In the Studio of Wine Country Textile Designer Louise MannAuthor:Mary Jo Bowling
Sonoma County designer Louise Mann uses many adjectives to describe her latest textile creations: bold, tattered, shredded and kinetic. But however you categorize it, there’s one word she doesn’t want used in connection with her fabrics: perfect.
“I don’t like things that are made precisely,” says the Canadian-born furniture, textile and interior designer, who works out of a converted Wine Country barn. “I like it when there are slight variations and imperfections. That’s what brings vitality to a fabric, and therefore a room.”
Mann’s latest line of textiles is called Surface Work, and was released in January. Given that her primary technique for making the new line is to shred and tatter pieces of hemp by hand, fashion them into rough ribbons or shapes and then appliqué the frayed pieces onto hemp, she really doesn’t need to worry about boring symmetry. The patterns and designs were inspired mostly by French fabrics, forms and colors.
“I began considering French textiles after visiting Château Sonoma, a small store off Sonoma Plaza specializing in French antiques and imported accessories,” she says. “I thought about all the things that the French do with ribbons and about the muted, grayed-out palette that is popular in their textiles, and the Surface Work line was born.”
If the idea of French ribbons conjures up precious bows, think again. In Mann’s hands, the ribbon takes on a whole new dimension. “A lot of ribbon work is frou-frou and decorative,” she says. “I decided to go in a bolder, more masculine direction.”
With a rich creative past that includes stints as a dancer and fashion designer, Mann’s list of inspirations is highly eclectic. A true artist in all her mediums, the designer describes the creation of Cargo Net, a lattice-cut cloth in the collection, this way: “This past summer I was watching CNN while I was fraying fabric, and I saw General Stanley McChrystal resigning. He was riding on an Army carrier and there was a gorgeous cargo net spread out behind him.”
The genesis of her Matisse fabric, with its familiar amorphous appliqués, happened after more evenings spent hand-distressing fabric in front of the television. “I was watching the BBC series Sherlock Holmes, and the Baker Street apartment had the most wonderful black-and-white flowered curtains in it,” she says. “The geometric pattern reminded me of Matisse’s work.”
Mann’s creative perspective on fabrics was developed during her previous career in clothing design. “I’ve always looked at textiles from a fashion designer’s point of view,” she says. “I see cloth as a building block or a canvas. I experiment by plastering earth on a fabric and leaving it there or hand-painting the upholstery. My work has always been very time- and labor-intensive.”
Although her first passion was fashion, Mann switched to textile and furniture design after coming to a crossroads. “If I were going to take fashion any further, I would have had to move to New York or Los Angeles,” she says. But a partnership—in both marriage and work—with Bay Area interior designer and sculptor Ron Mann meant staying in Northern California. For nearly 20 years, she and her husband, Ron, have collaborated on designs. But on her own, she is competing with established commercial textile houses from her rustic barn. Her secret to staying alive in the business is to do what the largest companies can’t do. While corporations use machines to mill and print large quantities of fabric, Mann (and just one assistant) sew strips of hemp on hemp—a material she was using long before it became the darling of the environmental movement—using five industrial sewing machines and doing much of the work by hand.
“The big companies make beautiful fabrics, there’s no doubt about that,” says Mann. “But I’m doing something that they could never, ever do: touching each and every piece and working it with my own hands.”
House of Mann, 415-994-9798, houseofmann.com
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