Although he is better known for his kaleidoscopic knitting, quilts and needlework, Kaffe Fassett began his career as a painter. At the age of 19, he won a scholarship to study at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts School. Less than a year later, he left to paint in London. Kaffe would move permanently to England in 1964, following a dinner party where he encountered the inventor and engineer Jeremy Fry. It was not long before he began collecting pieces of china and other objects from Portobello Road, one of London’s foremost antique markets. During this period, Kaffe also worked as a model in Paris.
Aside from painting, Kaffe also provided the line drawings for Hunter Davies’ The New London Spy: A Discreet Guide to the City. The money made from this kind of commission would provide him with the income to continue living and working in London. Shortly after, he would fall in love with knitting during a trip to Inverness with the fashion designer Bill Gibb. Armed with yarns, he approached a woman on the train back to London and learnt how to knit there and then. When speaking to BBC Radio 4, Kaffe said that “it was England that turned [him] from an exclusive easel painter to a fibre artist.”
His studio and home are based in Kilburn, north-west London. Unsurprisingly, almost every surface is covered in his needlepoint creations or some element of his collection of objects – particularly Laughing Buddhas. These objects also make frequent appearances in Kaffe’s paintings, both in acrylic and watercolour. Still life compositions can vary from calming selections of seashells and pebbles to the vivid colours of yarn spools or ginger jars. Tricia and Lisa Guild (P44), a rare example of a portrait by Kaffe, is no less patterned or colourful. Indeed, this aesthetic is shared by Tricia herself, whose work on Designers Guild can be seen in our current exhibition, Out of the Blue: Fifty Years of Designers Guild.
Kaffe’s Victorian home in Hastings is as bright and eclectic as one would expect, but as with his London abode, there are several aspects painted by Kaffe himself. The dining room walls, for example, are decorated with a hand-painted chinoiserie-style pattern and the hand-painted 500 blue and white tiles covering the kitchen walls are from Highland Stoneware in Lochinver, Sutherland. According to Kaffe, there were “murals of Georgian ladies and romantic landscapes on the [living room] walls. I painted over this one with my own scene. I kept some elements, but those ladies had to go!”
An exhibition held at the American Museum & Gardens in 2014 included pen drawings Kaffe made of the Museum’s Period Rooms in 1964. Not only had they never been exhibited before, but their inclusion was a reminder of his origins as a painter and illustrator.
Speaking about Kaffe’s paintings, Anne James, a television director and producer who worked with him on the Channel Four series Glorious Colour (broadcast in 1986), said:
“His ability to compose a picture makes it all look disarmingly easy (which those who know, know it is not), but it is in his handling of colour, the way he arranges objects, how he sees them, and his handling of the paint itself that conveys to us his own delight in what he is looking at. He can make the objects appear empowered with the joy of being, as if they have a wish to express themselves.”
Kaffe’s paintings have been shown across the world and continue to be collected in London, New York and San Francisco.
Want to learn more about the work of Kaffe Fassett? To celebrate the 20th anniversary of his patchwork and quilting books, Kaffe Fassett has returned to his American roots. Using the collection of American vintage quilts in Britain’s American Museum in Bath as his inspiration, Kaffe has chosen 18 different quilts as the basis for his 20 new designs in this book, reinventing them with new fabrics and colours. Each pattern features a sumptuous photo of the project, a materials list, and written instructions with tips, piecing diagrams, and templates. Also includes a section on patchwork and quilting basics.
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