What can artists and designers learn from Kaffe Fassett?

Originally published in October 2013, I thought you might enjoy reading about my meeting with designer Kaffe Fassett, and the wonderful insights he shared. The images are all of clothing I designed many years ago (for my line Red Thread) using Kaffe's wonderful fabrics: 

Last week I was lucky to attend a wonderful lecture given by Kaffe Fassett describing his design inspirations and his approach to colour. Held in the beautiful historic village of Whitevale, Ontario (pop. 240), the audience of approximately eighty women and one man was rapt as he described the development of his work over the years and showed numerous slides demonstrating how he transformed inspiration from such things as stones, tiles, flowers, and pottery into art. As all of his fans know, he has a gift for gracing everyday objects with sublime qualities; he finds beauty everywhere. His storytelling skill helped bring this gift to light.

But I am not writing today to extol his significant virtues as an artist. He has achieved international success, with admirers all over the world. Like all designers, you either connect with his work or you don’t. What moved me about this evening was something completely different. I walked away with some insight into how he achieved his success, and I think other artists and designers could benefit significantly from taking these insights to heart.

Girls' dresses made with Kaffe Fassett fabric

I was especially lucky to be invited afterward to the home of the lecture’s host for some wine and a chat. I was eager to ask some questions of Kaffe and his very affable and talented partner Brandon Mably, and they indulged my curiosity generously. This is what impressed me the most, the lessons I gleaned from the evening that will definitely change the way I approach my work:

1) Be brave. Kaffe described the very first (multicoloured, of course) sweater he made, which he took straight to the offices of Vogue Magazine. He did not wait to be discovered. As he described it, he threw the sweater down on the editor’s desk and declared it to be the next big thing. Vogue featured that sweater, and that led to an invitation to work with fashion house Missoni, and the rest is history. Being brave is deeply connected to having self-confidence, without which an artist has a very difficult road ahead.

2) Get it done. Kaffe works quickly, often thinking of the next project before his current one is complete. Rather than stewing over a project, he is motivated to finish things off and then move on. In my mind this is closely connected to:

3) Trust your instincts. When questioned by the audience about his process of combining colours and making design decisions, Kaffe said this: “Just keep playing until the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you know you have created something wonderful.” I think we all know that feeling.

4) Do things your own way. Kaffe is not a fan of technology, to put it mildly. He doesn’t drive a car or even use a computer. When I asked him how he composes the different colourways for each fabric print design without a computer, he told me that he makes colour copies of the first version and then paints directly on top of the copies. This works for him, and he said that the process is very fast. I wondered if perhaps the act of committing paint to paper might influence the speed at which he works. This process is unusual, but if something works for you, who cares if you don’t conform to the norm? Besides, creating your own work methods is one way to stand out.

5) You must promote yourself. This is the single most important lesson that I came away with. Kaffe said that he knows many designers, but few that promote themselves as actively as he does. Kaffe and Brandon spend about 5 months per year on the road, giving lectures and workshops around the world. I clarified: "Your time is clearly divided between time for creation and time for promotion?" He said yes, that's exactly it. Promotion is key, and it’s something that so many artists and designers shy away from, preferring to focus on creating our work in private and hoping that we will passively find an audience. Even though Kaffe is in his mid-70s and is very successful in his field, he is constantly reinforcing and growing his audience, giving hands-on classes and workshops, promoting each new book, and answering the questions of curious admirers like me.

As a missionary of sorts for the power of integrating more colour into your life, Kaffe Fassett works hard both to create great work and to promote his work to his large worldwide audience. I can’t help but wonder how much more each of us could achieve by integrating these five lessons into all of our work, every day. Thank you, Kaffe.

Devorah Miller
Studio Fabric Shop
Red Thread Design
My Red Thread Life (blog)


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