Kaffe Fassett: The King of Color


affe Fassett is one of the world’s leading and most popular textile artists.  An accomplished painter and illustrator, he is mainly known for his expertise in a variety of textile arts such as needlepoint, knitwear and quilting, and for his fabric, knitwear and other textile designs, and more recently, for his mosaic work. His ability to artfully blend pattern, texture and color has won him a dedicated following of enthusiasts worldwide. Celia Joicey, Head of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, calls Fassett “one of the world’s greatest living textile artists.” The Museum’s curator, Dennis Nothdruft describes him as “one of the most accomplished colourists of the late 20th and early 21st century.”

Fassett is also a prolific best-selling author. Beginning with “Glorious Knits,” (entitled “Glorious Knitting in the U.K), his first big success, he has published other successful ‘Glorious’ books on needlepoint, knits and interiors, and later ones on quilts and mosaics, all of which explore the role of color in design. Many of his works were for Rowan, the internationally-renowned hand knitting company. He has also appeared on radio and TV and had his own TV series in the U.K. He has had museum exhibitions in Scandinavia, Australia and the U.S., among others, as well as gallery shows in countries such as France, Germany, Japan and Australia.  He was the first living textile designer to have a one-person show at the Victoria and  Albert Museum in 1988, which broke records.  Fassett is also a dedicated teacher who spends five months a year lecturing and sharing his work around the world.

The Fashion and Textile Museum is currently  celebrating over five decades of Fassett’s work in an exhibition entitled “Kaffe Fassett- A Life in Colour” Featuring over 100 works in a dramatic installation by Sue Timney, it is the first such show in London since his V and A show in 1988.  It showcases over five decades of work, from designs for Bill Gibb, knitwear for Missoni, printed patchwork fabrics, quilts, needlepoint and mosaics.  Exhibition highlights include extravagantly colored nine foot wide knitted shawls, coats and throws, patchwork fabrics in a great selection of quilts, as well as items especially created for this exhibition and not seen in public before. It also features a ‘feeling’ wall that allows visitors to touch and better understand the textiles on display and their construction.

The Fashion and Textile Museum is the only museum in the U.K. solely dedicated to showcasing developments in contemporary fashion, as well as providing inspiration, support and training for those working the industry.  Founded by iconic British designer Zandra Rhodes, the museum is owned by Newham College London .  The exhibition also celebrates Fassett’s long association with the  Rowan company.  A shop at the Museum provides a specially selected range of kits, fabric, yarn and other material, books and magazines, all enabling visitors to create their own textile projects at home.

Published recently and accompanying the exhibition is Mr. Fassett’s autobiography, “Dreaming in Color.”  Fassett has led a charmed and fascinating life, traveling around the world and encountering all sort of interesting people, in particular other artists, with  whom he became  friends and with many of whom he collaborated.  Fassett here shares his life’s story for the first time, with intimate details of his family and friendships, descriptions of his travels around the world, and explanations for the sources of his inspirations. The book is replete with many illustrations in color of his life, his inspirations and examples of his own work.

Born in 1937, Fassett grew up in Big Sur, California, where his parents built and ran the world-famous Nepenthe restaurant, surrounded by beautiful, rugged countryside with stunning views of the Pacific coastline.  The original style of the place, modern for its time, was the vision of his mother, who wanted it to be a beautiful haven for all to enjoy.  Fassett was exposed to culture and the arts at a  young age, hearing stories of antededents who were artistic, educated and well-traveled, and meeting the various interesting friends and neighbors in the Big Sur area as well as many creative individuals drawn to the restaurant from around the globe. All these encounters and taking part in dances, plays and various festive entertainments at the restaurant made it a very exciting atmosphere. He also attended the Happy Valley School, an unconventional boarding school run by disciples of Krishnamurti, an Indian guru, which nurtured individual creativity; he describes it as having been “a great adventure.” The beauty of his surroundings, the independence he and his siblings were allowed to roam about on their own, his exposure to the arts early on, were all— and continue to be— major influences on his life.

Fassett is widely acknowledged as a visionary in the use of color, texture and form—color in particular—and has an extraordinary eye for pattern and design. “Fassett’s designs reverberate with luxuriant and often surprising color” according to The New York Times, while Booklist says “Fassett has firmly established himself as the single most exciting craft and color expert today.”  The book details the many sources of his inspirations.  His mother took him to many colorful productions of film and theater in California when he was a boy, including a Kabuki troupe and Balinese dance performances.  He and his Happy Valley classmates studied folk dancing from many countries and made their own costumes, where he first attempted and begin to love embroidery.  Having little money to purchase clothes, he was forced to be not only self-reliant but creative with thrift-shop finds, putting things together which might not normally be expected to match,which later came in handy with a variety of his designs and his inventive color combinations.  His love of mosaic began upon seeing the mosaic tables made from brilliantly colored glass tiles and found objects for Nepenthe.  Fassett describes his wonderful memories of his grandmother’s fruit orchard, “nearly swooning at the sight of the orange apricots with deep pink blushes against the sapphire blue sky.” A show of Odilon Redon’s vibrantly colored paintings that he saw in Paris at the age of 18 was a huge color influence.  “This painter,” he recalls, “had an electric effect on my senses that has stayed with me all my life.”  He also tried to emulate “the magical palette of  French artist Pierre Bonnard’s shimmering painting.”

Colors and patterns seen and photographed during his travels to South Africa, India, Vietnam and Japan all contributed to his memory bank for future artistic use.  The intensity of color in India “made me feel permanently stoned;” Mughul carpets, brilliantly colored powders in markets, red saris on clotheslines and colored crosses in a Christian cemetery are among scenes he mentions and that are shown in the book. He was particularly taken with Japanese playfulness with patterns, and he has used kimonos, Kabuki costumes and fans as design inspirations.  A collaged door at a South African art center later inspired a quilt.  The V and A was a treasure trove for him: Persian and Indian miniatures and exquisite, fanciful porcelains and other antiques from their collections formed the inspiration for many designs.  A faded kilim carpet spotted and bought in a bazaar in Istanbul was the source for a popular Rowan design for a knitted jacket, one of his all-time favorites.

The book engagingly describes Fassett’s  connections and encounters with various fascinating personalities and celebrities, many of whom became life-long friends and artistic collaborators. Renowned author Henry Miller was a frequent visitor to Nepenthe in Fassett’s early years and had lived in their log cabin home before it was purchased by Orson Welles. He attended acting school with Dustin Hoffman, who, fortunately for the world of crafts, discouraged him from continuing to act. He stayed at Doris Duke’s Newport mansion; she was astonished that he preferred to paint her kitchen bowls rather than her magnificent European antiques. Tricia Guild, owner of a furnishings business called Designers Guild, was responsible for his becoming a fabric designer and he made many designs for her. He found himself in an impromptu moment with the soon-to-be Queen of Norway rearranging her furniture.  Rosita and Tai Missoni called him upon seeing one of his early knit designs in Vogue, leading him to design collections for Missoni. He received a commission from George Harrison to create a needlework for his music room at Henley, choreographed scenes in “The Sandpiper” movie for Elizabeth Taylor, knitted a blouse for Barbara Streisand and was pronounced “the most handsome man in  the world” by Leonard Bernstein. Princess Michael of Kent, a trustee of the V and A, was very influential in arranging for his 1988 show there. Kate Moss modeled his favorite Kilim Jacket in a Rowan magazine before becoming famous.  And last but not least, he describes his involvement with Brandon Mably, who began running the Kaffe Fassett Studio, then went into creating his own designs, who eventually joined him in his international travels and who continues to be both a creative and personal partner.

Now 73, Mr. Fassett lives in London, where he has lived for many years.  He continues to produce new artwork and new books.  His latest book, “Kaffe Fassett Quilts Shots and Stripes,” coauthored with long-time collaborator Liza Prior Lucy, presents 24 quilt projects in modern colorways using solid shot cottons and striped fabrics.  The designs were inspired by ethnic textiles he has encountered, including Japanese indigo quilts,  Amish quilts and those from Gee’s Bend,  African weaves, Pakistani kanthas and suzanis from the Caucasus.  In 2014 he will have his fourth exhibition at the American Museum in Bath; previous shows there experienced record attendances.

For more information:

Kaffe Fassett: www.kaffefassett.com (official website)

“Dreaming in Color” : Published by Abrams/STC Craft (Stewart, Tabori and Chang)www.melaniefalickbooks.com

“Kaffe Fassett-Living in Colour” show at the Fashion and Textile Museum, www.ftmlondon.org

For needlepoint kits and Kaffe Fassett videos(filmed in Fassett’s London studio in 2013): www.ehrmantapestry.com