It’s easy to imagine the backstory of a Prada print: Miuccia has a concept for the season, and either a high-end Italian fabric vendor or her own design team supplies prints just for her. But consider a patterned polyester work shirt from Kmart, and you’d never guess that a RISD textile-design grad like Amy Voloshin might be behind it, translating those runway looks into something that appeals to mainstream Americans. It’s an art unto itself: “I have a list of things I roll through in my head when I design for those clients: Is the print pretty? Is it scary, thorny, or edgy? If it is, it’s not going to work. A lot of us don’t really dress like middle America,” she says, referring to her seven employees at Printfresh, the Philadelphia textile studio she founded with her husband in 2006, “but the stuff that does well for that market is still fun to design.”
One of few such studios in the U.S., Printfresh has sold thousands of fabric designs in the past four years to clients like Limited Too, H&M, the Gap, BCBG, and Philly neighbor Urban Outfitters, for whom Voloshin once worked. She doesn’t actually manufacture any textiles; when a clothing company buys one of her prints, it’s the intellectual property only, and no one is ever shown that same pattern again. As a result, the designers and illustrators who work for her have a pretty sweet gig: They spend all day painting, drawing, even tie-dyeing, then translating their work or inspiration images into digital files the sales team can whip out whenever a client calls asking for an Ikat or a plaid. “When you’re at art school, you agonize over a couple of textile designs in a semester,” Voloshin says. “Here, you make four in one day.”
On our recent scouting trip to Philadelphia, Voloshin gave Sight Unseen a tour of the sprawling loft Printfresh occupies in the city’s up-and-coming Old Kensington neighborhood. (The space was once a bolt-making factory.) She showed us the company’s two work rooms — one devoted to digital work, the other to handicraft — and gave us a peek at its archive of past prints and vintage inspirations. “People are always surprised by what we do,” she admits. “It’s a funny business-to-business kind of thing. Some of our clients do have their own design teams, but it’s so much better for our sales person to show up with a huge suitcase of prints that totally suit them, rather than having an in-house artist who may or may not create something they love.”
Long ago, wallpaper was reserved for royalty — a handcrafted thing made with high artistry and hung with equally high aspirations. But since then, with a few very recent notable exceptions, it's become the ambitionless cop-out of modern-day interior design, a failure blamed on wimpy printing techniques but which probably has to do more with a lack of imagination. Among those getting it right is the Athens-based design collective 39.22., which draws both its name and its stable of talent from its own geographical coordinates.
For more than three years, the Argentinean sisters Sol Caramilloni Iriarte and Carolina Lopez Gordillo Iriarte kept a design studio on the second floor of a building in Barcelona, handcrafting an eponymous line of leather bags in relative privacy. Sol, 32, was working part-time as a set designer for films; Carolina, 25, had just finished a year apprenticing under her friend Muñoz Vrandecic, the Spanish couture shoemaker. Called Iriarte Iriarte, it was a modest operation. Then in June, fate intervened.
When you're a graphic designer and an aircraft engineer with zero fashion training, and yet you find yourself becoming the go-to clothing line of Melbourne — worn by the likes of Patti Smith, LCD Soundsystem, and Jamie Oliver — you learn to get really good at improvising. And trusting your instincts. So it goes for Alex and Georgie Cleary, the brother-and-sister duo behind Alpha60, who base its designs not on fashion trends but on whatever random pop-culture reference they happen to be into at any given moment.