Kaffe Fassett interview

By Freya Hardy, issue two of Lionheart

Textile designer Kaffe Fassett is very possibly the most Californian person I have ever met. He’s lived in Britain since 1964, but somehow he’s managed to retain that peculiar… broadness (I’ve yet to think of a better word), that only people who hail from that part of the world possess. It’s a little embarrassing to admit it, but he reminds me very much of one of those Hollywood actors, Robert Redford, or even Richard Gere and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it’s the health-giving year-round tan, the twinkling eyes, or the accent – it is true that I am always impressed, and not a little intimidated, by Americans. Whatever’s behind it, the overall effect is one of understated and effortless glamour, the kind that makes a person seem altogether alien in a place like this.   

Kaffe’s obsession with colour and pattern is legendary and it seems to have utterly devoured this generously proportioned Victorian townhouse in Kilburn. This place is extraordinary. Even from street level it’s clear that something marvellous is going on inside and I feel a little like a rabid chocaholic standing at the gates to Willy Wonka’s Chocalate factory. I know this is going to be a special experience for me, after all, this man is at least partly responsible for my lifelong love affair with craft. My mum, who taught me to sew, and knit, and weave had his books all over the house and they were like pick‘n’mix to me, still are. And so here I am, perched on a wooden chair in his light-flooded studio surrounded by boxes upon boxes of yarn, sipping herbal tea whilst my hero, I hesitate to use that term, but there it is, sits opposite. Left to my own devices I could spend hours just pottering in a room like this, rifling through swatches and leafing through books. I suppose I had better ask him some questions.    

I heard that you learned to knit on a train, is that true?

That’s right. I went up to Inverness with Bill Gibb, the fashion designer. He was going to start a little shop and we were going up to organize it. I bought all these beautiful yarns and on the train back to London I said to this woman ‘I want to make a sweater with these yarns but I don’t know how to knit – could you show me?’ I had bought a pair of needles, so she cast on and it was just fantastic. I knitted all through the night, got off in London, went and got a pattern and I put all I had learned into my first sweater. I put twenty colours in it.

So your work was quite colourful and complex right from the off?

(Smiling) Oh yeah, I wasn’t going to bake white bread. It wasn’t hard. I think knitting is like riding a bicycle. It seems hard at the beginning and then all of a sudden you find yourself wondering what the fuss was all about. 

(ed) His first design appeared as a full page spread in Vogue Knitting Magazine.

How do you account for your fascination with colour and pattern?

‘I don’t know, it’s funny. People often say to me ‘why are you so obsessed with colour?’, and I can’t imagine why anybody isn’t. It’s kind of like saying ‘why do you love water, or food… or air?’ Colour is one of the most mysterious, miraculous, wonderful things about life. To have these gorgeous colours around us, they have the power to change our lives. If the colour is right everything is wonderful, if it is wrong everything is… he shrugs I have always loved colour.’

Do you have any favourite memories of colour? Are you one of those people who collects memories in that way? Kaffe pauses for a moment, just long enough for me to wonder if my question made any sense. 

Well, I dream in colour. I suppose one of the most interesting things was to watch black and white television…we would watch these films and think we knew what the colours were, and then you’d see the film again years later in colour, and it was very interesting to see that the dress you thought was green was actually red.

Your imagination played a much bigger part?

Yes, we had colours in our minds. 

What places inspire you?

Any place with colour. Colour is so lacking in our lives, and in the world. I’m fascinated by places like Portmeirion; wonderful little Italianate houses that are painted gold and baby blue, cobalts. I love parts of Ireland for that reason; great use of colour. I mean, there are many things that I also love besides colour, like beautiful stonework. The buildings around the Lake District are exquisite. Scotland is full of beautiful colourful subtleties in the landscape, so, you know, I would be happy being a prisoner here for the rest of my life. Here, and the collection of countries around here, are so rich with visuals, very very exciting. 

You first came to England in the ‘60s, how has your view of it changed over the years?

I went through a period of completely falling in love with England and all it stood for, just finding it so romantic and exotic. It was by far the strangest place I’d ever been to. It’s very funny because, you know, we think as Americans that we speak English, so it’s better to go to Russia or someplace where it’s really exotic and different. The English were very different. Then I went through a period of being extremely critical, finding everything a pain.

Like what, do you mind me asking?

Well, I don’t know, the fact that the roads were difficult, and everything was getting so expensive. It’s interesting to me that you seem to have an economy where basic things that you need, like tube fares to get around and bus fares are so expensive… everyday things in life, like postage... There was a period where they made train fares very cheap for older people, if you were over a certain age, you could go anywhere and you would see these old dears with their headscarves on, shining, looking so happy. And the guys all dressed up with their ties going to Scotland. It was the happiest period in England I think. And then all of a sudden they realized that it was costing far too much and they stopped it. I got very critical of all those kinds of things, and the fact that washing machines and cars were ten times more expensive than anywhere else. You know I’m used to an American economy where it’s all about competition. There everyone is trying to lower their prices, hit the common man and get the mass market going. That just wasn’t the thing here at all. When people here launched a new product they thought that they would make it expensive so it looked good, so all of that would just get on my tits. Anyway, I got over it. It is what it is. When you get down to it the good things are so good. It’s a very beautiful landscape and I like the fact that you don’t have a million choices. I used to love it when there were four channels on the TV and whoever you talked to they had watched a bit of the same thing you watched and so there were these common things…You had things in common with people… There are lots of things I love about this country and it gets better and better as the world gets crazier.

It sounds as though you think of it as a little bit of a haven?

Oh yeah, that’s why I’m still here. 

You do manage to make England sound quite exotic.

I try to go into it a bit in my book. How funny the language was, and the archaic names of things, ‘flashlights’ were ‘torches’ you know, the idea of going with a burning torch to look for something in the cellar. There were millions of things like that which just fascinated me. I loved it. 

You’re well known as a dedicated collector, thrift shopper and skip raider, is that still as true as it ever was?

I have enough stuff now. I have most things. If I see something wildly interesting, or rare, I’ll buy it …I need to buy less and less. I still buy books (I spotted a copy of Grayson Perry’s The Unknown Craftsman catalogue as I climbed the stairs to his studio) They’re wonderful for references to whole worlds of pattern and culture. Ceramics is a very rich world, but also beaded bags, fans…little bits of embroidery, weaving, things I come back with from Peru, Guatamala or somewhere. I have drawers filled with cloth, fabric that’s going to go into a still life. I have enough. 

So is there an item in your collection that means something special to you?

I collect Buddhas, (he pronounces it in Californian, like ‘booodha’) those fat Buddhas covered with little children, there is something so odd about them and they began [to be made] so long ago. I suppose there is something wonderful about that image, and it has become a kind of good luck talisman for me… when I see a Laughing Buddha somewhere, in any part of the world, it just feels good. I suppose is started in San Francisco, in China Town. There were all these Buddhas with little children on them and it became something kind of… there’s a sort of lightness. I think if I was ever going to have a studio I would call it The Laughing Buddha. 

Did you really ever raid charity shops and skips?

Oh completely. For years I was completely destitute. I was living by the seat of my pants and I decided very early on that if I was ever going to make a living here [in England] I had to begin the way I intended to go on and live very, very simply. I had the simplest possible diet, I never went to restaurants or anything unless I could find a really cheap workman’s café or something. I was always buying clothes in second hand shops because I had as a child anyway. My mother was always spending on building materials. She was always building some great house, or an addition to our house, and she found it difficult to get money out of my father so she’d save whatever money she could get her hands on for things like that and she’d give us a dollar fifty and say ‘go to the Salvation Army and get yourself some school clothes.’ And so we would go and get these old men’s tweed suits and make weird combinations – maybe a Chinese silk shirt with an English tweed jacket with leather patches on the sleeves. Most people were quite snobby about second hand clothes. They wanted ‘new, new’, but we loved the serendipity of what you could find in a thrift shop. 

You don’t appear to be a big fan of perfection

No, absolutely not. I’m naturally an intuitive, instinctive designer. I have a terrible time following my own patterns. Now and then I’ll sit down and try to reproduce something. I think ‘I’ll take the shape of that and apply it to this new design’, and I’ll completely lose direction. Rather than follow directions I’m usually just making things up. . Some people find perfection an art in itself, and I just don’t. To me what’s important about a design, or a textile is that it has life in it. I’ve seen things that are so perfect that they are just ‘yawn’, they are just utterly lifeless and boring… bloodless. So I like something to feel like it’s made by human beings. That’s why I love Gee’s Bend quilts, for instance. They are the poorest people in America, this community, but they make the most unbelievable quilts out of table clothes, drapes and work clothes. If they can get their hands on a textile they will just reuse it. They are abstract and very imperfect, to the point where it drives some people crazy. A lot of us people who are a little lax in the technical department love people like the Gee’s Bend quilters.

Who influences your current work, are you one of those artists who see themselves as connected to what’s going on outside, or are you more insular?

I have a kind of world view. This time last year we were in Korea, then after that Australia and New Zealand, and so then we’ll be in Scandinavia and in Canada, so we’re jumping around all the time and getting a feeling for what’s happening all over. I can’t think of an individual that is strongly influencing me right now. I like people that are experimental and creative, people who give you off-the-wall ideas. I like Lady Gaga. 

Kaffe’s autobiography, Dreaming in Colour will be out in September 2012, published by STC Craft/ Melanie Falick