Click here for photos from First Friday, March 4 and the unveiling of our new Esprit Quilt Exhibit in our textile Gallery.
THE GRID: Amish Quilts, Esprit Clothing, and Postmodern Design
Franklin & Marshall College Guest Curators Professor Amelia Rauser, Sabrina Brown ’13, Ferry Foster ’11, Jayati Khanna ’13, Brittany Pipa ’11, Chelsea Troppauer ’11, and Stephanie Tzarnas ’13.
Starting with the path-breaking show of quilts at the Whitney Museum in 1971, Amish quilts have been stars of the Quilt Revival. Amish quilts are revered by artists and collectors for their austere design and bold color, and many scholars and curators have pointed out their similarity to modernist abstract painting. But what hasn’t been thoroughly explored is the inspiration Amish quilts provided to emerging postmodernist design in the 1980s. We propose to do that in this exhibition.
Underlying both modernist design and postmodernist exploration is the simple, but profound, grid. Mid-20th century graphic design was revolutionized by the use of the grid to divide the page and simplify typography; modernist architecture and urban planning also used the grid to express aesthetic principles of universalism and simplicity. But it would be hard to imagine more a beautiful and pristine design within the restriction of the grid than an Amish quilt. Limited in palette, restrained in design, and using only matte, solid-color fabrics, Amish quilts exemplify the modernist sensibility of “less is more.”
The quilts’ design—as well as the values of authenticity, integrity, and community associated with their makers—continued to inspire artists and designers in the emergent wave of postmodernism associated with the 1980s. Doug Tompkins, co-founder of ESPRIT clothing company, saw the Whitney show in 1971 and was deeply impressed by the aesthetic power of the quilts as well as the organic and authentic nature of the community that produced them. He began collecting, and by the late 1970s, when ESPRIT built a new corporate headquarters in San Francisco, his Amish quilts were prominently displayed throughout the building. There they served as active inspiration for the design of clothing, packaging, catalogues and retail spaces.
ESPRIT was known for its advanced design sensibility, and employed many of the artists, architects and designers associated with 1980s postmodernism. Here, too, we can see the influence of the traditional Amish quilt. This is because 80s postmodernism was chiefly about two things: re-engaging with tradition, and “exploding” the modernist grid. As we will demonstrate in the exhibition, postmodern design retained the modernist grid as a foundation even as it played with violating it through tilted angles, dynamic diagonals, absurd scale, or whimsical colors. “More” was the new “less,” form was allowed to be about more than just function, and humor, joy, and whimsy were introduced to re-connect humanist values and tradition with well-designed objects and spaces. Ettore Sottsass, founder of the Memphis furniture collective and renowned designer and architect, was employed by ESPRIT to design retail and dining spaces, and the influences of Memphis style is pervasive in ESPRIT graphic, fashion, and architectural design. Geometric shapes, saturated colors, large scale and a sense of vibrancy, dynamism, and graphic power are all features of Amish quilts, Memphis design, and ESPRIT itself. We expect to make these connections in our exhibition.