People suffering from chromophobia may find the final cure at the American Museum in Britain, in Bath, UK. The exhibition "The Colourful World of Kaffe Fassett", celebrating the renowned American textile artist, is indeed a riot of colours.
Born in San Francisco in 1937 and raised in Big Sur, California, Kaffe Fassett moved to London in 1964. In the '60s he met Scottish fashion designer Bill Gibb, and started creating multicoloured knitwear designs for him. Chosen by Beatrix Miller of Vogue as the 1970 Dress of the Year, one of Gibb's ensembles, including a Fassett hand-knitted waistcoat, relaunched traditional knitwear techniques into fashion. Fassett and Gibb were close friends and collaborators until Gibb's death in 1988.
In 1994 Fassett exhibited for the first time at the American Museum, an institution that had provided him in the '60s with many interesting inspirations and where he had been mesmerised by the juxtaposition of colours of the antique quilts in the collection. This exhibition marks therefore a return of the artist to the museum.
The exhibition gallery, the garden outside it with an ancient tree covered in multi-coloured pompoms and decorations, and some spaces of Claverton Manor are immersed in colour. Everything is bold and bright, there are vibrant fuchsias and vivid greens, deep blues and buttercup-yellows all around, while rhythmic stripes and geometric patterns invite visitors to discover techniques ranging from knitwear and needlepoint to beading and quilting.
Theatrical designer Johan Engels designed the exhibition dedicating to his recreation of Fassett's studio with its cosy baskets of yarns and fabrics lined on shelves, a central position. Other spaces look like little gardens in bloom: there are intricate knitted shawls and cushions decorated with detailed needlepoint designs (replicated in digital format on the floor), while the stunning Hollyhock Tapestry dominates the end wall of the green room. Fassett's full-sleeved knitted coat, inspired by seeing Rudolf Nureyev in "Romeo and Juliet" is among the highlights, together with the walls of hand-knitted silk and alpaca sweaters developed in collaboration with his partner Brandon Mably.
Yet "The Colourful World of Kaffe Fassett" is not just about textile art: the exhibition also includes mosaics, Turkish tiles, Chinese vases and objects from Fassett's personal collection, all elements that surround him as he creates.
The event is also a way to discover Fassett's work as painter and illustrator since it features monochrome drawings the artist made as a boy in California and his pen drawings (from 1964) of the American Museum's Period Rooms.
Every item on display shows Fassett's obsession with the power of colours, but it also represents a journey through the world of decorative arts, and part of an intricate opera of an artist intent on finding vibrancy, exuberance and liveliness in our grey world.
What's the main difference between this event at the American Museum in Bath and previous exhibitions such as last year's event at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London?
Kaffe Fassett: This one focuses on colour, so each area of the exhibition is an intense pool of colour. I've never actually shown quite that strongly in such pure colour before.
Talking about colours, in your opinion, why do we often end up opting for safe or neutral shades in fashion?
Kaffe Fassett: I think people are terribly nervous of getting something wrong and wanting to look cool and therefore end up thinking that grey and beige are safe colours and they won't get it wrong, but that's a pity, because they are very wrong in my eyes! I think that beige does nothing for most girl's complexions, for example, yet so many girls wear beige scarves...
The exhibition also features elements, including Turkish tiles and Chinese vases, that point towards interior design or architecture, do you feel there is also an architectural inspiration in your pieces?
Kaffe Fassett: Different inspirations come into my pieces, but I guess this specific one may come from the fact that I love the theatre and theatrical upscaleness. It's exciting when you see a room or a great cathedral or a wonderful old doorway with fabulous contrasting colours around the door and stone, it's dramatic and it's on a big scale and I think it's the scale as much as the pattern that excites me. There is actually a key connection with the theatre in this exhibition as designer Johan Engels, known for his opera sets, designed the exhibition. That's why the show displays such dramatic perfection, his guiding eye helped us thinking in a big dramatic way, it was simply wonderful working with him.
What fascinates you instead about geometry?
Kaffe Fassett: One of the things I realised when I started working with colours in textiles was that you needed to organise the colour in such a way that it had a very dramatic exciting sharpness to it, so that you were focused on the colour. I became very interested in different patterns and how for example a circle or a sequence of diamonds filled a space, because the repetition of a shape in a pattern is the vehicle for showing off the colour.
Though some of your pieces are inspired by traditional techniques, they also look extremely modern as if they were computer-generated patterns: is keeping an eye on the past and traditions the best way to create intriguing designs for the future?
Kaffe Fassett: I think it is very important not to throw out the past, since it has a lot to teach us and there's a lot to be digested and understood in it, so each generation should look very hard at the past. I'm always fascinated when I can see the roots of the past in an artist's work, I don't want someone to copy the past and make it sterile and turn it into a horrible copy, but remember to let the wonderful discoveries of the past artists' feed us and teach us.
Are visitors invited to touch your works?
Kaffe Fassett: I feel very sad that you can't allow people to touch the work, because we all look with our fingers. When we go shopping we feel a pair of trousers or a shirt or whatever, we experience them and it is sad you can't touch, but I did say in one exhibition I had in Sweden to let the audience touch and, shortly afterwards, some ladies tried to drag my coats down to their level so that they could look at them a bit better, and the signs went up again immediately. But we do have a special place in the exhibition in Bath with a half finished piece of needlepoint, bits of knitting and the fabric that we used for the patchwork and patchwork pieces sewn together, that people can touch and feel, or flip over to see what the texture looks like.
Do you have a favourite piece in this exhibition?
Kaffe Fassett: No, I don't have a favourite piece, as each of them is important, but there is one big piece in the Bath exhibition I'm very exciting about, because I haven't seen it for a long time - it's Hollyhock Tapestry that we did for a Shakespeare theatre in Stamford, England. We borrowed it back from the theatre and displayed it in a very dramatic way, at the end of our green room. It's 9 feet tall and features a big, strong Hollyhock plant with huge leaves and flowers. To see something that you made and you had to say to it goodbye right away because it was commissioned and to get it back and see that it wasn't really that bad, but it actually looked beautiful and that therefore at one point you did something well, fills you with happiness.
Will the exhibition travel and will you go back to Scotland at some point?
Kaffe Fassett: There are no plans for this exhibition to travel, though it would be nice to see it travelling to Scandinavia and Japan. We had another exhibition between July and September at the Aberdeen Art Gallery entitled "50 Years in Colour". I just love Scotland and when the museum in Aberdeen came to see last year's exhibition in London and decided to have their own event about me, I was very excited also because a coat that I made a while back and that was inspired by the Scottish landscape is part of the Art Gallery collection, so I have a close link with this space. This exhibition in Aberdeen was inspired by the colours of the Cinque Terre in Italy.
What strikes you the most about this rugged portion of land on the Ligurian Coast?
Kaffe Fassett: I was there in March with Brandon and we were blown away by the colours of those villages. That passionate use of colour is just so exciting to behold. I connect it to old Italian paintings of hill-towns, those villages have the same sort of shades, beautiful warm earthy colours that relate to the old way of doing things, a beautiful tradition that is still alive and a use of colours borrowed from the past that is still being wonderfully observed.
What plans do you have for the immediate future?
Kaffe Fassett: I usually go to the Quilt Market and International Quilt Festival (October 30 - November 2, 2014) in Houston, Texas, every Autumn where I launch my collection of new fabrics. It's a great place, a Mecca for this art. I look forward to it as there are people coming from all over the world. There are several events lined up for next year and you can check them out on my site. In a year's time we would also like to go and photograph a book of quilts in the Cinque Terre.
The Colourful World of Kaffe Fassett, The American Museum in Britain, Bath, UK, until 2 November 2014
Image credits for this post
1 - 7 and 11- 12 "The Colourful World of Kaffe Fassett" at the American Museum in Britain, images by Stuart Ross
8. Striped City Quilt, 204 x 185.5 cm, Courtesy of Debbie Patterson © Kaffe Fassett Studio
9. Jewel Squares Blind, HR KF, Quilt, 108 x 100 cm, Courtesy of Debbie Patterson © Kaffe Fassett Studio
10. Hollyhock tapestry, 275 x 150 cm, © Kaffe Fassett Studio
13. Portrait of Kaffe Fassett by Sheila Rock © Kaffe Fassett Studio
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