Kaffe Fassett : A Life Lived in Color

photo: Debbie Patterson

Kaffe Fassett (Kaffe Fassett's Bold Blooms; Dreaming in Color) is an American-born artist, textile designer and writer who has made London his home for several decades. His book Kaffe Fassett in the Studio: Behind the Scenes with a Master Colorist (Abrams, reviewed below) is a lavish tribute to his home studio and creative process. He recently chatted with Shelf Awareness, offering insights into his daily routines, advice on achieving goals and inspiration for those wishing to live an exuberant life, rich in vibrance and color.

Your house is absolutely exquisite--so alive with colors and patterns. What prompted you to write this book now and to invite readers into your home and studio space?

I get addicted to writing books. For example, when I learned how to make mosaics, I immediately said, oh my God, I must do a book on this! I looked around my home one day and thought that, since people always want to come and see where I live, this would be a nice way to show them around without taking the time to entertain them all with a tea. I also thought it was a good subject that would allow me to talk about the way that I create.

You are a multi-faceted artist. You paint, work in textiles, create mosaics, collaborate with fashion houses and teach workshops. What does a typical workday--if you even have one--look like for you?

That's the real question: Do I have a typical workday? I would say that a sort of typical day would be waking up and heading to my studio, where I would pour myself a cup of hot water to start the day. And then I just sit down and start creating. Breakfast comes about an hour later and then I go straight back to working right through the day. Pre-Covid, I would usually take a walk and pick up a newspaper with a nice crossword puzzle and head over to my coffee shop to have a chai, do my puzzle and watch the world go by. Then I watch mindless television for the rest of the evening.

You mention that you love working on crosswords and puzzles. Do you get the same feeling piecing together the different patterns on your quilts and textiles?

It's funny you ask that because I've been making these patchworks of knitting lately. For example, the cover image of the book is a patchwork that is about to come together. Someone came in and looked at all the pieces I had stuck up on the wall and said, "Oh, here's another puzzle you're working on." So, yes, it is very much like a puzzle. I also love working on jigsaw puzzles because they can teach you about the artist's process--you can see all the brush strokes and how the painting was formed.

You try to instill the discipline of focus in your workshop students. As an artist who also runs a very prolific business, how do you find ways to focus on one task when there are probably hundreds of things competing for your attention?

Well, the first thing you should do is cultivate a really good team. My partner, Brandon, is just brilliant and shields me from the madness of the world's attention. So I'm able to go in, sit down and really concentrate on painting, designing fabric or whatever the task is at hand.

I always find that halfway through a creative process, since it is so unplanned, it can go into a very stale kind of area easily. And when that happens, I just switch. For example, if I'm working on a quilt but can't quite see how that quilt is meant to be solved, I'll just go and knit for a while. I do the same with everything I am working on, even a crossword puzzle. If you can't solve it, you put it away and the next day, you take it out and have a breakthrough.

I don't mind switching and changing, doing different things. However, my mother did drill into me that you must finish one thing at a time, so I think that it is very important to stick to things that are difficult and look like they're going on the rocks. Go ahead and finish it. Even if it is a disaster at the end, you have the satisfaction of actually following it through. And, very often, it goes from disaster to something absolutely brilliant, or at least very passable.

What advice would you give to people who are inspired by your book but are a little nervous about using prints and bold color.

That is a very, very discreet way of putting it. They are "a little nervous"--they are terrified! I would tell them that I know that color does frighten people, but it is probably more fabulous and interesting than they think, so don't be afraid!

A lot of my inspiration comes from the circus or the really cheap end of town, where everything is kind of gaudy and shrieking. I love all that and love to get that into my work. However, I also like to refine it so that it does not appear to be discordant. At the end of the day, I want my color combinations to uplift people, inspire them, and be harmonious. That is important.

Your bookshelves are enchanting! You state that, over the past few years, you have been drawn to visual books, in which the author conjures up colors and physicality of space. What are some examples of visual books that you have particularly enjoyed?

Well, I would say, right off the bat, the one that comes to mind is Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire series. How I love those! Oh my God, those velvet outfits! I started reading it in Venice, in St. Mark's cathedral, and felt that I was in the midst of it all. I just love reading somebody's story and how the author describes what they wore when they went to their first date or walked into a room to make a statement.

You've shared so much of your daily life within this book. How do you hope this will inspire your readers?

Well, first of all, I hope that people realize that they really could live in a chaotic mess! My house might be colorful, but it is chaotic and no one should be afraid of that. There was a wonderful English writer by the name of Quentin Crisp. He lived in a flat all by himself and would say [paraphrased], "I've never done housework. After four years, the dust doesn't get any worse." I loved that and thought, oh, there's hope for me!

In my talks, I often say that I know that I am not the best artist in the world. I am not the most refined; I haven't got the education; I didn't stick it out in school. However, I know that I'm better than a lot of people and I'm more courageous, with the tenacity to follow through even when something is going badly. I think that those qualities give you a depth of life. And that's what I hope will inspire the readers of this book.

Is there a particular craft that you haven't yet explored but want to try?

I've done mosaics, and I've done pretty big ones, but I would love to do tile panels--really big tile panels! I've done some smaller pieces, but it would be fun to do a really colorful, tiled, great, huge building in the middle of the city. That would be amazing. I hope there's an architect out there reading this! --Grace Rajendran, freelance reviewer and literary events producer

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