By Regina Connell.
I have always been a little standoffish about wallpaper, most likely because I don’t particularly embrace pattern. And anyone who knows me will nod vigorously when I say I struggle with color. So the combination of color and pattern being applied in large swathes to a wall is something I avoid like the plague.
Now while I confess a bit of a crush on the subversive punk energy of Timorous Beasties, most of the wallpaper I’ve seen of late toggles between trendy “fun”—the design equivalent of Katy Perry, all extroversion and perkiness—or is a riff on William Morris and his earnest, if ever-so-slightly stodgy, gentility.
But the wallpaper patterns created by San Francisco-based elworthy studio are an exception. From the moody, earthy, muted palette, and patterns that evoke shadow, light, and texture, the feeling is calm, not frenetic, restrained yet sensual. There’s a refreshing grittiness and darkness to the work: a far, far cry from all that girly patterning so in vogue.
Kate Miller is the artistic and entrepreneurial force behind elworthy studio, which creates wallpapers, prints, and textiles. She’s clearly talented, but as we all know, that’s rarely enough. What she has is a rare intrepidness, a combination of openness and willingness to try new things, and the confidence to trust herself as an artist. She credits this in part to her mother, Holly Miller, who became a fine artist in her fifties. “It was inspiring to see her trying something completely new and then putting her work out there. It felt really brave.”
Her collections combine a fascination with lesser-explored organic themes with an embrace of unconventional artistic techniques. Her first collection, Decay, was influenced by a rusted drain pipe she noticed outside of her apartment. But rather than exploring decay and rust from a purely aesthetic perspective, she began hand-dyeing fabrics with the impressions of rusted objects, then turned to the computer to develop color and pattern.
Her latest collection, Clair Obscur (French for the better known chiaroscuro), explores shadow and light. Inspired by a Getty Museum exhibit on avant garde photographers, she’s created a moody, sophisticated collection that combines romance and grit. Six patterns convey the movement and reflection of light, revealing subtle transitions from brooding shadow to shimmery gleam.
Once again, Kate employed fine art processes not typical in textile or wall-covering design. Sometimes she used sunlight to “develop” images of objects on light-sensitive paper. Other times she “painted” with photochemical solutions, using wood fragments, slips of paper or sea sponges as her brushes. Watching colors change and deepen as light and chemicals interacted with paper, she waited for exactly the right moment to halt the process with a stop bath and fixer. She then scanned the prints into her computer before printing onto eco-friendly fabrics and wallpaper.
She’s also developed stunning full-scale wall murals that blur the boundary between textile art and wall covering.
For Kate, an early fascination with art, fashion and design combined with an economics degree from Middlebury led to a formative stint at Bloomingdales in buying, then in visual merchandising, where she honed her eye and her understanding of design. (That flair is on abundant display in her San Francisco design district showroom.)
But when her boyfriend (now husband) moved to Shanghai for work, she joined him, and her life changed.
Her love of textiles blossomed while on the job at Indochino, a Canadian menswear company, where she worked extensively with the company’s textile designers. She immersed herself in the study of textiles, taking online classes. When the couple moved to San Francisco, she headed to the Academy of Art.
But China and her time at Indochino had an additional effect on her: a growing awareness of the environment. “I realized that I wanted to create things that people feel good about living with, that are healthy,” she says. “I saw what the alternative could be. And it’s particularly important to me to be able to help create a safe and healthy home.”
Kate opened elworthy studio in 2015 committed to design that transcends the throwaway culture and environmentally-friendly manufacturing practices. Digitally printed and manufactured in the US using eco-friendly raw materials and processes, the wallpaper is made to order (thus eliminating waste). Her fabric collections, created using Belgian fabric, are created with low VOC, water-based pigment inks.
While it’s always exciting to see an artist who is finding a way to make a living from her art, I’m frankly happy to see an approach to textile and wall covering design that’s truly beautiful, and nothing you’d want to throw away—something that’ll stay with you, enhancing your space, letting it evolve, but never holding it back.
Images 2,3,4,5,8,9 courtesy of elworthy studio