Kaffe's Press Room
American Quilter, November 2010
Kaffe Fassett: It's a Colorful Life
by Marjorie L. Russell
The man doesn't own a BlackBerry® and he doesn't work on a computer. As an artist he does everything by hand—knitting, painting, quilting, and more. His London home is a 4½-story Edwardian house with a garden. When he ventures out for a trip (around the city or around the world), he mostly takes public transportation because he doesn't drive and never has.
One might think he is somehow stuck out of time, but this is Kaffe Fassett, one of the world's foremost fiber artists and designers, whose influence is shaping quilting as effectively as it has knitting, needlepoint, and home décor.
An Internet search of his name produces hundreds of hits: his own Web site; quilting books (13 to date), 23 knitting and art books; yarn, thread, and fabric collections; international exhibitions of his work; lectures, workshops, and public appearances; and hundreds of products bearing his name that touch the art world and the everyday world. There's also the buzz on blogs and Web sites—ordinary people discussing their latest Kaffe Fassett inspirations.
Kaffe (the "a " is long, the "e " silent) was born in California, which during his life has been defined by freeways, flower children, technology, and fast-paced living. The second of five children, Kaffe chose his own name when he was a child, adopting that of an Egyptian boy from the book, Boy of the Pyramids, by Ruth Fosdick Jones. Kaffe was ten years old when his parents purchased 12 acres and a log cabin in Big Sur, California, a property once owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. A remote village when the family first moved there, Big Sur became an artists' colony and tourist destination.
Two years after their move to Monterey County, Kaffe's parents, Bill and Lolly Fassett, opened a restaurant there on the edge of an 800-foot bluff overlooking the rugged Pacific coast. Named Nepenthe, and still in the family after 61 years, the restaurant acquired fame courtesy of its stunning views and Mediterranean-inclined menu, but mostly for its freewheeling atmosphere. At Nepenthe, Kaffe moved alongside the humble and the famous—actors, musicians, writers and artists—and among the natural beauty of the Big Sur coast.
Early in his life, Lolly Fassett recognized her son's artistic talents, pouring into him what Kaffe now believes were the artistic inclinations she was not able to pursue. "I always saw myself as an artist, " Kaffe says.
Entertainment at Nepenthe was a collage of artistic expression. Kaffe and his sisters performed folk and ballroom dancing for guests (Kaffe also studied ballet and modern dance). But everyone—guests, family and staff—looked forward to the restaurant's famed costume parties.
"We lived for those, " Kaffe recalls. With costuming skills honed on puppets and dolls, he designed party costumes for himself and others. It was a colorful life, and the costumes were equally as colorful.
After decades as a successful designer, Kaffe's use of color is what people notice first. Although he had a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Kaffe studied there only about six months. Instead, his education and inspiration have come primarily from observation, and the world has been a marvelous teacher.
From Kaffe's perspective, the shapes of architecture beg to be filled with color. He is drawn to the simple geometry of antique designs and uses them extensively in his work. Although he started with painting, Kaffe's art has expanded in many directions. But, there were years of slender means in his early career. In fact, he didn't learn to drive because the artists he knew who had cars also had to hold other jobs to afford them, something Kaffe didn't want for himself.
"I wanted all my energies to go toward my art, " he recalls. When he finally had the money, instead of learning to drive, Kaffe "wined and dined " friends who drove him places. Now, after 45 years as a resident of London, he uses the city's mass transit system.
Before entering the quilting world, Kaffe was a well-known knitting designer, and still is. Liza Prior Lucy worked for Kaffe's knitting book publisher and the two met while working on one of his books. With a quilting background, Liza saw quilt designs in the simple, geometric patterns of Kaffe's knitting patterns and proposed that he get into quilt design. Initially Kaffe resisted.
Liza, who lives in the United States, kept sending Kaffe quilt block designs she had translated from his knitting patterns. He would tweak the designs and return them to her, still without commitment to quilting. Over time, though, she wore him down. The final push over the brink into quilting occurred on a visit to Liza's home when he discovered that she owned one of his early paintings, a painting of which he was particularly fond.
"That was it, " he said. "She got my attention. "
The two have been working together ever since, collaborating on quilts and quilting books. A couple of times a year they get together, working out designs on a design wall. Liza sews the quilts by machine. At home in London, Kaffe does hand quilting and especially enjoys attaching binding to quilts. While he works he listens to BBC Radio 4, enjoying play readings, poetry, interviews and the like. Still a U.S. citizen, he has embraced the history and culture of Great Britain.
In a flashback to his Nepenthe days, in 2000 Kaffe designed sets and costumes for the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) performance of As You Like It. The costumes, which incorporated patchwork and embroidery, received stellar reviews from critics. Available for loan to theater groups, Kaffe's costumes are among the most requested in the RSC's archives.
Although some view Kaffe's quilt designs as elementary, he regards them as a simple, honest use of geometry, infused with color. "The old forms, " he maintains, "are no more out of date than Shakespeare. "
Simple Shapes, Spectacular Quilts (available at www.AmericanQuilter.com ), his latest hardcover book written with Liza Prior Lucy, is a perfect example of what Kaffe means. In it, 23 quilts with very simple shapes are beautifully photographed by Debbie Patterson against backdrops as humble as tunnel walls, buildings, and gardens. From the industrial to the natural, the book encourages readers to see and respond to shapes and colors in their surroundings.
Although known for vivid color, Kaffe tries to avoid being boxed into a certain look. Over time, the colors in his fabric and yarn designs are becoming a bit softer and more muted. "Hopefully they're also becoming more sophisticated, " he says.
Helping to empower people artistically is what Kaffe hopes will be his legacy. "I want people to feel they are just as creative as I am; I've just had more practice. "
Kaffe's commitment to helping others find their creative "window to the soul " has taken him around the world lecturing, teaching, and exhibiting. It has also taken him behind bars—into Wormwood Scrubs, a men's prison in central London to work with inmates. Prisoners who are part of a unique effort called Fine Cell Work create fiber art while they are locked in their cells. Sales proceeds from their work are reserved for each prisoner, giving them the dignity that springs from creativity, skill and hope—attributes that positively influence their lives after prison. Now in 26 prisons across the United Kingdom, Fine Cell Work receives commissions from royalty and celebrity, and is featured in exhibitions and national landmarks. Today Kaffe serves as a patron for Fine Cell Work, a role that helps raise funds for the program.
The influence of the man who withholds embracing technology reveals that there are many facets to Kaffe Fassett. Although now in his 70s, Kaffe says he will never quit creating. "It is my life's blood, " he declares. "It's a wonderful life! "
Reprinted with permission from the author and The American Quilter's Society, Paducah, KY, USA, www.AmericanQuilter.com