BY KEITH RECKER
RUSSIAN TEXTILES is one of those rare and serendipitous books that can be judged by its cover.
From first bold photo to final footnote, the bright, complex language of Russian trade cottons, mostly hidden as linings of Central Asian ikat robes and embroidered wall hangings, is given full voice in Susan Meller’s new book.
Susan and her late husband, Herbert Meller, founded their Design Library 30 years ago. Driven by their love of old fabric patterns, the Mellers assembled a vast collection of Western textile designs, which included everything from fragments of quilting fabrics found in Vermont attics to important historical documents from major European archives. The daunting project of cleaning, mounting and classifying the hundreds of thousands of documentary fabric swatches, paintings and antique wallpapers continues today.
Out of this work came the award-winning book Textile Designs, Two Hundred Years of European and American Patterns, which has become a standard industry reference. Concurrently, Susan also began supplying period designs to creators of fabrics and wall coverings. HAND/EYE correspondent Vera Vandenbosch spoke with Susan Meller about her love of textiles, the mind of the collector, and her new book.
H/E: Why textiles?
SM: Ever since I can remember, I have loved surface patterns. As a child, I collected shells and butterflies, but stopped when it became too painful to kill them. About that time, my great Aunt Tillie started bringing me stacks of textile sample cards from the family’s robe business: so many patterns in so many color combinations! The design possibilities seemed infinite. At age eleven, I began creating my own fabric swatches. At nineteen, I got a job as a textile designer and strike-off artist. Twenty-five years later, in 1991, my first book was published by Abrams: Textile Designs: Two Hundred Years of European and American Patterns. I’m pleased to say that it’s still in print.
H/E: The prints and patterns you explore in “RUSSIAN TEXTILES” have opened up the unexplored world of cloths exported to the bazaars of Central Asia, where they were often used as linings, quite literally hidden from sight. How did you discover them?
SM: In the early 1970’s, I bought my first Central Asian textile – an Uzbek Lakai embroidery backed with an elegant silk stripe. But just peeking out at the corner was something else. Intrigued, I removed the silk to discover an unusual printed cotton. It was a faux ikat pattern in red and black. Unlike anything I had ever seen. From then on, I always look at the backs of Central Asian embroideries and up the sleeves of ikat robes.
H/E: Why do the cottons you speak about generally display a distinct color palette?
SM: The favorite color of most of the Central Asian peoples was red. Red was also the traditional color in Russian peasant dress. By the 1880s, Russian mills were flooding Central Asian markets with inexpensive Turkey red cloth in brightly colored prints that were impossible to achieve by traditional woodblock methods. Bold colors were favored not only on imported fabrics, but in locally woven stripes, ikats and embroidered tent hangings. The vast barren steppes bloomed but briefly in the spring, deserts covered 60% of the land, and the towns were dust-covered and drab, save for the splendid tiles on the crumbling monuments of long ago. No wonder Central Asian nomads and city-dwellers alike craved color.
H/E: Some of the textiles in your book exhibit an unbelievably contemporary Western look. How do you explain that?
SM: When we say “contemporary”, we mean now, modern, of our time. The designs you mention look contemporary when Escher and Keith Haring, Op Art and Pop Art come to mind. But the motifs themselves are not new. There is a constant recycling of motifs – either consciously or unconsciously – in textile design. I’ve seen similar patterns on French machine-printed cottons from the early 1800s. The colors were subdued and the scale much smaller, in keeping with French taste of the time. But these cloths were designed for the Central Asian market — where the people loved red and the patterns were bold. And if we hypothesize a bit, since interlocking patterns were so prevalent in Islamic culture perhaps the Russian designer thought this would do well in those markets?
H/E: What are your criteria when collecting/purchasing?
SM: Always the design. At first, I collected any piece of Russian export cloth that I could find since it was such a novelty to me. But after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the explosion of the Internet, many more Central Asian robes and embroideries became available — along with their accompanying Russian prints. The number of different patterns was astonishing! I have so many now, that I can be choosy and hold out for the unusual or very beautiful.
H/E: Do you still actively collect?
SM: Very much so! It’s been over thirty years since I discovered my first Russian export print and I’m as fascinated by them as ever. But now, I’ve also come to love the Central Asian pieces. I’m particularly fond of duppi (embroidered skullcaps), bokche & chai khalta (small embroidered bags for holding flat bread and tea) and elek (children’s talismanic embroidered bibs).
H/E: Please tell us about the Design Library.
SM: The Design Library is a commercial archive of over five million period fabrics, wallpapers and original painted textile designs. Our clients are creators of fashion, home furnishings, wall coverings, paper products, packaging and just about any product that can use good design. Although I am no longer a principal in the company, the Design Library and I have collaborated on making all the designs in both my books, TEXTILE DESIGNS and RUSSIAN TEXTILES, available in digital form. While the photographs in the books are copyrighted, the CD-ROM or DVD images come with a license granting free usage of the images.
H/E: What’s next on your agenda?
SM: I’m working on another book. Whereas RUSSIAN TEXTILES showcased the linings and backings of Central Asian textiles, this one will feature the robes and embroideries themselves – but of course, it will be hard not to throw open the robes and show off some terrific Russian prints.
For more information about Susan Meller’s books and dvds, please contact:
The Design Library
400 Market Industrial Park,
Wappingers Falls, NY 12590