Kaffe Fassett’s career spans over 50 years in a life as rich and colourful as the textiles and artworks that he creates. His influence in knitting, quilting, needlepoint and mosaic is arguably the widest ranging in the world.
From his childhood in California’s Big Sur to his life-changing relocation to London in the 1960s, Kaffe’s enthusiastic and joyous embracing of life’s pageant is evident in the work he produces. Complex and subtle mixes of colour and textures are highlights; beginning with early hand knits inspired by a trip to Scotland with fashion designer Bill Gibb in the late 1960s and continuing today with the extraordinary quilts and ranges of quilt fabrics produced by the Kaffe Fassett Studio.
Kaffe’s attention to detail and his delight in pattern and form infuses his creative output. The distinctive mix of objects seen in his homes is reflected in the designs he produces and, most effectively, in the photographs of his work in his inspirational books, from Glorious Knitting in 1985 to Shots and Stripes in 2013.
By the 1990s, Kaffe began working with quilts to great effect; his quilting workshops are held around the world and have inspired thousands of quilters. This highlights one of the key aspects of Fassett’s work – his ability to delight and encourage people to take up their own needles, yarns and fabrics. Kaffe Fassett’s life in colour has had a lasting impact on so many others’ lives as well.
Born in San Francisco in 1937, Kaffe Fassett’s family soon moved to Big Sur, a rugged coastal area of northern California which had only recently been made accessible to traffic. His parents built a modernist restaurant with panoramic views over the Californian coast and the Pacific Ocean, called Nepenthe which opened in 1949. The restaurant quickly became a gathering place for the artists, writers and intellectuals drawn to Big Sur. This creative, stimulating environment encouraged Kaffe in his desire to pursue a career in art and acting.
Kaffe found further inspiration in a trip to Europe in the mid 1950s before attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and later the Art Students League in New York City. These formative years also saw Fassett meeting many of the most interesting people of the time, including interior designer Eduardo Tirella and his client Doris Duke, at that time one of the wealthiest women in the world. By the early 1960s Fassett had returned to California where he continued to develop his paintings. In the autumn of 1964, a suggestion at a dinner party and meeting Englishman Jeremy Fry convinced Kaffe that a trip to England would be beneficial – a journey that would change the course of his life and career.
London in 1964 presented the young painter Kaffe Fassett with what was, to him, an exotic and energising world. Whilst it may have lacked the commodities and excess of post-war America, it did possess a creative spirit that was making waves around the world. It was in this burgeoning art and design scene that Fassett would find the keys to his success.
Fassett continued to paint in the still life genre. Massed groupings of china and objects collected in Notting Hill’s Portobello Road, itself a revelation to the young artist. Kaffe also continued to produce line drawings which would be used as illustrations by publisher Anthony Blond for his guidebooks including The New London Spy: A Discreet Guide to the City. This early commercial success would allow Kaffe to continue to live and work in London. Fassett also worked as a male model during his early years in the city.
In 1966, Kaffe met the fashion designer Bill Gibb, then a student at the Royal College of Art under the tutelage of Professor Janey Ironside. Through Gibb, Fassett would become involved in the world of fashion which forms a large part of his early fame as a knitwear designer.
Kaffe Fassett is perhaps best known for his vibrant and complex work with colour. His early paintings and textile work show how his approach to handling colour has evolved. Whilst his feeling for pattern and texture has found expression on paper and fibre alike, he acknowledges the many people who have encouraged and enabled him to experiment with different media, in particular mosaic, needlepoint, quilting and knitting.
These individuals include Hugh Ehrman, whose tapestry company was in part inspired by Kaffe’s designs for him, and Steven Sheard, the founder of Rowan yarns, who he continues to collaborate with to this day.
Colour themes that run throughout his textile work include the historical hues from early‐medieval and Renaissance decorative arts, traditional pairings of blue and white, and the rich inspiration of China, India and international travel. In 1992 Fassett visited India as part of a charity delegation to explore what handcraft might be produced there to sell in Britain to raise money. The experience was profound and sparked a shift in his use of colour.
Quilting and Patchwork
Kaffe Fassett’s introduction to quilting was through his friend and American quilter Liza Prior Lucy. It was through Lucy’s encouragement that Fassett began to design quilts. The very first quilt featured bold roses and florals in a simple pattern; the important point was the scale. Traditional quilting fabrics tended to use small scale patterns. Fassett’s departure from these typical prints would be a turning point for contemporary quilting.
This shift in scale would inspire the quilting communities around world. These quilt designs were so successful that the Kaffe Fassett studio would begin to design their own quilt fabrics to reflect Fassett’s approach to quilting. Fassett continues to produce spectacular quilts and quilt designs that are distinctive and influential; indeed this may be the most successful of Kaffe’s many undertakings to date.
Kaffe Fassett began knitting on a trip to Scotland to visit the family of fashion designer Bill Gibb. Inspired by the hues and textures of the rural landscape, plus a fortuitous trip to a woollen mill, Fassett bought skeins of beautifully coloured yarns. Intrigued by the possible combinations of colour, he was taught to knit by fellow train passenger Alice Dunstan Russell – the manager of Bill Gibb’s boutique Alice Paul – on his return journey to London. A life‐long love of knitting was born.
His early knit designs were featured in Vogue Knitting by its editor, Judy Brittain. She championed Kaffe’s style as the shape of things to come and encouraged Bill Gibb to collaborate with him on knitwear for the London couture house Baccarat. The resulting collection was a sensation.
Kaffe continued to design knits for Gibb but in the early 1970s he began a new collaboration with the Missoni company. Rosita and Tai Missoni’s technical expertise and willingness to experiment were a perfect match for his distinctive colour palettes and patterns. This partnership would have an enormous impact on 1970s style and its influence can be seen throughout fashions of the era.
From this period onwards, Kaffe’s knitting encompassed not only one‐off knits and custom orders but also a host of hand‐knitting books for Rowan yarns. Kaffe developed special colourways of yarns to complement his designs. These books, photographed by good friend Steve Lovi have brought him international recognition.
The Orangery (Flowers, Vegetables and Fruits)
The natural world has long provided a rich vein of inspiration for Kaffe Fassett, particularly the flowers and leave, fruit and vegetables of the gardens of the world. The resulting works have a density and attention to detail that is astonishing in such hand work. Fassett’s work can be read as that of a modern-day Willam Morris in its complexity and intricate surfaces.
The celebratory nature of Fassett’s designs in this area, a harvest festival of abundance, is captured in the rhythms and repetitions of the designs. Kaffe’s layering of imagery is an idea that carries through his interior design schemes as well, an interpretation of the Country House look with its chintzes and mix of patterns for the 21st Century.
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