At Home With
Pascale Gueracague, Helmut Lang Textile Designer

It’s funny, although not altogether inaccurate, to picture a girl like Pascale Gueracague digging around in the trash — she’s all long hair, winning smile, French parents, and Margiela bags, and at just 26 years old, she’s spent the last three years catapulting to the head of textile design at Helmut Lang. But in her prints as well as the paintings she makes in her spare time, she works with some of the most banal materials imaginable — plastic bags, baby powder, rubber cement — and because she sees beauty in them that others tend to miss, that often entails liberating them from the rubbish pile. “That’s how I’ve learned to design since I was a kid,” she explains. “I came from a big family with no money, so I was always drawing on the inside of a cereal box.” Of course, Gueracague’s artistic gifts lay in the alchemy that happens next, when she’s layering and manipulating those materials into rich compositions that evoke her new-age-meets-industrial-chic aesthetic; one of her recent motifs for Helmut Lang involved crinkling, scanning, and Photoshopping some discarded heat-transfer foils she found in a print factory until they looked like some kind of crystallized interstellar scene. “They think I’m a mad scientist at work,” she says. In fact, they encourage it.

Every designer should be so lucky. Gueracague spent two years studying painting at an art high school before attending the textile program at RISD, where she learned dye chemistry and how stick her hand in a bag and blind-identify camel hair from mohair. It only took a few key internships — working under color expert Paul Bloodgood on Martha Stewart’s house paint line, apprenticing for a fashion designer and a celebrity stylist — plus a wayward post-grad year designing dorm bedding for Target before she found her way to Helmut Lang in 2007. After an unsuccessful run with Prada, the company had just been sold to Theory and placed under the care of creative directors Michael and Nicole Colovos; shortly after Gueracague was brought in to assist their director of fabrics, she helped spearhead the first in what would become a successful ongoing series of experimental digital prints.

In a sense, she was getting paid to channel her personal artistic practice into a like-minded commercial one. “I work on a team, so I have to feed off of what everyone else is feeling, but my instincts always lean toward industrial surfaces and textures, something hard mixed with something softer,” Gueracague says. “I love rocks and anything outer-space related. And sometimes I’m just inspired by a material, or a type of ink, or the colors in a photograph.” Now, of course, those interests have become inexorably intertwined with Helmut Lang’s visual identity. It’s certainly made it that much harder for her to draw a line between her professional work and her personal practice; when Sight Unseen visited her apartment and home studio on a stormy day this August, it was filled with work-related experiments. But ultimately, she’s feeling pretty creatively fulfilled these days, and when she does find time to devote to her paintings, they still manage to take on lives of their own. Here’s a closer look at both of her worlds.

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As the senior print designer at Helmut Lang, Gueracague works with the company's creative directors to develop all the textile designs for each season. Her process is both hands-on and highly experimental, to the point where it's usually difficult to tell from the final designs what materials she used to create them. Here, from left: photographs of scrap metal she took at a scrapyard, then pixelated in Photoshop; cellophane and plastic bags crinkled, scanned, and digitally altered; and the aforementioned film transfer foils, which underwent a process similar to the cellophane, partially inspired by the artist Anselm Reyle. "The motifs are sort of secondary," she says. "It's more about the effects themselves and the colors, and how they fall on the body in an interesting way."

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When we visited Gueracague's apartment, a two-bedroom walk-up in the Carroll Gardens area of Brooklyn, she rolled out a rack hung with almost all of the designs she's made since starting with Helmut Lang in 2007. They're digitally printed in Italy on special high-definition machines, which — compared to silk-screening — allows her a far greater degree of experimentation with color, technique, and repeat heights. It does mean that all of her designs have to pass through Photoshop on their way to the factory, but that's usually the end of the process for her rather than the beginning. “Other textile designers only use the computer, whereas the things I enjoy doing most are making interesting surfaces and playing with paints and dyes," she says.

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The wizardry she practices in the office isn't so far removed from the process she uses to create her own artworks, two of which are displayed in her dining area. The large mural, which she made in early 2009, references the movements of birds, but "I was still interested in the physicality of the materials, it being about paint and charcoal and their application," she says. The smaller, more marbled piece on the floor is one in a series of paintings evoking explosions, rocks, and candy; Gueracague lists house paint, ink, paper towels, salt, olive oil, and spray paint among the substances she used to create them.

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With two framed drawings by her little sister in the background, the coffee table in the living room hosts a microcosm of Gueracague's biggest aesthetic inspirations.

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Many of the references she names from past Helmut Lang collections are books she and the team were looking at at the time, some vintage and some contemporary. The purple volume at left is a monograph for the emerging photographer David Benjamin Sherry, whose work is featured in the "Greater New York" show currently on view at PS1. “I like how his images are manipulated, manufactured, and almost superficial — like strange colors superimposed over natural elements," she says. The book all the way to the right is by Mariko Takahashi, who creates gooey, seemingly shellacked compositions swimming with flowers and decomposed food: also natural and artificial at the same time.

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A closeup of Gueracague's rock and crystal collection, an easy obsession to locate in her work. "I had some of them as a kid, but the collection grew considerably during one of my first seasons at Helmut Lang where we started planning a spring palette based off the colors of rocks and minerals," she says.

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"I have yet to grow my own crystals yet," she says — hence this unopened kit in her studio — "but I have made my own rock candy. I had a few baby crystals that eventually turned into a sticky, ant-infested mess. But if you use a string instead of a stick, along with different colors, you can make some interesting things — there are some great 'how-to' instructions online."

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More inspiring reading: a French-edition Life book on the cosmos. “I love outer space," she says. "Even if it’s not what a given collection is about, I tend to make everything about it.”

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In the corner of the living room hangs a poster by the filmmaker and artist Yvonne Jukes, who made it for Gueracague as a birthday present. The blow-up cactus from a local party store is "filling in for all the plants I've killed."

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Another painting from the rocks-explosions-candy series. "It has a super tactile feeling," she explains, adding that while she's "very curious" about trying new techniques, her experiments "don’t always work out."

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The living room sofa is covered in fabrics Gueracague purchased on a trip to Peru, when she was working with a print factory there a few seasons back.

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A small windowless room tucked behind the kitchen serves as her makeshift home studio: It's filled with painting supplies and an inspiration board, plus sketches and trials for her fabrics, which are pictured here. "I like color — having it in my house and using it in my prints," she says. "But obviously Helmut Lang uses a ton of black. There's always an element of something darker."

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Many of her designs fall somewhere between industrial and organic, like this dress, which looks like a cross between rusty metal and the surface of Jupiter. “We found this book at work that had a lot of pictures of garages and the sides of factories and buildings, all this erosion and these distressed surfaces,” she says. “I started experimenting with paintings where I was using inks and dyes and gouache and acrylic and going back and pouring salt onto them. The salt would absorb the ink in different ways and coagulate.”

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Other interesting technique studies hanging in the studio include these paper rubbings of other paper...

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...and images made on a scanner bed. The top “is just some packaging I found in the trash and crumpled up,” while the bottom contains “plastic bags I painted black, scratched, washed, and crumpled.”

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Lately Gueracague has taken to studying all different kinds of shiny surfaces, and some of the specimens are pinned to her inspiration board. It also features random ephemera she's collected and some of her personal drawings.

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In one corner hangs an illustration made by Chris Georges, a printmaker and the guitarist for the Providence-based band Fang Island, which began as an art project at RISD the year Gueracague graduated. The kaleidoscopic postcard is from the Pompidou in Paris, and the Papabubble lollipop was a gift from her boyfriend Theo Richardson, one-third of the New York design trio Rich Brilliant Willing.

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The geometric graphite drawing in the center of this photo is part of a proposal she did for Helmut Lang based on the work of a tattoo artist, but it was ultimately vetoed. “I made a million of these illustrations," she says. "Every season I explore all kinds of things before we settle on a collection." Underneath it is a sinewy pencil drawing based on medical illustrations of muscles.

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That anatomical drawing eventually made its way into this design. "We were interested in doing something symmetrical with a little bit of a body-conscious reference," she explains. "This is a painting I made with rubber cement. I went back and peeled it off, then scraped, sanded, and charcoaled it before superimposing those lines."

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The various layers are visible in this close-up.

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In Gueracague's hallway, a Moroccan puppet she purchased at a thrift store in La Rochelle, France, sits atop an old silkscreen she made while at RISD.

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There's also a neon light Richardson made her for her birthday.

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On her bedside table is an image she made awhile back by scanning folded papers; it recalls the textile prints Tauba Auerbach showed in the Whitney Biennial this year, which Gueracague says she loved. Beside it are some handmade Peruvian ribbons she bought in Lima.

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A sign above her bed that used to say happy birthday.

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Across from the bed, a mixed-media painting with a celestial motif holds court on top of a bright-green bookshelf. The photo on the right is of a friend — "she dressed up as the Ultimate Warrior for Halloween and I did her face paint with gouache" — while the embroidered parrot is from a thrift store in Providence.

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Among the artwork that is not her own are these three pictures, which Gueracague loosely refers to as her "landscape collection." The dog image belonged to her grandfather, and was taken in the Basque area in the south of France, where her family is from. The bottom left was a gift from the printmaker Pete Watts, and the bottom right was another thrift-store purchase. "I love the greens and the overcast feeling in that one," she says.

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Out her bedroom window, past a collection of cactuses in brightly colored pots, you can see the G train rumbling by.

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Gueracague in front of her kitchen mural. “I haven’t had time to work on my own art for awhile, to be honest,” she says. “I love painting, but sometimes I need six months to absorb things, to collect references or digest, and then I’ll have this burst where I’ll make a million things. Other times my work takes over. Right now I’m interested in looking at photographic effects, whether they be cyanotypes or some of the scratches you get when you screw up a photograph. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.”