Obsession. For some people it’s designer cupcakes with all that crazy frosting. For me, it’s fabric.
Put me in Britex (the ground floor, please, with the really good stuff) and in seconds I’m gorging on the experience: pawing away at pretty much everything, drooling at the colors, sighing over luscious patterns. It’s a similar scene when I get to an interiors showroom or furniture store and start looking at (or rather, stroking) samples. (Deeply, deeply undignified and probably a little embarrassing for any person with me.)
So it was only natural that we track down textile people working at the intersection of designing and making in the Bay Area, but guess what? It ain’t easy. Designing: reasonably easy–actually there are tons of talented designers here. But making? Not so easy: space-intensive + labor-intensive + capital-intensive = not a recipe for success in the Bay Area.
But if you want something completely individual or really specific, if you want a smaller run, if your fabric choice will serve as the foundation for a room (or an entire hotel or restaurant), then working with an artist who happens to work in textiles–like Anne Kirk–becomes an absolute necessity.
A designer/maker (stock fabrics she’s designed, plus custom prints and colors) and a sourcer (able to ferret out that perfect textile from her infinite set of contacts around the world) Anne’s the one who gives a room or project an identity. Her work can tie together a room or a project, and make or break a piece of furniture. Most of all, it can create atmosphere and mood. Mysterious or approachable? Sexy or buttoned-up? It’s all in her (extremely capable) hands…should you be so lucky.
Her cavernous production facility was pretty quiet the day we met, but on other days of the week, it hums with activity. And at the heart of it, with her shock of Pre-Raphaelite red hair and her beyond-fabulous dye-spattered black workpants is Anne: astute, centered, cerebral, clear, eminently can-do…an artist/businesswoman, a pro’s pro.
Surrounding her are the textiles themselves: sumptuous fabrics (patterned velvets to die for, next to crisp linens and hemps that would look perfect in the latest take on retro and mid-century modern.) All this is juxtaposed with hundreds of screens housed in racks, 30 yard-long tables for printing, and all the fabulous grit and grunge associated with custom screen-printing and dyeing. (Remember when you tried to tie-dye something as a kid and dye got everywhere, or was that just me? Now scale that and you get a sense of what a genuinely messy industrial process it is.)
What’s the process, when you’re called in to come up with a textile concept? There’s usually a color direction, and often a concept. Sometimes the designer will send swatches, or paint colors or some finishes, so I can figure out the fabric and color. Sometimes it’s a time period as well. Or sometimes it’s to alter the scale of something they have in the space. Obviously the earlier I’m called in, the happier I am, but it doesn’t always happen that way.
And do you get to see the output…when a room or a project all comes together? Not always! My clients are all over the country so it’s not always feasible. I’d love to see more, but I do get images.
Talk about the sourcing business: how did that come about? Pure market demand: you don’t always need a custom pattern (or a pattern at all). I’ve been in this business so long that I’ve really built up some great networks of people with incredible product and a huge range of options. I understand the whole market, know who does what, know what can meet code, etc. so people come to me to shortcut the process, and get exactly what they need.
Design inspiration? I tend to gravitate toward things that are more textural and geometric. Like anyone, I’ll get ideas from nature, and architectural sources/tile work, maybe even finishes. I also love old ethnic textiles, particularly African textiles. A lot of times I’ll modify patterns to modernize them, make them relevant.
How do you find your inspirations? I would love to say travel but that’s not what it is now. I am a big hiker, and I get inspiration from nature. Seeing what’s around in the design world in general–that’s huge.
So do you devour blogs and magazines the way the rest of us do? Oh yeah. I am the media hound. Design magazines, fashion magazines…piles of them. And blogs like Remodelista and Business of Fashion because I like business stories. So fashion is an influence. Oh absolutely. I love to look at the way people use fabrics. Do you supply fashion designers? A little bit. That’s a really tough business and the margins are incredibly tight for them.
Are there designers you love? My personal aesthetic has no print in it and I really do like simplicity. I guess I’m more of a monochromatic shape person. I like the Belgian designers (yes!), like Ann Demeulemeester. I like a more tailored cut. But I also like Dries van Noten for pattern and print. I also like that he and his team experiments with a lot new technologies and really pushes the limits on them.
That’s interesting: your work is about pattern, but you’re more about simplicity. What’s your house like? Mostly lights and darks, more contrast, with a little pattern thrown in. Nothing crazy.
Where do you design? At home. It’s incredibly hard to get time here to do it–it’s intense here when I’ve got the team working. So I’m trying to spend time at home. In the past, the design was all done by hand and about creating camera-ready art, but these days it’s mostly Photoshop and Illustrator. Anything by hand? Yeah, from time to time. And sometimes I’ll do things like take a picture, then put it into Photoshop to color-separate it.
So I assume this all started in art school? Oh yeah. I studied painting in college UMass Dartmouth. Moved to SF, got a job screen printing. (How did that happen?) I was the only one in college who liked screen printing. I just really liked it, there’s something wonderful about working with fabric. Anyway, all this evolved over time but in 1994, I ended up purchasing a screen printing company.
Whoa! And this can’t be an easy business to be in. Well at the beginning it was during the boom and there was a lot of business, so we were really busy. But it’s definitely not easy in a tougher economy. It’s all about space and labor, which is expensive in San Francisco. We’re also up against more digital, and obviously automated/rotary textile printing. So we’ve gotten smart about it: we don’t hold a lot of inventory, we’ve been simplifying lines, etc. We added the sourcing business. And we also share space with another company and that works out really nicely.
Smart. What’re the benefits of working with you? We can do smaller runs, work with trickier fabrics, and create unusual designs. What makes prints exciting to me–and the client–is not just the print itself but how it’s used, how it’s integrated with the fabric. The application of it is key. You have to consider both the texture and the design as equal in value when it comes to design. For example, you put a tougher design–like a chevron–on velvet. That’s unexpected, more interesting.
(Or this very classic-esque print on, of all things, ultrasuede.)
It takes some thinking and sense of design and what you’re trying to achieve. It’s harder to achieve that with more mainstream textiles.
What’s your current favorite design? It’s based on an Indian turban….I call it bindu. But I didn’t get literal with it: it doesn’t look like an indian print any more….it looks modern, fresh.
Alright let’s get to the important stuff. Who plays you in the movie of your life? Oh, probably someone indie, non-mainstream like Maggie Gyllenhal. But also Nicole Kidman (before all that surgery).
What five things define you?
Oh media for sure. Stacks and stacks of magazines and newspapers everywhere.
My matte black Ducati.
Oh and I guess these black work pants. I wear them all the time.
What are you reading now? Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers. Any particular reason why? Because I hadn’t read anything by him and I had read something by his father.
And name a transcendent moment. Oh that’s hard….hard to rate one. I think when I bought the business in 94, and all of a sudden, I went from 0-60. Hadn’t planned to do something like that. After I did that, I said wow: I’m an entrepreneur now. I’ve turned from designer to entrepreneur.
So what’s next for the entrepreneur? You know, I’m not really sure. I’d love to stay in business but there’s an aspect of the market that’s really saturated. I love the designing part, and I feel like we’re carrying the torch for hand screen printing. There aren’t a lot of people doing it, not a lot of financial incentive to do it. An obvious thing to do would be a product line (linens, etc.) and I’ve thought about that before, but I haven’t set up the infrastructure to market it. Just running this business takes a lot of energy! But there are definitely lots of directions to go in…
We’re looking forward to seeing what happens! And by the way, when you start to sell those workpants with the dye splatters, we’ll be first in line.
Anne Kirk Textiles