Internationally known textile designer Kaffe Fassett has had a colorful life – in every sense of the word. Now he has revealed much of it in his recent autobiography, “Dreaming in Color” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $45).
“I’ve been thinking about it for a very, very long time,” said Fassett of writing the book. “It was such a rich period of history that I lived through.”
Fassett is considered to be a guru in the world of color and textiles, buoyed by a constant drive to discover and create, and always encouraging the use of vivid and boisterous hues – he’s an unabashed advocate of color in any form, whether it be knitwear, needlepoint, patchwork, ceramics or painting.
His book not only tells the stories of his life, but shows them as well, containing 300 images that feature his designs, his paintings, family photographs and more.
Fassett’s extraordinary career has taken him from a free-spirited California upbringing to swinging 1960s London. It was there that he would find himself as an artist and designer.
“It was a Renaissance, an extraordinarily free and creative time,” said Fassett. “It was a time when squinchy little kids from Liverpool could become the biggest rock stars on the planet. It seemed like anything was possible.”
Born in 1937, Fassett as a young man dreamed of being an artist, and his wildly creative Big Sur family encouraged him to pursue his passion. His Bohemian parents founded Nepenthe, the legendary restaurant perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. But Fassett was anxious to go after more than the isolated Big Sur setting could offer.
After studying and working in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, he decided to move to England.
Coming to London in 1964 put him squarely in the midst of the era’s cultural revolution; he hobnobbed with a whole bevy of celebrities, including artist David Hockney, singer Tony Bennett, and Princess Margaret, among others. As his design career developed, he would meet many more.
In 1968, a chance trip to Scotland would change the course of his life. A visit to a knitting mill there triggered Fassett’s lifelong obsession with colorful yarn. He learned to knit on the train home.
His first design appeared as a full-page spread in Vogue Knitting magazine. Missoni and Bill Gibb commissioned Kaffe’s early commercial collections, and his one-of-a-kind designs have been collected by Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall, John Schlesinger, Ali McGraw, and Shirley MacLaine, among others.
Before long, he had produced his first book – the now-classic “Glorious Knits” – and would go on to pen numerous others.
Fassett attributes his start in the business to the fact that he was a man in what had been primarily a woman’s line of work (although he did grow up around male knitters in Big Sur). Not only that, it was highly unusual at the time for someone trained as a fine artist to enter the world of textile design.
“I was a man in a woman’s world, and it did shock a lot of people,” said Fassett. “They took notice of me, a guy doing what I was doing.”
From knits, Fassett expanded into other areas, including needlepoint, quilts, enamel work, ceramic mosaic, and even designing sets for theater, including one for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He continued with his painting as well, and is still pursuing it to this day.
He has become a media star in his adopted country. His series for the BBC, “Glorious Color,” is credited with inspiring traditional knitters to use rich palettes of color.
In 1988, Fassett became the first living textile artist to have a one-man show at London’s famed Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibition has since traveled to Finland, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Canada, the United States, and Iceland. More recent exhibits include a one-man multimedia show in 2006 in Sweden, as well as an exhibition of quilts, knitting and needlepoint at the Modemuseum Hasselt in Belgium in 2007.
Fassett continues to search the globe for inspiration. He is now working on a book on the handwoven fabrics of India, where he worked with the international charity Oxfam to advise weavers on designs that would be more marketable in the West.
“I would watch (the designs) develop on primitive looms. It was just miraculous to see,” recalls Fassett of his experiences in that remote Indian village.
“One of the great blessings of my life is that it’s sent me traveling all over the world,” said Fassett, who continues to make his home in London. “I’ve just been all around Canada … we’re getting such affection and love from people wherever we go. It’s been rewarding to be thrown into different cultures.”
Interview with Kaffe Fassett, October 2012