Where do patterns come from? While some might be computer-generated using the latest in image scanning and digital printing technologies, many more can be sourced to the Design Library–the world’s largest collection of patterns.
Located about 75 minutes from Manhattan in the Hudson Valley village of Wappingers Falls, the Design Library holds more than 7 million different documentary fabrics, original paintings, wallpapers, embroideries, and yarn dyes inside a huge, 12,000-square foot converted fabric mill. Designers hailing from couture fashion brands, as well as those from national chains and big-box stores, all travel to the library to find historical material to use, adapt, and remix in service of their own creative vision.
“The idea here is to get [the patterns] back out into the world and let the world see them recreated, even duplicated,” says Peter Koepke, the owner of the Design Library.
Koepke worked at the library for 12 years before buying it from its founder, the textile designer Susan Meller, in 2002. Meller and her husband, Herb, founded the library in 1972, when they realized that there was a market among designers for their personal collection of textiles and patchwork quilts. The patterns come from all over the world, but particularly from France and Italy. It was Koepke, whose previous career involved hunting down and trading South American tribal pottery and textile art, who turned the library into the diverse creative resource it is today. He continues to acquire pattern collections that are historically important, but also have the potential to transcend their original context and appeal to designers today.
In a new book from Phaidon called Patterns: Inside the Design Library, Koepke compiles some of his favorites, along with a history of the library and a gallery of its most memorable, bold designs, along with details about how they ultimately end up as, say, yoga pants or pillows or runway gowns.
While the book sorts the featured patterns into accessible (and fun) categories like Neon, Bling, and Modernist, the Design Library itself actually relies on an extensive classification system. The patterns are meticulously cataloged using the same system that biology uses for classifying animals: family, genus, and species. With four main families–floral, geometric, ethnic, and conversational–there are 1,200 categories in total, mostly based on historical periods, art movements, techniques, fabric type or appearance, motifs, and mood.
Despite this system, the collection is still daunting in its utter vastness. The warehouse is filled to the brim with stacks of fabrics, books, and hanging textiles, and features massive 24-foot tables for designers to lay out their findings. This is also where Koepke and his team may give designers direction within the sprawling archives. Some designers who request to access the collection send a brief ahead of time, and when they arrive, the library’s consultants present them with anywhere from 10 to hundreds of patterns to browse. Others wander freely with a cart, pulling designs that speak to them before culling them down. And once they’ve decided on a pattern, they can then either buy it permanently or rent the rights to it for a few years.
“The scale and variety of the Design Library’s archive means that they form the bedrock of our print inspiration every season,” writes Johnnie Boden, the founder of the fashion brand Boden, in Patterns. “Our biannual trip to upstate New York is a design rite of passage. The early morning state, the lovely train ride, the warm welcome, the fact that they allow us to play our own music whilst we browse–but above all the hugely inspiring range of print. We’d be lost without them.”
Koepke says he works with several hundred companies, including the likes of Beacon Hill, Calvin Klein, Clinique, Lululemon, Nike, Pottery Barn, and Target, ultimately giving 10,000 designers access to the collection every year in its New York headquarters, its London office, or online. “A great pattern always has some bow to the past but also some innovation. Some people use it exactly the way it was, they recolor or rescale or change it a little, but a lot of designers change them,” he says. “It’s a little like what makes a great poem or a great song. I think of textile design as diverse and as deep and wide as music or literature over time.”
While fashions come and go, Koepke believes patterns will remain an essential part of our lives because they’re an important way we express our identities. “The appetite for pattern is continuous,” he says. “It evolves, it grows, it might shrink some years when people think they have to go plain, but it almost seems those days are over because the identity of a brand or individual seems to boil down to pattern.”
Here are four very different designs that represent the library’s breadth.
This pattern has a modern feel, but it actually was designed in the late 18th to early 19th century by Studio Oberkampf & Cie in France, which is often cited as one of Europe’s earliest commercial textile works. In 1770, the studio began using an engraved copper roller printing technique called the “rolling block press,” which revolutionized textile manufacturing because it preserved the details and handmade feel of the earlier wooden block press technique.
This image is of a paper impression, which functioned as the equivalent of an artist’s proof. The studio would paint a pattern, which would then go to an engraver, whose engraving would be tested on paper before being printed on fabric. During the manufacturing process, the original painting would often be destroyed, but the paper impression would be preserved for the studio’s records.
With its peaks and valleys, this pattern reads as a zigzag. “It’s just high energy,” Koepke says. “It peaks without being prickly.” He regards the graphic Oberkampf designs as just as chic and fresh today as when they were conceived.
This stunning example of a pattern hand-painted on paper dates to the early 20th century. It was created by the French studio Bianchini-Ferier, of which the Design Library owns nearly 50,000 patterns. The studio worked for fashion designers including Dior and Chanel, and was so renowned that its work was cobranded along with these fashion houses–the pages of Vogue would list Bianchini-Ferier along with their fashion designing counterpart.
The Bianchini-Ferier collection, Koepke says, will never be sold because it is irreplaceable (though the Design Library will still rent them out for periods of two to three years). He believes they have the studio’s entire work for many decades, including 11,000 paper impressions from the late ‘50s to the late ‘80s.
This pattern is categorized as “Jazzy” in the Patterns book, despite the fact that the word isn’t technically a category in the library. (Koepke decided to pull from across categories for the book, displaying groups that evoked similar themes.) But the design does appear musical in nature. Painted on paper with gouache, it was created in the Parisian studio Helbling in the ’30s. The individual artist who originally painted it remains anonymous–like the vast majority of the patterns in the Design Library’s collection.
“It’s got all the ingredients of a good design,” says Koepke. “It has tremendous flow and movement. It’s somewhere between waves and music. I see music. It combines floral and geometric. It’s extremely modern.”
This colorful pattern from the “Chaos” section of Patterns comes from the studio of the Italian designer Giorgio Taroni and dates to the late 20th century. Taroni’s Como, Italy-based studio was active from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, at its height employing 30 painters and selling to the likes of Valentino and Oscar de la Renta. Still, Koepke says that the designer kept a fairly low profile, working mostly for Italian and American textile mills. Koepke bought all of Taroni’s 16,000 paintings and the two became friends–Koepke even stays with Taroni when he visits Lake Como.
This pattern in particular looks like it might have been inspired by famous artists of the 20th century–or perhaps it inspired them. “It looks like the beginning of a fractal. It looks like a combination of diamonds and crystals and color,” Koepke says. “It’s like controlled energy.”
[All Photos: courtesy Documentary Designs, Inc. d.b.a the Design Library]