Kaffe's Press Room
Making Magazine, Christmas 2010
Interview by Rosie Brown
What has happened to my eyes? I have the peculiar feeling that nothing is ever going to look the same again. I have just left the house of the quilter cum knitter, painter, rug-maker and mosaic master Kaffe Fassett, an artist widely considered to be a guru of colour, of all things bright and beautiful.
Earlier, on my way from the Tube to his house, rainy old Kilburn looked like any other part of northwest London, which had caused me to quiz him on why he's settled here in the old smoke, when he could be 'back home' on the stunning Pacific Coast in California. His answer didn't quite satisfy me: 'I want to be in Europe. I'm a European. This is where my heart is – in the old world.'
Okay, I thought, but this still doesn't quite explain why Kilburn. But now I think I get it. Having spent a couple of hours in Kaffe's studio and home engulfed by colour and pattern – flowers, fabric, mosaics, needlepoint, wool, quilts, rugs, tiles, Buddhas, paintings, china, wallpaper – I realise that Kaffe thrives on the beauty of whatever is around him. He draws out the colour. 'Colour is the reason that I make stuff,' he tells me, 'so that I can play with colour. It is the first and foremost consideration.' Afterwards, retracing my steps back to the Tube, nothing looks the same. My eyes actually feel different. The autumn leaves, the colours of which always stir emotions in me, now seem more resplendent than ever; the pretty but not exceptional flower shop at the station now looks exquisite; an unremarkable vegetable stand looks like a work of art; the yellow stripes across the vertical plane of the station's steps tease my eyes and shout pattern at me; even the exposed electricity wires that run along the grey wall beside the rail track (and what a luxurious grey that now seems to be) look like part of an art installation – entwined, ugly wires in glorious oranges, pinks, purples, whites and ochre.
Flashback to my entrance into Kaffe's universe: my jaw dropped when I saw the sitting room. Huge hand-painted flowers adorn the walls, floral tapestries, an impressive collection of Buddhas and quirky objets d'art fill every spare inch. Thing after thing. Colour after colour. Pattern after pattern. He points out that I'm sitting in front of an ancestral painting from China. 'The Orient is a big influence for me,' he says, 'but all the influence that made me feel I really could make things came from my mother, who was a kind of frustrated artist. She had great flair. She was a huge woman and she dressed in these marvellous patterns; she had a wonderful 1940s look to her. Her courage, and the making of dolls and things as we were growing up, showed you that you could make things and do things and make worlds come about.'
His early life was spent in Big Sur, California, where his parents ran a famous restaurant, Nepenthe, nestled in the majestic cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A regular haunt for artists, intellectuals and film stars (the house once belonged to Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth), the bohemian flavour of life that Kaffe had more than a taste of, and his mother's experience of travelling through Europe, instilled in him a sense that the world was his oyster, that he could move beyond what he calls a 'backward, country place'. These days, as one of the most highly regarded practitioners of the quilting world, he travels to workshops, exhibitions and conferences all over the globe. 'At the end of this year I'll end up at a mammoth quilt festival in Houston, Texas, which is the mecca for all quilt makers in the world,' he says. 'I always take projects with me on the road, and keep working in the hotels. That's my sanity. The portability of this kind of work is very much part of the possibility of it.'
He can't hide his delight when he talks about colour. 'Colour is a very emotional thing, and a lot of people don't analyse what it does. People are terribly aware of what music does and, in this country, of what poetry does. Colour is a healer and can absolutely change your life. I do get incredibly emotional. If I walk into a room and the colour, from the flowers, the furnishings, has a certain combination, it is like a fantastic piece of music, a visual piece of music. I have the honour of being able to paint fabric designs. I do them in several different colours, thinking all the time, "What kind of colouring would I like if I were cutting up fabric for a quilt?" I paint the designs on paper, then those are printed onto fabrics and sent back to us for approval. You get wonderful yardage to play with. Sometimes I'm asked to design a tea towel, or a dress fabric, but basically I'm designing a palette to be used by quilters.'
The volume of work that he produces is unfathomable. 'Take it away from me and I'd die. It is absolutely my life's breath. Textiles are just so organic, so therapeutic. Painting fabrics and being able to cut those fabrics up and make your quilt – it's highly motivating.' He shows me a wonderful fabric, Suzani, based on Azerbaijani embroideries, and the needlepoint version of the same design. 'Each medium you put a design into, it changes. Someone else might suggest I try it in mosaic, in little pieces of glass.' I find it unbelievable that he has the time for it all. 'Well, you just roll up your sleeves and say it's mosaic day. You just have to be careful not to get cement everywhere!'
Kaffe has built a loyal team around him. 'You're lucky if you can find a kind of family of people to work with.' He has very fruitful collaborations – with his long-term partner, Brandon Mably, also a designer, who runs the business side of things, and with Liza Lucy, the woman he credits for opening his eyes to quilting. He hands over lots of the technical work to sewers and knitters, but says he'd really prefer to do it all himself. 'If you give it to somebody else you've got to think ahead,' he says. 'I have a kind of dream, I know where I'm going roughly, but I know there will be little adventures on the way that are going to tickle me. So I don't make sketches and tie it down. I want it to be a wonderful creative process as I'm rolling along.'
Kaffe was about 27 when he first got interested in knitting, and discovered needlepoint soon after. It wasn't until some 15 years ago – relatively late in life for a man who is now 72 – that he discovered quilting. 'Liza Lucy kept saying to me: "You should get into patchwork." I said: "That's just cutting up old clothes and sewing them back together." But she said: "You're going to do your own fabrics, you're going to become famous for it." I couldn't see it. She started taking all my knitting ideas and doing them as quilts. She would send me blocks. "This is from your blah blah blah sweater," she'd say. I would say: "Well, that one's okay, but it needs a bit of this." And she said: "You're designing patchwork!" We've done books together ever since, and she's been an incredible companion.
'I love doing the books because I love to see my work photographed the way I want it. As you're making something, you start to think where you'd like to see it. A wonderful texture or colour to put it against that magnifies what's in the quilt and explains the quilt.' He shows me his new book, Quilts En Provence, which was shot in Roussillon in the south of France. 'This whole town was built on the ochre mines, where they make ochre paint and raw sienna, so the clay around there is deep rust and chestnut and ochre. Every house in the whole place was pink or ochre.' And the photographs are enlightening: you can see where the colours might have come from, and where he saw them going.
I ask Kaffe if he can put his finger on why his designs are so distinctive. 'One thing: everything is hand-painted. I think it's more organic. Fabulous things can be done on computers, but there can be something bloodless about it, and I think lots of young people are afraid of colour.' Can he explain why his polka dots don't look like anyone else's? "Well... It's just the colour. I was just in Bulgaria driving through a little area of Sofia where there was a gypsy camp, a slum I suppose... and I loved it. This wild washing and colour on the lines, and painted cars. A lot of inspiration comes from, say, going down to South Africa and looking at what comes out of the townships: wild painted T-shirts, people making whacky shoes and big baskets out of wire from the telephone system. Wonderful stuff that's made out of what we throw away in life.'
Up in the studio, the eyes boggle at the sight of hundreds of fabric samples, which make the room itself seem to be one gargantuan patchwork installation. In one corner, under the window is a low Afghani chair, which is where Kaffe works. I still want to know how the quilts come about, and he shows me a large piece of flannel hanging from one wall, a kind of quilter's blank canvas. 'I place pieces of fabric onto that. They just stick to it, and I can arrange the whole quilt that way, then photograph it, and send the pieces off to be sewn together.'
I ask if he ever runs out of ideas. 'Hardly ever,' he says. 'Everything you do gives birth to lots of other ideas. I can't wait now to work with these new materials.' He fondles some samples that have just come in for approval. 'In the old days I used any fabrics I could find. But now I work mostly with my own fabrics; then, if somebody loves what I'm doing, they can reproduce it. And that sells the fabric.' I know this is an impossible question, but I ask if he has an absolute favourite, if there's one pattern he'd take with him if he had to jump on a spaceship. 'No,' he says. 'I think I'd let it all go and just start again...'
Saying our farewells at the doorstep of this extraordinary place, this veritable museum of visual treats, I notice that one tiny piece of the mosaic-encrusted front porch bears the artist's signature. I laugh. This says it all. The house itself is perhaps Kaffe Fassett's most astonishing work of art.
Reprinted with permission from Making Magazine