Interview with textile designer Kaffe Fassett
PUBLISHED: 12:59 19 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:43 20 February 2013
As an exhibition of his floral textiles opens in Sussex, the internationally renowned designer reveals why his Hastings retreat repeatedly draws him back
Textile designer Kaffe Fassett, renowned the world over for his dazzling knitting designs, was attending a banquet in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen at the American Embassy in London to celebrate, as he puts it, all the American achievers in town.
There I was with the Admiral of the Fleet and the head of Reuters, which was quite bizarre, he says, taking up the story in his smooth West Coast American accent. But things were about to take an even more bizarre turn.
As he stood in the line up, waiting to shake the Queens hand, he was introduced with the words: Maam, Mr Fassett has had an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The Queen looked him up and down, before asking, pointedly, what the exhibition had featured. Knitting, he replied. Knitting! she exclaimed. Why, I can do that! And, according to Fassett, flounced off.
Fassett, it seems, has always challenged preconceptions. Until he burst onto the arts scene in the mid Sixties, men just didnt do knitting. In fact, by and large, they still don't. Weve grown used to the idea of men in the kitchen. But men in the needleroom? Even in this day and age, its a novel concept.
So you can imagine the reaction when he first loomed into public view. The art world was very snooty, he says, bristling at the memory. Even now, its only just beginning to find textiles interesting, thanks to the likes of Tracey Emin. But for years it was considered worse than decorative art. Just happy hands at home.
I suspect Fassett doesnt lose much sleep over it. He has revolutionised the worlds of knitting, needlepoint, patchwork and textile design, and is revered for his radical approach to colour and pattern. His practical how to books are international bestsellers and he's constantly on the hoof, such is the global demand for his talks and workshops.
I've just come back from Korea, Australia and New Zealand and recently staged a large exhibition in Copenhagen, he says with satisfaction, speaking from the weekend retreat he shares in Hastings Old Town with his partner, Brandon Mably.
But ironically, despite living in Britain since the Sixties, he is rarely asked to mount exhibitions here. Though he became the first living textile artist to stage a one-man retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1988, he claims he has been largely overlooked by the British art establishment. Maybe they're tired of me, he shrugs.
Thankfully, Charleston near Lewes, the former home of the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, is helping to put that right with a small textile exhibition, Kaffe Fassett Flowers, which runs until August 21. Charleston has been an inspiration to Fassett ever since he first visited in the Eighties, and this exhibition, featuring two specially created works, the Flower Post Card Quilt and Charleston Stole, have been dubbed a riot of abstract pattern and harmonious tonal rhythm distilled from the richness of the house and garden. Fassetts fondness for colour partly stems from his sun-drenched childhood in Big Sur, a little community on the central coast of California, where his parents ran a family restaurant. It was something of a tourist hotspot. The building, perched on a peninsular 800ft above the Pacific Ocean, had been designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright and attracted the world's rich, colourful, crazy people.
It was no doubt this Bohemian and artistic melting pot which nurtured Fassetts heightened visual awareness and he vividly remembers San Franciscos Chinatown, where he drank in the sight of high piles of oranges laid out on hot pink and magenta paper. Inevitably, he wound up at art school (he gained a scholarship to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), but quickly abandoned his studies to strike out on his own.
It was around this time he met the writer Christopher Isherwood, who sealed his love of all things English. We met at a dinner party and he made a very definite impression, he says. I was 27; he was 60. But he was the youngest 60 Id ever encountered. He had a wonderful mind and was full of spit and vinegar. So I bought as many of his books as I could and found they were all about England. Thats when I decided I had to come here to see where he came from.
He arrived in 1964, setting up home near Portobello Market in Notting Hill. Setting foot on English soil and breathing English air was like walking into warm water, he says it seemed so natural. Ironically though, given his later predilection for colour, he initially worked as a minimalist painter, producing still-life compositions of white porcelain on white tables in white rooms.
His Damascene moment came when he visited a Scottish woollen mill with the fashion designer Bill Gibb. Bowled over by the subtlety and richness of the beautiful old tartans, he snapped up 20 Shetland knitting yarns and learnt how to knit on the train home after asking a fellow passenger for an impromptu lesson.
His first sweater design was a complete mess, he says, but he took it to Vogue regardless, who commissioned him to design something in Fairisle on the strength of the colour alone. I didnt even know what Fairisle was, but I figured it out and knitted a little waistcoat, which was photographed for Vogues knitting magazine.
Then Vogue proper commissioned him to create a long, woollen coat, which caught the eye of Missoni, the Italian fashion house famed for its unique and colourful knitwear. It was a marriage made in heaven and he went on design many one-off designs showcased by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Shirley MacLaine and Lauren Bacall. But he dismisses celebrity endorsement. Its nice to drop their names into articles, but they wear an outfit once and then give it to charity. Most of my fame came from writing books.
The first, Glorious Knitting, spawned a van-load more and he has now written 13 books on patchwork alone. In fact, these days, he works almost exclusively in patchwork, both designing patterns for patchwork fabrics and creating patchwork designs for quilts. He says theres no real theory behind it; the key is finding good source material. Ideas come from the darndest places. I once did a book based on the geometry you find on drainage systems and manhole covers.
He works predominantly in London, but he and his partner love to escape to their Sussex bolthole. Fassett was first introduced to Hastings by the film director John Schlesinger, and their home, a beautiful lavender-blue Victorian villa set in a large garden, sits high on the hill overlooking the seafront. Its light, airy rooms, painted in sugar almond colours, have proved the perfect template for Fassetts designs.
I love Hastings, he says. It isnt chi chi and commercialised like Brighton; its the undiscovered cousin of the coastal towns. And the way the houses crawl up the hill reminds me of San Francisco. I also adore the sea and the freshness, and those big witches huts where the fishermens nets are dried. It might be straight out of a Dickens novel.
Fassett, it seems, is always searching for visual stimuli. I ask if he has any unfulfilled ambitions and he reels off a long list. Id love to stage a massive mixed-media show with a floral theme, the embryo being the current show at Charleston, he says. Id also like to do a tie-in book. And maybe a television series. And perhaps a world tour...
You sense retirement is a long way off. Maybe never.
Kaffe Fassett Flowers runs at Charleston Gallery, Firle, near Lewes until August 21. Visit www.charleston.org.uk or ring 01323 811626 for more details.
Kaffe Fassetts Quilts in Sweden is published by Rowan at 18.50.
n For more information about the Kaffe Fassett Studio, visit www.kaffefassett.com