Kaffe Fassett, Counterculture Design Legend: “I’m This Weird Beast – A Man Who Makes Textiles” | Interiors
IIt took two attempts for knitter and textile designer Kaffe Fassett to buy his four-storey Victorian home in north London. In 1971, he obtained a floor with a deposit of £400 but had to wait 20 years before buying the rest. “When I got into textiles, no one was doing what I was doing with color. I think a lot of old hippies loved it, but some people thought I was a disgrace to the industry,” he says. “It took me a while to make money.”
After a chance meeting with director John Schlesinger at a party, Fassett handed him a copy of James Leo Herlihy’s Midnight Cowboy, suggesting that he make it into a movie. Flipping through, Schlesinger told Fassett it was “too depressing – but before I knew it, Dustin Hoffman had been cast, then they called me into Schlesinger’s office, told me to sign a piece of paper, gave me £5,000 and said no. ask for more. This “hunter’s fee” became a down payment on the rest of the house.
In the niche world of textiles and knitting, 84-year-old Kaffe Fassett (the name, he says, rhymes with “of course”) is both king and maverick, shattering the idea that craftsmanship is a housewife’s hobby. Growing up in Big Sur, California in the 1940s and 1950s, Fassett moved to Boston to paint, working her way through New York art circles before ending up in London, via Bath, in the late 1900s. 1960s. “People said I was in the right place at the right time for what I was doing,” he says, “but really I was just drawn to the whole experimental thing, Portobello Road, hippy Beatles. “
Always a painter, Fassett took a trip to a Scottish woolen mill in 1968 with his friend, designer Bill Gibb. What he saw there – a kaleidoscope of colored threads in the back room – changed Fassett’s life. He decided he wanted to make himself a colorful sweater, so he bought 20 yarns, persuaded a stranger on the train back to London to teach him how to knit “and here I am now – this weird beast, a man who makes textiles”.
Over the past 30 years, Fassett has transformed his ‘messy’ London home into four floors of freewheeling color, fused together in a vision of homeliness and maximalism. Barely a corner of the home is spared a Fassett print or textile, each room is a hodgepodge of past and present. In the living room, traditional armchairs are upholstered in her vibrant embroidery and sit alongside lemon-and-green patterned wallpaper inspired by her watercolors.
Landings are covered in knitted vegetable wall hangings (“People were horrified, but I love vegetables – they’re such a shape”) and window seats are filled with handmade needlepoint throw pillows. Each wooden floor is carpeted. The most notable piece is one he bought from the back of a Chechen carpet merchant’s truck in Aleppo in the 1990s, which shows a young girl in high-heeled shoes carrying flowers. He named the girl Villanelle and recently turned her into a tapestry for a cushion. He sits in his studio on the top floor.
Even the garden terrace and the porch of the front door are decorated with fragments of discarded tiles and teapots laid in a crazy paving, in cement hidden by anemones but barely visible from the road. “It’s easy to do – all it takes is a hammer, a few jars and two days,” he says.
Fassett’s textile workshop on the top floor is the beating heart of the house. He used to knit on his bed but has since moved his studio upstairs, where it’s quiet and bright. He starts each day with a cup of hot water, working on a low beige chair with a tangle of wool at his feet. “I love that knitting is visceral — that you take a bunch of shitty strings and put them together into something imperfect,” he says. His seat is surrounded by pots of needles, his beloved digital radio and a floor-to-ceiling shelf of neatly folded fabrics in vibrant colors. “A lot of the knitting is beige, and I’ve always hated that,” he says. “We have this great history as humans with plaids, paisleys, checks and medieval interpretations, and we have so many colors.”
Fassett is known to be a knitter but he still enjoys painting. His still life studio is across the landing from his textile studio, with shelves filled with color-coordinated china scavenged from flea markets and charity shops that he assembles into still lifes on a large coffee table. angle and painted with watercolors and acrylics. “When I started I was trying to be a serious artist, and I was warned not to get into crafting if I wanted to,” he says. His New York contemporaries were Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline “although I didn’t like what they were doing,” he says. “I was interested in modest home environments and how easy it is to bring color into your home.” It persisted, but the paint never stuck. “I had too many doubts about myself,” he says. “With knitting, the hours can pass. It’s so therapeutic. I think I bought this house because I knew I needed a suitable place to do so.
Among the many celebrities who called on him, it was Barbra Streisand’s visit in 1983 that remains etched in his memory. “I open the door and walk in this little woman with stringy hair, and she kind of whispers, ‘Hi, I’m Barbraaaa’,” he says. “I say, ‘I know who you are. I just didn’t expect to…” he trails off, indicating his height with his hand. Streisand had become interested in knitwear while making Yentl and someone suggested he meet Fassett. , she landed on a dress — “black with colored stripes, I think” — and asked Fassett to remake it for her in something colorful, much to her delight.”She wanted color. Color!” What a woman to want something non-black.
He is “disinterested” in fashion, “although every once in a while it seems to veer in my direction”. In 2019 he collaborated with fashion brand Coach, and before that Fassett was both muse and collaborator for Ottavio Missoni, the Italian knitwear designer who fused his color with a swirl of zigzags and stripes. “Suddenly you see quilting is powerful,” Fassett says, “or people reusing old pieces of fabric to create new things — and my name comes back.”
Grooming: Carol Sullivan at Arlington Artists
Kaffe Fassett: The Power of Pattern runs until March 12, 2023 at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London