alike seem increasingly to recognise is that this may not be such a bad thing.

For Linda Florence, the challenge to develop floor coverings that reveal new patterns with wear was first inspired by a weekend DIY project. While peeling old wallpaper to prepare for painting, Florence became intrigued with the countless layers of patterned wallpaper hidden beneath the outer layer. Considering how this might function as an intentional element of a design, Florence created a material of multilayered patterns to cover both the floor and wall. Over time the portion used as flooring is designed to wear away and reveal embedded patterns lying beneath the surface. In contrast the wallpaper, free from the abrasion the flooring experiences, acts as a record of the first outer layer of the pattern. The design responds to issues of sustainability central to the curriculum of the Textile Futures MA at Central Saint Martins where Florence studied, by proposing that the life of a surface such as flooring or wallpaper can be extended to make normal wear-and-tear beautiful. Abrasion and use, in a sense, is necessary to fully appreciate the design.

Florence has also created a series of more conceptually driven works that tackle similar issues. “Sugar Dance Floor”, for instance, grew out of the time Florence spent working in a carpet store during the summer before her degree show. Learning that typical carpet patterning is designed to disguise dirt tracked onto the carpet, Florence chose to take the idea of “tracking” dirt as a negative that needs to be concealed and turn it around. One of her outcomes, “Sugar Dance Floor” is based on the idea of recording, rather than concealing, tracking in a controlled manner. In this case a pattern of loose sugar is laid out on the floor and one couple asked to dance the waltz – a specific pattern in its own right – across the pattern. The “tracking” pattern of the dance disrupts portions of the floor’s delicately sprinkled pattern; precisely the inverse of commercial carpet’s desire to use pattern to conceal the tracking of dirt onto carpet.

Florence is not the only designer to recently reconsider wear and decide that it is a good thing. Ian and Richard Abell of Based Upon in London explain, “layers are a key part to the way we work.” Commissioned to create the staircase in London’s upscale Nobu Restaurant, the Abells proposed a multilayered golden surface that would intentionally alter with wear. Pragmatism drove one side of the project. “There was a danger,” Ian explains, “because we could not gaurantee that the liquid metal process we use would not wear through.” The potential of the surface to record scratches was turned into a feature rather than a flaw. “Damage and distress,” he explains represent moments in time. Each nick or scratch tells a story.” I ask if their “Evolving Floor” technique is applied to other projects, such as the furniture they produce? While imperfection is a certain trademark of Based Upon, Ian points out the one would need to be “in a high state of agitation, probably wearing pebble dashed trousers” before wear of the kind flooring experiences would show through on a chair. That said, the team to accelerate their worn technique. “Decaying” they admit quite perversely “adds, rather than takes away value.”

Both Florence and the Abells understand that the surfaces we walk upon do not need to be protected from our use, but can in fact celebrate and record the traffic that passes over them by revealing imbedded patterns and colours over time. Similar ideas have also been taken up by Fine Artists creating work for the gallery setting and site-specific installations. New York based artist Jil Weinstock’s “Jet Black” is a floor installation of large rubber squares containing black nylons tights. Inspired by Weinstock’s desire to “update the minimalist language by inserting the personal into the geometric; the intimate into the formal,” the work was produced as both homage and critique to Carl Andre’s metal floor structures. Titled after the colour of women’s nylon tights, the work refers, in Weinstock’s words, “to the surface of the body or the skin, as well as what may lie within.” While the rubber has long set, the tights floating near the surface create uncanny patterns that suggest a spilt liquid or stain appearing on each tile. The rubber is also far less obedient than its metal predecessor, curling at the edges and refusing to seam together with perfect edges. Viewers are encouraged to experience the work not just with their eyes but also to walk across the piece, without their shoes and socks, to experience what Weinstock describes as a “sticky, squishy” surface quite at odds with what we expect flooring to provide. Over time this traffic will slowly alter the face of the work further, scrubbing away portions of the rubber to reveal more of the nylon tights embedded in each cast.

On the other side of the United States, viewers of Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot’s “Lullaby Garden” installed at the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens, have also been politely asked to slip out of their shoes. The Festival covers nine acres of rolling countryside north of San Francisco in Sonoma Country, California and is home to an ever changing and eclectic collection of site-specific installations, including Cao and Perrot’s knitted monofilament carpet which draped across the land like a patchwork quilt. In what can only be described as a labour of love, Cao arranged to have the carpet of monofilament thread hand knitted in his native Vietnam, shipped back to California, assembled onsite and stitched together by hand. Cao and Perrot asked viewers to remove their shoes before experiencing the work. While Lullaby Garden was designed (with the help of an audio of a lullaby playing in the centre) to return a spring to our harried steps, the work did not escape the intrusion of wear-and-tear either. In Cao’s case the structure stood up to traffic, but the installation’s colour altered dramatically in the strong Californian light, shifting from lurid blue and orange to golden yellow in a matter of weeks. While this change caused great consternation among the event’s organizers, the designers remained remarkably philosophical about the shift, remarking that the work’s newfound palette in fact blended into the surrounding Sonoma Valley landscape far more successfully than the original colour.

Cao and Perrot’s acceptance of the changes nature brings to manmade materials is far from isolated. As part of Through the Surface, a collaborative exchange project between Japanese and British textile artists set up by Lesley Millar of the University College for the Creative Arts in 2004, Claire Barber was one of a group of British textile artists to travel to Japan and create a body of work in response to the exchange. One of the installations she constructed while there was situated on the stone steps leading to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto. “I became interested in surfaces that had been weathered or changed,” Barber explains of the installation that began when she noticed the absence of moss from the worn centres of each stone step. Wanting to “touch the space lightly” Barber inserted her own carpet of pins into the moss at the edge of each step. Every pinhead was removed and the remaining metal painted with an orange tip that both echoed the orange gates of the temple’s entrance, but also created the allusion of small dashes of colour hovering protectively above the moss. “A linear mark”, Barber explains, was all she wanted to leave on this foreign landscape. The gesture marked out the tangible trace of human movement, but also offered an eloquent reminder of the fragility of everything – including stone – that is built by mankind.

Finally, Caroline Broadhead’s “Proposal for Space” installation at COLLECT, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum this year, was constructed from a “fabric” of mirrors and light. The work was composed of pieces of cut mirror inspired by the pattern of a carpet edge that was once part of Whitley House. When, Broadhead explains, the stately home succumbed to a fire, locals arrived to take what they could from the remains. The estate’s tapestries and carpets were “snipped and cut apart” to salvage the material remains. It is this sense of dispersal and fragmentation that inspired Broadhead to rework the carpet’s boarder pattern in alternative, far more fleeting and fragmented, materials. A photograph of one of the home’s carpets provided inspiration for the cut mirror shapes that cover one wall of the installation and project distorted reflections of each shape onto the adjacent wall. Further surfaces also appear. The shadows on the adjacent wall reappears on the mirror’s own reflective surface and the ghost of a third wall (the continuation of the wall in which pattern exists only as shadow) is apparent to varying degrees depending on the viewers’ position in relation to the work within the mirrored surface.

Thus, “Proposal for Space” generates a conversation between the ‘real’ and the projected that is not static. Pattern here is an ephemeral experience, dependent not on abrasion in a literal sense, but instead is determined by the time and movement back and forth in front of the work which the viewer is willing to expend. The more one is willing to walk back and forth, to sway from side to side, to step backwards and forwards, the more patterns are revealed. The same could be said of this new group of wear-friendly work. Just keep moving and all will be revealed.

Modern Carpets & Textiles (autumn 2006: 56-57)

image: Linda Florence "Sugar Floor Dance"