The Colourful World of Kaffe Fassett showcases how world-renowned knitwear and textile designer Kaffe Fassett lives by his maxim to find colour in a grey world. Designed by 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 display in the dramatic exhibition alongside vibrant mosaics and still life paintings by the Fassett. Nearly all the objects on view are from Kaffe’s personal collection – the much-loved pieces that surround him as he creates. The cornucopia of works on view thus offers a glimpse of the private man behind the public façade.
Born in San Francisco in 1937 and raised in the creative community of Big Sur, California, Kaffe has a long association with the American Museum, first exhibiting there in 1994. 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 with the block patterns created in these textile masterworks but also by their audacious use of juxtaposed colours and printed fabrics.
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. Visitors to the exhibition will discover 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.
Having captivated generations and transformed the textile industry, it is only fitting that Kaffe – an American in Britain – should return to the Museum which so inspired him during those halcyon days in the early sixties. Complementing the exhibition will be exquisite pen drawings that Kaffe made of the American Museum’s popular Period Rooms in 1964 on display in Claverton Manor. 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 to Scotland where he became enthralled by the hand-dyed woollen yarns he discovered there. On the long train journey home, he persuaded one of his travelling companions to teach him to knit. The rest, as they say, is history – a captivating story of a life lived in colour, which is celebrated at the American Museum during its 2014 season.
My Opera of Colour
This is the grandest show of my career – every item is part of an intricate opera of colour. I have always wanted this approach to my work, but other museum designers and curators have steered me to a rather mixed approach in my exhibitions.
This show is so unique to me because it explains in a visceral way my growing obsession with the power of colour. My hope and conviction is that this exhibition at the American Museum in Britain will show the grey and beige clad young the sensual thrill of pure colour. I still feel vital! I want my message to come across in this mood altering show – I’m flying high on colour.
This show is closer to my desires than ever before in my many, many presentations around the world.
Kaffe Fassett, 12 March 2014
South African theatre and opera set designer Johan Engels had the privilege of meeting the world’s brightest maximalist, Kaffe Fassett, and designing his retrospective exhibition in the UK.
It was a bright blue theatre set of mine that first caught Kaffe Fassett’s eye during one of his visits to South Africa in the mid-90s. My house has always been filled with Kaffe’s bold and colourful floral cushions and fabrics, so our meeting was perhaps inevitable. When it eventually happened, it was an exuberant embrace of two maximalists, out to take revenge on a dull and colourless world.
“Since my concentration wherever I go is on the arts, I was thrilled with the inventive artwork I saw in galleries, art centres and on our visits to townships,” recalls Kaffe, who was in South Africa to conduct craft workshops. “The way people who attended our workshops fearlessly used colour and pattern, and burst into song had us loving every moment of the experience.”
Born in San Francisco, Kaffe went to England at the age of 27, working first with British fashion designer Bill Gibb and then, in 1962, on his first commission as an artist by the American Museum, near Bath. His work has since become world-famous in the fields of knitting, needlepoint, patchwork and quilts, and is distinctive for his bold use of bright colour. Kaffe considers colour as important as breathing and it is the pivot and passion of his life. His work is first and foremost an arrangement of colour and then, as he says, the rest follows.
When I was asked to design The Colourful World of Kaffe Fassett exhibition at the American Museum, it was not only to celebrate his 50 years as an artist and colourist, but also his 50-year association with the museum. My experience as a theatre designer inspired me to see this exhibition as a series of stages, in pools and palettes of different colours, each to enhance and contrast with Kaffe’s work.
The exhibition itself was planned meticulously with a large-scale model, as I wanted Kaffe’s input in choosing the right shades of colour for his work. Each room or space had a different colour, starting with an eye-shattering shade of fuchsia pink in the entrance hall, draped in giant floral garlands, with the walls lined in enlarged printed wallpaper of one of his fabrics.
Following from that, we created rooms and spaces arranged in his particular bright shades of green, golden yellow, red and Moroccan blue. Knitwear, quilts and needlepoint could vibrate against the bright colours of the walls, lit in a theatrical way for the most dramatic effect.
The exhibition was described as “operatic”, “eye-popping” and, as Suzy Menkes wrote in The New York Times, “bright enough to trounce even the spring daffodils outside”. But I am most happy that Kaffe considers this exhibition as the one closest to his ideal of perfectly showing his work in an explosion of joyous colour.
© Johan Engels in VISI Magazine
© American Museum In Britain – interview with Johan and Kaffe