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The colourful world of Kaffe Fassett on view at the American Museum in Britain
Baltimore Urn and Bowl still life cushions. Needlepoint, 46 x 46 cm. Courtesy of Hugh Ehrman. © Kaffe Fassett Studio.

BATH.- World-renowned knitwear and textile designer Kaffe Fassett returns to the American Museum in Britain in 2014 not only to celebrate his fifty years of working as an artist and colourist, but also his fifty-year-long association with the American Museum. When he came to live in Britain in the early 1960s, Kaffe stayed in Bath and was much inspired by the Museum’s diverse collections – especially its many antique quilts. Kaffe was fascinated not only by the block patterns created in these textile masterworks, but also by their audacious use of juxtaposed colours and printed fabrics. Of the Museum’s collections, Kaffe notes: “As an American I am proud to see my aesthetic history so brilliantly displayed. Here at Claverton the textiles are a particular delight.”

The Colourful World of Kaffe Fassett showcases how Kaffe lives by his maxim to “find colour in a grey world”. Designed by the celebrated theatrical designer Johan Engels, the exhibition promises to be as colourful as the dazzling pieces on display. Over one hundred sumptuous works of textile art – a kaleidoscope of knitwear, needlepoint, beading, and quilts – will be on show in this dramatic exhibition alongside vibrant mosaics and still-life paintings by Fassett. Nearly all the objects on view are from Kaffe’s personal collection, the much-loved pieces that surround him as he creates. Indeed, part of the exhibition will be a recreation of his studio space. The cornucopia of works that visitors will encounter thus offers a glimpse of the private man behind the public façade.

The exhibition features works spanning Kaffe’s creative life, including drawings he made as a boy in California. These monochrome pictures are a far cry from the explosions of colour that made Kaffe a household name from the 1970s as one of the great practitioners of contemporary craft. The exhibition is presented in distinct zones, each showcasing a variety of materials by colour, from knitted shawls to gorgeous coats inspired by Shakespearean heroines and cushions decorated with his detailed needlepoint designs.

As Kaffe has captivated generations and transformed the textile industry, it is only fitting that he – an American in Britain – should return to the Museum that so inspired him during those halcyon days in the early 1960s. Complementing the show will be exquisite pen drawings that Kaffe made of the American Museum’s popular Period Rooms in 1964. These delicate room portraits have not been exhibited to the public before and are a reminder that Kaffe began his career in the visual arts as a painter and illustrator.

Four years after making these drawings, Kaffe went on a train trip to Scotland with the Scottish fashion designer Bill Gibb and other friends. It was a journey that would change his life. While in Scotland, Kaffe became enthralled by the hand-dyed woollen yarns he discovered there – in terms of their texture as well as their colour. He purchased bundles of yarns and knitting needles. On the long train journey back to London, he persuaded one of his travelling companions to teach him to knit. Working with pattern in wools became a passion. “I paint in yarn,” Kaffe said famously. The rest is design history – a captivating story of a life lived in colour.

When he began knitting, Kaffe recalls that he searched the decorative arts for inspiration – such as the world-famous collections of the American Museum in Britain. “The one art form that gave me not only an approach to colour, but the exciting geometric forms to hang any colour scheme on, was the patchwork quilt… The American Museum was one place that collected these inventive compositions of patterned fabric, as America is one country that celebrates this craft. It connects us with the hands of our forebears.”

Liza Prior Lucy, a keen American patchwork-maker, was the catalyst who persuaded Kaffe that he would be a natural at this new craft venture. “Lucy took some of my knitting patterns and made them into patchwork. She sent the blocks through the post with the message: ‘See, you are a patchwork designer!”’

Kaffe now travels the world, teaching and giving workshops. As a painter, designer, teacher, and author, he has brought colour into the lives of more people than perhaps any other artist working in Britain today. He is the acknowledged King of Colour and Pattern, whose longstanding design philosophy is still current:

“Anything worth doing is worth over-doing. Always go to extremes.
If in doubt, add twenty more colours.” --Kaffe Fassett

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