Until recently, you couldn’t hear the word “macramé” without it conjuring up visions of thrift-store place mats, summer camp friendship bracelets, and Mama Cass’s bolero vests. But thanks in part to Sally England, the masterful, Michigan-based, macramé artist who has made distinctly modern, large-scale commissions for the likes of Nike and Ace Hotels, the once nostalgic medium is having another day in the sun.
We visited England’s studio in Grand Rapids, located on the second floor of her Old Victorian flat, a few months ago. Growing up in rural Michigan, England says, her deep connection to the outdoors was a precursor to her eventual, tactile love affair with natural fibers. “There’s something about the textural element of macramé that feels really good and cozy — in an earthy kind of way,” England says.
England received an MFA in Applied Craft & Design at Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of the Arts. And while she’s explored other mediums like knitting since then, England, who is self-taught, prefers macramé for the control and versatility the fiber material allows, and she sees its applications as practically endless. Along with custom plant hangers and wall hangings, England has also created room dividers, window screens, lampshades, chunky rope necklaces, and even ponchos, among other pieces.
Her technique is premeditated, but always trial-and-error. “As time goes by, I’ve become more accurate in my precision,” she says. “But since each of my works is different, my process is never quite methodical.” Because she works primarily on a commission basis, she’ll brainstorm with a client on a particular vision before sketching the design in order to help illustrate its concept. (Sketching knots, she admits, is very difficult). Once a concept is approved, she sources her rope online from an American supplier, before sizing, cutting down, mounting the ropes to the wall, and, eventually, knotting.
“For me, just getting started on a project and letting myself get into the zone can be the hardest part,” she admits. Rustic dwelling, however, is conducive to the concentration that’s needed for time-consuming and often-repetitive projects that would otherwise be thwarted by the distractions of big-city life. England fancies herself a country girl for life, and she daydreams frequently about buying a chunk of land — perhaps a farm or a commune — where she hopes to one day write a book on her craft. “My biggest inspiration,” she says, “is the simple and thoughtful ways of living from the past.”
It’s not every day that one of our subjects answers the phone by giddily announcing she’s just opened the mail to find the Legend soundtrack she ordered and proclaiming that 1985 Tom Cruise fantasy flick to be her favorite movie. But then San Francisco artist Sarah Applebaum has always tended to march to the beat of her own drum: Paying no mind when her work meanders back and forth between craft and art, she mostly uses dime-store materials like yarn, papier mâché, and felt. Unlike most crafters, she often turns those materials into three-dimensional symbols plucked from her subconscious.
When Hamburg-based artist and textile designer Katharina Trudzinski decided to take a second residence in Berlin this spring, she found an inexpensive live-work space on the fringes of the up-and-coming Neuköln neighborhood — the city’s equivalent of Bushwick, Brooklyn — and saved two months’ rent by promising the landlord she’d renovate. But it was imagination, not thrift, that inspired her next move: After stripping the wood paneling from the walls and ceilings and tearing down a few ill-conceived door frames, she began painting the detritus and incorporating it into her sculptural installations and high-relief paintings. Made from constellations of scraps, street finds, and everyday junk cloaked in perfectly calibrated hues, her work — some of which becomes inspiration for the pieces in her clothing line — is meant to dialogue with its surroundings. “It’s not my intent that the materials should be cheap, I just like to use things that are around me,” she says. “I like to start with what I’ve got.”
Portland is a place where, so the saying goes, the ’90s are alive and well. And it may very well be the only place that could have spawned an artist like Emily Counts, who deals with the self-reflective nostalgia of outdated technological innovations once found in her childhood home: dial-up telephones sculpted in porcelain and stoneware, a life-size fax machine, an interactive Mac SE computer made from walnut, casting epoxy, glass, porcelain, copper, and electrical wiring that acts as a two-way mirror after a button is pressed on the keyboard, lighting up the sculpture’s interior. “I’m interested in the mystery of these inventions that we seem to take for granted in our everyday life,” says the 35-year-old Seattle native, who we first spotted on photographer Carlie Armstrong’s blog Work.Place. “For me, there’s a thin line between technology and magic.”