World famous textile designer Kaffe Fassett finds inspiration in the everyday objects of the Fez Medina
Kaffe Fassett unfurls a quilt that is a multitude of colours; reds, purples, oranges and pinks. It is a vivid contrast to the lush green and muted tones of the tiles and broken walls of Fez’s Ruined Garden restaurant.
The world renowned textile designer is in Fez with his team to shoot his latest book of quilt patterns.
|Kaffe Fassett with one of his latest quilt designs|
“We are always looking for (places) with colour”, he explains. “I have been to Fez several times and really loved it.” Fassett, a Californian whose adopted home is London, creates a book every year with fellow designers Brandon Mably and Philip Jacobs.
“We did one in a wonderful cranky old house in Cornwall for our last book and then we’ve done ones in Portugal and in Wales and Bulgaria,” he says. “This year it’s Fez’s turn.”
As well as the Ruined Garden, quilts have been photographed at Jardin des Biehn and director of the American Language Center David Amster’s house in the Fez Medina.
Ruined Garden manager Robert Johnstone says, “It was so great seeing patchwork quilts laying on 300 year old mosaic tiles…the many small tessellating pieces forming a floor or a quilt much greater than the sum of their parts."
In the art and craft world, Fassett’s name is synonymous with bold and gorgeous creations in tapestry, needlepoint, yarns and fabrics, costumes and sets, knitting, mosaic and quilt designs. His more than 40 books and numerous television programs, such as the six part series Glorious Colour, have inspired thousands to get stitching or knitting. In 1988, he was the first living textile designer to get a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which went on to tour nine countries.
Fassett has designed costumes and sets for the Royal Shakespeare Company and for the Northern Ballet Theatre. His one-off pieces have been collected by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall and Princess Michael of Kent. As well as continuing to exhibit in countries such as Canada, Japan, Sweden and Australia, he tours the world, giving entertaining and enthusiastic talks that encourage people to express themselves through the act of creating.
In Morocco, Fassett sees inspiration everywhere, from the age-old drape and swing of a man’s djellaba, “that makes any man look amazing” to the eclectic way in which local women assemble their outfits. “They are so fabulous. You see the way a woman will put a lavender scarf on pink. She was thrilled with the way she looked, and I was thrilled. And I love the fact they are still making buildings here like they were hundreds of years ago. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
The handmade tiles that are ubiquitous in Morocco are another source of Fassett’s infectious enthusiasm. “It’s something pretty that you walk through every day. You get a little lift every time you look at the corner of a room.” In comparison, he says, the use of concrete that is so popular in the West has “no finesse, no fantasy”.
He adores the everyday creativity he sees on display in places like the local markets. “The way a stall-holder will put a doily under a coke bottle, or take a stack of soda cans and make it look pretty. I love the little bits of decoration, how there is a sense of enjoyment about their lives…There are a million things that appeal to me. It’s being inventive with very little.”
When The View From Fez meets him at the Ruined Garden, Fassett is busy doing his own version of an Elizabethan tapestry. “I don’t drive, I don’t own a mobile phone. I don’t type. I don’t do anything mechanical. The only mechanical thing I do is to make textiles. I love it. It’s the way I can think about colour."
Fassett says he has no colour theory. The way he works is “totally intuitive.”
Born in 1937, Fassett was brought up Big Sur, California. His parents bought a run down house from Orson Wells and turned it into the famous Nepenthe restaurant, which became a gathering place for artists and bohemians.
After attending a boarding school run by the disciples of Krishnamurti, he won a scholarship to study painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. However he dropped out after a few months and headed for England.
“What I loved about England was that I went straight into the aristocratic world. I had a couple of friends, and I didn’t realise they were incredibly well connected. The thing about England is that you just have to know three key people and you know everybody. I was in and out of these amazing houses and I loved the old antique textiles and the mix of Oriental, Arab, English French and Italian - these amazing textiles – the wonderful mix you get in aristocratic houses.
"I stayed because because the people I met liked what I liked. I loved it that the houses were falling to pieces and nobody cared. Those drapes are so beautiful, they are falling to pieces,” he gestures, as if to an imaginary room. “I loved the patina of age.”
“I come from the land where if anything is broken, you throw it out.”
Fassett reflects on a heady time in the hippy era. “When would sit around in front of a fireplace - somebody would be making leather, someone else writing songs, and I would be sitting doing needlepoint. We were keeping each other company and listening to great music. You could explore things and have the time to do it.”
When he stitches in public, which he is wont to do on train and plane journeys or sitting through speeches, Fassett says it’s mostly women who comment, saying things like “I have never seen a man do that”.
He’s often surprised by the positive reaction from males. “Even football hooligan types have said, “I would like to do that”.
“I was flying to America, stuck in the middle of some huge 727 and there was an older butch guy, with big strapping arms, who was watching me. Eventually he said, “You are a real professional at that…It’s something I could take up with my job. He was a train driver. I thought, great, that’s something to think about next time I am on a train.”
“I have heard of quite a few pilots who knit. And when I had my TV series, I always had guys calling, saying they wanted to do it.”
“I went into Wormwood Scrubs prison, as I was the only man doing this kind of work and they wanted to get the prisoners doing it. They would do tapestry, but when I asked, does anybody knit, they said, “We have our image to think about.” Fassett smiles wryly, pointing out they were thieves and murderers.
“But there was one guy who would do it, who used to steal Missoni sweaters.”
Fassett designed for Missoni at one stage and is now the leading designer for Rowan Yarns in Yorkshire, Erhman Tapestries, and he has designed a range for the charity Oxfam.
He specialises in coming up with new designs and lets others who are experts in the field of construction complete the vision. For many years he has worked with Liza Prior Lucy.
So what would be Fassett’s advice to someone wanting to start any kind of textile project?
“When in doubt use 20 more colours," he says. "People say 'I am afraid to - I’ll only use six.' But I tell them to use more colour. If you use 20, then it becomes a statement of your own.”
As far as quilting is concerned, Fassett advises, “Don’t be afraid to use absolutely trashy fabrics. Go to charity shops and buy a Hawaiian shirt or Japanese kimono and add it to your quilts. I like mixing it up.”
When Fassett began knitting he had a lucky break with “the first place I went to buy yarn. I walked into an end of line yarn shop, which had the ends of the making of carpets - silk and wool and cotton things. I wanted two ounces of this, and two ounces of that. It was the end of the day, and the guy who was serving just shoved into a bag and said get out of here. There was about 500 pounds worth of stuff, so I could play to my hearts content.”
“I work totally intuitively – I just play. I want to give people the courage to take a lot of stuff and respond to it.”
Kaffe Fassett’s latest book of quilt designs set in Fez will be out in a few months. Keep an eye on his website www.kaffefassett.com
Text: Suzanna Clarke
Photographs: Suzanna Clarke and Sandy McCutcheon