Style Court

Nine Years of Textiles, Art History, Gardens, and a Little Mental Traveling with Courtney Barnes


Home Grown: A SCAD Grad's Journey to Wallpaper Design

[Unless credited otherwise, camellia photos are my own.]

When surface designer Karla Pruitt first visited the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), she was mainly thinking about the innovative programs offered, the professors, and what type of career she might launch after graduation -- not necessarily moonlit Georgia gardens and all of that. But as it turned out, the school's alluring surrounds, along with the cutting-edge curriculum, later influenced one of her most important projects to date.

[Dawson Architects renovated SCAD's Pepe Hall for the school's Fibers Department.]

Describing her initial visit, Karla, a 2007 graduate who majored in fibers, shared with me via email: "I was impressed by how [SCAD] really focuses on preparing you for a career, if that is what you are interested in pursuing, and the fibers program takes job preparation to yet another level."

[Karla courtesy Karla.]

SCAD actually employs the largest full-time fibers faculty in the U.S. Additionally, according to the school, it now offers the nation's best-equipped fibers facility -- the recently renovated 20,759-square-foot Pepe Hall -- with specific areas for dyeing, weaving, screen-printing, repeat pattern design and more, as well as state-of-the-art looms and a Mimaki textile printer. Still, I wondered what ultimately drew Karla toward fibers.

[A fellow student at work, via SCAD.]

She elaborated: "I arrived in Savannah thinking I would major in illustration, but my first quarter there I went to a fair where all the majors have booths set up, and the professors speak to undeclared students. An illustration professor told me that most of their graduates were freelancers. That scared me. I was wandering around the fair, troubled, when I saw the beautiful fibers booth. There were quilts, weavings, and dyed fabrics, but also illustrations -- in repeat. The [textiles and fibers faculty] told me that they were a small department, but that an extremely high number of students received multiple job offers before graduation... from many of my favorite brands, no less. In the end, that is what happened to me, too, and that was an amazing way to finish college!"

[Silk at La Manach via Selvedge, issue 29.]

Sharing a bit more of her personal perspective, Karla added: "The fibers department is special because the classes are diverse and perfectly applicable to what a designer needs to know before they work for a design firm. (You will be better at designing a screen print for manufacturing when you have actually screen printed before.) It has been amazing to see what the talented, thoughtful and hard-working people I graduated with (around forty students from the fibers department) are accomplishing."

[Karla's vintage thread tassel used as bookmark in a hand-bound book by fellow former SCAD student, Monica Holtsclaw.]

[Images above and below via SCAD Museum of Art. Note the preserved 19th-century gray brick. Pictured below is the Pamela Elaine Poetter Gallery, which follows the original rail platform that was once part of the Central of Georgia Railway complex, a National Historic Landmark. ]

Since Savannah has long been home to creative types, I wondered what Karla found most inspiring about the place. Her reply:

"Savannah is gorgeous! I did not have a car my freshman year, and I was forced to walk all over downtown for pretty much everything. It gave me space to think and enjoy the scenery. The students and professors were the most inspiring part of Savannah for me, though. I was challenged to become a better designer everyday, to take constructive criticism with grace (so important!), and be inspired by what all my classmates were creating."

Although she is currently based in art-centic Athens (the Georgia town), Karla began her design career in Atlanta. In a small way, she sensed she was witnessing history.

"I worked for a large home-textile design firm outside of Atlanta immediately after graduating, and I am really glad I was able to experience American manufacturing of textiles right before a lot of firms sadly downsized or went out of business due to international competition. I worked there for two years, and I was amazed at how many companies use design firms as a middleman of sorts. I was almost always designing product that was ultimately marketed under another label’s name, so I was able to design for lots of different brands. I loved that part of my first job. The more variety, the more fun designing product is, for me at least."

[Karla's own collection. Images courtesy Hygge & West.]

With this experience under her belt, the thought of working independently began to seem less terrifying.  So, she took the plunge and went out on her own. Karla's first licensed product line as a freelance surface designer is a wallpaper collection with Hygge & West. Garden, her favorite pattern, features camellias that were gathered from her own neighborhood and hand-drawn. She wanted to suggest unpretentious glamour with her drawn flowers and buds overflowing just as they do when they pour out onto Athens' streets. And when she saw the final metallic printing in person, she was especially thrilled. Check out all the colorways, from noir to gold, here.

I asked about her process and she said: "All of my designs start with a drawn or painted sketch on paper or with my Wacom pen on my computer."

[Art supplies via Sam Flax.]

"For licensing," she added, "I usually just complete a croquis (a faux repeated design, not in perfect repeat) because it is faster, and if a company uses the pattern they will use their own specifications and dimensions anyway. For freelance patterns, I will put the pattern into perfect repeat from the very beginning of the sketch, usually. A client at a design firm once asked me, 'Isn't there a computer program that will put something in repeat for you?' Well. there are programs that will repeat objects as you direct it to, and I do that in Photoshop and Illustrator, but to make a seamless, beautifully designed pattern, you need to actually design it."

[Vintage huipile with newly hand-woven ribbed cloth from Guatemala via Susan Hull Walker]

Karla gravitates toward the feminine and the extremely patterned, including the wallpapers at Versailles and delicate Liberty prints from England. But she also has a thing for South American textiles, specifically bold and bright Guatemalan embroideries. And she'll likely always have a soft spot for anything tropical or Lilly Pulitzer-esque, having grown up in Miami and Merritt Island, Florida.

Her go-to reference book is Textile Designs: Two Hundred Years of European and American Patterns Organized by Motif, Style, Color, Layout, and Period by Susan Meller and Joost Elffers. She reaches for it because, "Being a surface designer requires knowledge of past textile design, even if you are creating something very modern. Sometimes, I’ll need to look at some very traditional paisleys to remind myself what makes a paisley a paisley, and then while being very aware of not copying anything, draw my own designs. This book also has really interesting historical and cultural notes along with several images of each style of pattern."

[Angelo Filomeno, Dream of Flies (yellow, black), embroidery on silk shantung stretched over linen, 90" x 90", 2010. Private collection. Now on view through February 3, 2013 in Stretching the Limits: Fibers in Contemporary Painting at SCAD Museum of Art.]

 To recharge her batteries, Karla continues to look to her immediate surroundings.

"I am very inspired by what is going on around me -- a novel I'm reading, the clothes my friends are wearing, or a night out to see a new show at an art gallery. Equally important, though more mundane, is to switch tasks during the week. I’ll paint and draw for three days, and then update my blog or take care of office type things for two days. I find that if I try to create constantly, things start to get stale. I thought I would take a lot more time off since becoming an independent artist, but I’ve been busy, which is a good thing; I’m beyond grateful!"

Editor's note: I'm not personally affiliated with SCAD and receive no perks for linking back to the college. I like to help spread the word about happenings and programs at a variety of schools. Often the mail I receive is from art and design students so I was happy to have an opportunity to do a longer Q & A with another terrific SCAD alum. Many thanks to Karla for sharing!

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