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An interview with Thomas Knauer

Thomas Knauer might not be a household name yet in the UK – but he will be. He has released three lines for Andover in the past eight months and has two more hitting stores later this year (We currently have his Flock collection in stock here). Just wait to see what he has coming up – Frippery and Asbury are brilliant!

I’m a big Thomas fan and that’s not just because he was my roommate at Quilt Market this year! He brings a unique and passionate perspective to the quilting/fabric/design market and took a few minutes out of his incredibly busy schedule to do an interview.

Read on to find out where Thomas gets his inspiration, how his background in academia has served him well in the fabric industry and what he’ll be speaking about at next year’s QuiltCon. Then be sure to block out 4pm 5:30pm on Saturday, 7 July, to come hear him speak at an event hosted by the London Modern Quilt Guild at Tricolette Ray Stitch! Please note the new time and location.

Credit: Thomas Knauer

The Village Haberdashery: You started designing fabric just two years ago, yet you’ve quickly become one of the most prolific designers on the modern scene. How do you keep coming up with fresh inspiration for your collections? Once you have an idea, how do you go about designing a collection around it?

Thomas Knauer: I have always had more ideas than I know what to do with. Back in grad school I used to keep a notebook with me at all times just for writing down all of my ideas for the projects. I quickly realized that I generated a lifetimes’ worth of ideas every month, so I ditched that process. Now, if an idea sticks in my head for a couple of days I know it has merit, so I start playing with it. It may take months for an idea to come to fruition, but I’m okay with that.

When it comes to fabric, more often than not a collection begins with one of the supporting prints, with the features getting added later on. I love patterns, playing with the repeats and the like; the more illustrative aspects are a struggle for me.

As far as inspiration, I’ve always been suspicious of the word. The ideation process is work lie anything else. I just start flipping through the mental rolodex of my experiences and get to work of finding meaningful fodder. But to be honest, twenty years of experience in the academic art world has place me in good standing as far as the concept club.

Bird on a Wire, a collaboration between Thomas and Lisa @ That Crazy Quilty Girl

TVH: With your background in academia, you bring a unique perspective to designing fabric and creating collections. How do you feel this has helped your creative process? Do you ever feel it has hurt your process?

TK: I think my academic has helped in two big ways (and a million small ones).

The first is my research experience; I dig around all over the place when working on ideas and collections. I think my collections are about 95% intellectual work and 5% aesthetic. When I finally get to the point of putting pixels and vectors in place a collection has already gone through a thousand permutations.

The second is just the work ethic. The academic life is freaking insane. I have never worked so hard as I did when I was a professor. Juggling all the different aspects of academia at that high of a level day in and day out is exhausting intellectually, emotionally, and physically. So much of this industry is about putting in the work; making a career of it is definitely not a hobby.

Honestly, I can never imagine a circumstance in which my academic background could hurt. To some I seem to over-think things, but I cannot even imagine the idea of over-thinking. Heck, the only thing that ever hurts my process is not thinking enough.

Flock of Geese by Candy@RacoonCreekQuilts

TVH: Do the opinions of others – friends, family, consumers, the market, shop owners, other designers, the folks at Andover – influence the direction your work takes? Whose opinions are most important to you?

TK: I love critique! That is actually my favorite part of the creative process. If I could skip all the making and just talk about stuff forever and ever I totally would. I bounce ideas and drafts off of my brilliant wife all of the time (she’s a professor of Medieval English Literature, and has a Bachelor’s degree in art as well). She is my first and last critique. In between I go to a lot of friends who I respect greatly both in the industry and out. Kathy Hall at Andover Fabrics is my guru; I have learned so much about fabric design from her. Oh, and Bee… I always ask her which prints she likes the most, and have started using purple because it is now her favorite color.

But in the end I reserve the right to veto everyone, and usually do. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen; I just glean the content of the feedback, even if I don’t follow the suggestions. And the feedback from one print or collection always carries forward to the next set of designs, and the next, and so on…

Frippery by Thomas Knauer, in shops soon

TVH: You have two more collections coming out this year, Frippery and Asbury. Tell us about them!

TK: Frippery came from a lot of different directions. It has a peacock, so I think of it as the last of the bird trilogy (Pear Tree, Flock, and Frippery). That peacock started as a series of improvisations based on the old NBC peacock, which picks up the Partridge Family and Brady Bunch themes of my first two collections. Frippery is also just a rumination on modern ornamentation, a response to the overused “clean and simple” notion. Modern is complex, at times messy; it can even verge on the inchoate.

Asbury started out as a remembrance of a town I grew up near when I was little. Asbury Park, NJ used to be a seaside resort town, but by the time I came to it it was a post-industrial wasteland (think early Bruce Springsteen, he got his start there). I always used to imagine it actually still being alive when I was little, as having a vibrant boardwalk rather than the sad smattering of tchotchke shops. Asbury has bumper cars (dodge-ems), soft serve, and myriad trappings of the boardwalk scene, but the colors are almost lurid, too bright, but with a hint of autumn, of the last days of summer before the rides close down, before the city loses its gloss and turns into the Asbury Park I grew up with.

Asbury by Thomas Knauer, in shops late 2012

TVH: How would you describe your design aesthetic? How do you feel it is changing as your work evolves?

TK: I’ve recently stumbled onto the phrase Eclectic Modernism. I think I made it up, but I haven’t done the research to see if it somehow buried in my subconscious in my grad school days or something. I hope my collections have a certain feel, a little something that lets them make sense together, but that is it. I look at each collection as a new project, a new start. I actually like reinventing the wheel each time I start something.

In a way Eclectic Modernism seems redundant, because Modernism is big, and messy, and weird, and all over the place, but in so many ways Modern has come to be associated with Mid-Century Modern, so Eclectic Modernism seems a useful term at the moment. But to be entirely honest I do a lot of stuff, based on a whole lot more ideas and generally just chase the results wherever they are going.


Pillows in Pear Tree by Katy Jones @ I'm a Ginger Monkey

TVH: Let’s talk about 2013. You’ve been invited to speak at the first annual QuiltCon. What can you tell us about the seminar you’re planning?

TK: I’ll be doing two talks on Modernism and how it relates to the quilting world, talking about the giant crazy mess that is Modernism and how it came to be, the roots, the concepts, the why. Can’t really say much more than that at the moment; I think they might shoot me if I did…

Venn Diagram Baby Quilt in Savannah Bop by Dan @ Piece and Press

TVH: What else do you have planned for next year? Any book deals, fabric lines or other exciting plans in the works?

TK: I’ve already finished the artwork for two more collections following Asbury, and am starting to wrestle with another. The rest of this year is all about quilts in magazines, and finishing up what I think of as my quilting internship. After this year I expect to really start putting all of the ideas into action as far as my quilt designs. The next 12 months is also all about words. I’ve gotten back into my short essay habit on the blog, but where that is going to take me is still unknown…

TVH: When you’re not sewing with your own fabric, whose do you sew with?

TK: I sew with all kinds of stuff. Right now I am crushing on Melody Miller, Rashida Coleman Hale, and Jo Morton. There are so many more: Violet Craft’s new collection, Lu Summers’ first, Malka Dumbrowsky’s first with Moda, oh the list goes on and on. I wish I had a gigantic fabric budget, but I don’t… yet.

Thomas' designs in Melody Miller's Ruby Star Vinyl, in shops next month

TVH: What blogs are top on your reading list?

TK: I have no idea. I am really a Twitter boy, and keep up with new posts there. Like with everything else I bounce around all over the place. More often than not I’ watching pro wrestling on my laptop, listening to NPR, or playing 70s and 80s punk far too loud (or sometimes doing all three at once) while I write, design, or sew…

Thanks Thomas! See you in London soon!

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