Isabel Wilson on Freunde Von Freunden
There must have been something in the air back in 2009, because Freunde Von Freunden, the Berlin-based website whose voyeuristic, photography-based interviews are of a piece with our own obsessions (i.e. barging in on people’s home and workplaces and showing ourselves around) — started just a few weeks before Sight Unseen’s launch at the end of that year. “We never look for apartments but for people,” they say, and that’s always been our mission as well — to get at the personality behind the product, and the narrative behind each new release. To that end, since we introduced you last week to Isabel Wilson’s textile and jewelry line with Chen Chen — and considering we’ve more than covered her partner in crime — we figured it was high time to get to know the RISD grad’s incredible, intricate work. Luckily FvF beat us to it with a gorgeously photographed editorial by photographer Brian Ferry, which appeared on the site just last month. Check out our excerpt of the FvF interview below, then click here to view an even larger image portfolio back on the Freunde von Freunden website.
Interview: Nina Schwarz
Photos: Brian W. Ferry
When you were a child, which kind of textures awakened your curiosity to create?
I think I have always been drawn to textures found in nature. I spent all of my time growing up outdoors exploring and looking at stuff very closely. I remember drawing little patterns on everything. I was really influenced by stories like The Grimm Fairy Tales and Peau d’ane, this 17th century French fairy tale written by Charles Perrault. It was later made into a film directed by Jacques Demy, starring Catherine Deneuve as the princess. In the movie, her father, the King, makes her a series of dresses: one the color of the sun, one the color of the moon, and one the color of good weather. When I was little I was totally obsessed. I drew mermaid princesses with huge hair, puffy sleeves, and billowing skirts. They all had different dresses filled with intricate wild patterns. Then there was the tom boy stage where I drew large exes over all the girly drawings and would tag my older sister Katy Lucy’s name on everything. There was also the fort stage, the book making stage, dog tags, pogs, trolls, tie-dye…
The need to collect runs in the family for sure. My dad was an inventor and an avid collector of unusual treasures. His office was literally stacked high with slide drawers that he compulsively catalogued all of his many collections. Each drawer had a carefully rendered label that he drew by hand with his Rapidograph pens and inside there could be anything from paper clips, rare gems, humorous newspaper clippings, special tools, even stale gum. Somehow, everything was treated with equal care, which gave value to the more ordinary objects. I loved being sick because that meant I got to spend time with my mom and dad at the office and dig through it all. He had a sign on the door that said, “The creative mind needs stuff,” or something like that…
So is making textiles something that you found through your working process?
I have always been seduced by meditative work and textiles is inherently detail oriented. I enjoy zoning out and threading a loom more than anything. I just got a microscope that takes photographs. Most recently I’ve been collecting butterflies and moths of all shapes and sizes from all over the world, mostly Madagascar. I love to look at their patterns under the microscope and it is crazy how feathery and bird-like they look when you get super close. On just one wing there can be 10 different pattern designs. Nature is infinitely built from pattern. Sometimes I take photographs of what I see and then I turn those images into digital fabric prints. Or often I will work on one large painting for months, taking photos along the way as it changes layer upon layer. Later, I will work on those photos in photoshop and develop a whole collection of prints by rescaling, warping, messing with the tools, my favorite tool is called the magic wand.
Generally, process is always more exciting to me than the end product. I always get a little deflated when the making part is over and I have to concentrate on logistics.
What kind of joy do you get out of your process vs. seeing the textiles that you have created? Are these two things different kinds of enjoyments?
I’ll never forget the first time I got one of my designs printed on fabric. It is a great feeling to see something that you painted on a 2D surface suddenly transform into a 3D entity that moves and flutters and can suddenly be used in all sorts of different ways. The original idea becomes something totally different. Though seeing the textile come back from the printing mill can sometimes be a gamble. There are so many factors that are out of my control at that point because I do not physically print the textiles myself.
The designs are usually digitally printed onto a roll of fabric, so that physical separation from what I’ve created at that stage has become a part of my process out of necessity. Sometimes my design comes back and the colors are totally off. It can be frustrating to have to color correct, but quite often I’ll just run with it. I like the element of surprise and the challenge of bringing it back to something that works. For example, if a sample comes back and it is too light, maybe I’ll scrap that idea and batik over that fabric with wax and black dye-na-flow, working with it until it turns into something I really love. I try to avoid the back-and-forth with the mill.
How does it feel when designers take your fabric and turn it into something three-dimensional?
It is never what I think it will be. That can be a good thing, and sometimes it is less so. The designer acquires my fabric, takes it, and cuts it up for his or her own design, which can be all kinds of things, maybe a dress, a jacket or upholstery. I have been doing this long enough now that I see prints that I have designed all over the place, whether my name is on it or not. There is a romance in seeing my print on a stranger. There it is and there it goes. That’s it, you know?
It seems to be the American way of designing, to be always planning ahead and even considering the consumer over one’s own creative desires.
I believe when designing anything, whether it is textiles, apparel, or furniture, it is important to remember who your client is. There are some incredible designers who absolutely never design for themselves or even according to what their personal creative desires are because they have developed a brand that people go to for a certain semblance. If you change that aesthetic then the consumer is misdirected. I think this idea applies to designers all over the world, not just America.
Spending all day thinking about textiles, how do you like to dress?
To be honest, I don’t like to think about what I am wearing too much. Growing up in Texas, I always wore a uniform to school and I prefer to stay in that state of mind. I have a few favorite outfits that I wear as my own uniform. Most of my closet is filled with my own fabric designs and pieces my grandmother has passed down. My grandmother was a painter too and was a pretty wild dresser herself. She would run around town with my mom to the opera, symphony, bridge parties, tea or whatever, wearing matching leopard print pant suits, floral trench coats, bright kelly green tennis jumpers, lots of pattern, always great pattern. She had an extensive collection of art, Hermes scarves, Isfahan Persian rugs, and textiles of all kinds, which she liberally decorated her house with. I guess she was a major influence on my fashion sense.
When you perceive your surroundings do you visually collect things?
Yes. I think it’s essential to take in your surroundings, to collect and build a unique visual library. I collect things to allow myself to express the truth about my unconscious mind. I find that my collections inform my work and remind me of what I’m attracted to. For example, when I was in Vieques last spring I found these incredible pieces of weathered coral all over the beach. They were so buttery and speckled. I placed the pieces of coral on the table and fit them together like a puzzle. When I came home, I discovered the same shapes in a painting I had made a week or so prior.
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