Frill'er Up; "Lace in Translation" sews detail and delicacy into utilitarian design.
by Shaun Brady, for City Paper
From a distance, the fence leading up the driveway from Henry Avenue to the Design Center at Philadelphia University appears too delicate to withstand the elements. Surely this graceful creation will be in tatters after the first strong rain, its intricate patterns unraveled and fraying in the wind.
But upon closer inspection, the illusion of fragility falls away. The elegant filigree is wrought in chain-link rather than linen; it is, in fact, a fence, not a lacy approximation, though its utility may be overshadowed by its beauty. Imagine keeping the neighbor kids at bay with something that resembles grandma’s finest tablecloth.
“We have this notion of lace being an ephemeral, magic thing,” says Carla Bednar, the Design Center’s assistant director. “This exhibition takes a leap forward into another dimension, applying new ideas to a traditional notion.”
For “Lace in Translation,” The Design Center invited three internationally renowned artists and designers to rethink the idea of lace, resulting in radical and whimsical takes on a form which typically refuses to descend from its lofty, elegant perch. The exhibition is a major undertaking for the Design Center, its first show to commission new work and to make use of the exterior grounds. It’s also the first effort in a much larger project envisioned by Bednar and collections curator Nancy Packer called the Fabric of Philadelphia, a partnership with area museums, libraries, businesses and community members to celebrate the city’s textile heritage.
“We know that the industry is in tremendous decline in the city, so we wanted to capture and honor that history while we could,” Bednar says. “It’s already become a much larger entity than we ever dreamed that it could be, because so many people hold parts of that history. We see this as an open-ended, long-term investigation, and don’t really know where the lines are going to be drawn yet.”
“Lace in Translation” was inspired by the Center’s collection of samples, designs and marketing materials from the Quaker Lace Company of Philadelphia. The company was renowned as one of America’s leading creators of lace goods from its enormous factory complex in Kensington.
During Quaker Lace’s heyday, its head designer was Frederick Charles Vessey, an Englishman imported from the county of Nottinghamshire, which dominated the lace and textile industries in the 19th century. Though lace was something of a novelty for middle-class America at the time — marketing materials in the Design Center’s collection diligently explain how to display this ephemeral material in the home — Vessey incorporated inspiration from a staggering variety of sources.
“We’ve got hundreds of sketches where he looks at motifs from all around the world,” says Bednar. “From Coptic Egypt to the Renaissance and the Baroque, architectural fretwork and plasterwork and iron railings. Anything that caught his eye, he would then render into lace. It’s pretty interesting to see Aztec designs become a lace tablecloth.”
The Design Center opened its archives to the commissioned artists, each of whom were inspired in different ways. Dutch design studio Demakersvan and Canadian artist Cal Lane chose specific patterns to render in wholly new contexts. Demakersvan created the fence which now leads visitors up to the Center’s door, while Lane welded her pattern into a 600-pound oil tank which now sits on the opposite side of the grounds, on what once was the front yard of the ’50s-style ranch home that houses the Center.
Dutch designer Tord Boontje, whose work occupies the Center’s interior, took the Quaker Lace collection as a more general leaping-off point, creating a number of pieces that find echoes between the natural world and this most highly stylized of man-made materials.
Set in the middle of an all-black gallery, Boontje’s Sofa depicts what the parlor may have looked like had the fly taken the spider up on his offer. A weave of sturdy Aramide and Dyneema fibers, the piece is an intricate web of varied patterns, like Demakersvan’s fence a deceptive balance of strength and delicacy.
The next two galleries house nest-like lighting fixtures, jewelry, a dress and a curtain framing the Center’s floor-to-ceiling windows, all woven from strands of raffia. Boontje devised a narrative around these pieces, reflected in a video projected onto the wall.
“He spun this idea of a young woman who has no money and lives in the forest or at the edge of the woods,” Bednar explains. “But she somehow has this Hollywood magazine that shows elegant lace dresses and fine lace products, and she decides that she wants to create this world for herself. What she has are the materials available, so that’s how the grass came into the story.”
Bednar was excited by the ways in which inspiration trickled down and transformed between generations of artists, from Quaker Lace’s ancient inspirations to these modern visions. “I think that’s what designers do all the time,” she says. “Vessy was looking at things from other cultures and reinterpreting that for a new product, and now designers of this era are looking back at what Vessy and the factory produced and reinterpreting that in contemporary terms.”