Style Court

Textiles, Art History, Gardens, and a Little Mental Traveling with Courtney Barnes 2006-2016


Zak Profera Talks Mountbatten-Pink and Much More

[Unless credited otherwise, all images courtesy Zak + Fox. Temple Court photos are by Zach HankinsShown above, Palma in Mountbatten.]

I figured any man who designs textiles, knows the origin of Mountbatten Pink, and is currently reading Undiscovered Minimalism was bound to be an interesting guy.

[Katagami in Mountbatten.]

And I wasn't wrong.

[Plus in Mountbatten/Alabaster/Oyster.]

Let's start with Mountbatten Pink. Yes, the distinct color is named for the very famous Louis Mountbatten (the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma and the Last Viceroy of India). But this is not a Jaipur pink. In fact, it has no connection to India at all. Instead, the pink is associated with Mountbatten's military service as an admiral and Supreme Allied Commander during WWII.

[Wikimedia Commons image of Admiral Mountbatten.]

As textile designer Zak Profera of Zak + Fox explained to me in an email:

"Mountbatten, the true color, is actually a camouflage color initially created for British Royal Navy ships during the war. [For my own fabric collection], I wanted to offer a masculine pink. Or, rather, something that men wouldn’t necessarily shy away from if it were to be used in a room. I think pink is a gorgeous color, but not something that’s easy to live with for all. With a hint of grayish-blue and brown mixed in, however, it can read more as cream or mauve when paired with the right combination. I loved the idea of battleships and fighter jets donning a soft pink hue. It’s as ironic as it is serious, and I liked the juxtaposition."

[Postage in Plum.]

This unfussy softness is what draws me to the Zak + Fox collection. There's such a balance between masculine and feminine qualities. So, I had more questitons.

SC: Not to sound like we're in Gender Studies 101, but when you began, were you conscious of gender at all?

Zak: I definitely set out to create something that was intentionally "genderless.” Certain prints sway more masculine (like Postage) while others (like Palma) are quite feminine, but it’s the mix of everything that keeps a room interesting.

[Takigawa in Plum]

Something can still be simple and have a bit of warmth and personality. A design like Plus, for example, is unquestionably simple -- your eyes can relax over it -- yet the nuances in its color and lines give it enough interest that you want to explore its details.

[Jingasa in Rust.]

[The Umber option.]

Still Zak: My personal aesthetic leans heavily on super desaturated colors (but still, color) and lots of earthy hues. Brown can get a bad rap, but it’s probably my favorite color to live with. It’s an effortless neutral, leaning warm whether it's extremely rich or not. I love chalky colors that harmonize with materials like wood and stone, rather than screaming to fight for attention. I haven’t incorporated “pure” colors, like a true red or a true blue – even the plum color that I use has a lot of brown mixed in, keeping it from feeling fussy or decadent.

SC: Clearly you've spent time contemplating color, line, and texture. And your own prints often connect in some way with old patterns or motifs found in art history. When you were an art student, did you have any idea you would get into textiles? 

Zak: Not at all! I studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, which is praised for its highly conceptual way of thinking and teaching. I had entered the program for photography, originally; my idols at the time were Nan Goldin, Mark Morrisroe and Phillip-Lorca diCorcia. I then had a crazy love affair with Yoko Ono’s work and dropped the camera entirely to focus on more conceptual pieces, like room-sized installations just using scent and other sensory and experiential work. I loved the romance of it.

A few years ago, my friend Sara Sugarman at Decorative Carpets asked if I wanted to collaborate on a new line she was developing. It was a casual conversation but it blossomed into something truly inspiring, allowing me to consider this whole “world” of textiles. 

SC: Well, then how does your art background inform your process now? 

Zak: It can be a blessing and a hindrance. In school, a big part of the education resided in the critique process. We’d sit in plain white rooms for hours, discussing intention and meaning – aesthetics were almost secondary at points. Because of that, I’m always questioning “why,” which is great, because I inherently consider the story behind a work. I like things with depth and like creating things with depth. It gives something that’s static and lifeless a touch of soul; it lets people relate to an object on another level rather than something that’s simply material. 

[Volubilis in Alabaster.]

[Matsu on a Harbinger chair.]

At the same time, I can agonize over something that’s simply “pretty” because there isn’t some deeply rooted fable behind it. A lot of fabric designs are just that: beautiful and uncomplicated. Their primary role is to complement more boisterous prints. And I love simplicity. For me, it’s about finding a balance. In other words, I believe in beauty for beauty's sake, but when there’s a decision to be made about releasing something I’ve created out into the world, and frankly, into the marketplace, I still struggle with letting it just be “pretty.” I like the personal connection – the story.

[Palma in Rust.]

[Matsu in Rust.]

SC: When you're working on a certain print, do you have a sense of how designers are going to respond? Or are you often surprised?

Zak: I am a bit surprised sometimes, and I’m certainly conscious of how a print would be used, or how I’d use it personally. A pattern like Postage, which is wonderfully simple, yet perfectly nuanced, is a favorite for all. That was an obvious ‘hit’ when I was making it. (It’s also the most digestible since it doesn’t sway too traditional, or too modern; it’s perfectly versatile).

[The Snow option.]

Matsu, inspired by a traditional Japanese motif,  is perhaps the most popular – something I didn’t expect at all. I thought it was a bit crazy when I was designing it; the repeat is straightforward but the effect is adventurous and energetic. My New York showroom, Studio Four, upholstered a bench with it, which really shows off the patterning and effect, and I think that helped kick things off on the right foot. Harbinger in LA gave a great midcentury chair a makeover by using it railroad-style for a totally different look that I think is killer. The pattern takes on an entirely different vibe.

SC: Your fabrics (100% Belgian linen printed with water-based inks) are all manufactured in the USA, but again, aesthetically they have common threads with ancient designs and old textiles found the world over. For example, Karun, your dynamic print, is inspired by an 18th-century Indian Trade piece owned by collector Karun Thakar. I love that it's named for him. How did you become acquainted and ultimately produce the contemporary fabric?

Zak: I wish I had a better story, something of a chance meeting, but it was as simple as blind outreach. I’ve long admired his collection and was fumbling through different sources for inspiration, though I kept returning back to the Matahari trade cloth that Karun is based on. I’m drawn to minimalism in many ways, yet my own style is quite eclectic and not cold or sterile. There’s something about a “feature” piece that I love, and this design certainly falls into that realm. 

[Click to enlarge Thakar's original.]

The original design is extraordinarily simple and extremely dramatic, and I loved that something so pure could feel so wild. The goal wasn’t to create a true reproduction, but rather, something that felt a touch more modern, yet equally as adventurous. Its scale is tremendous (the motif itself is 22 inches in diameter) and it takes some innovative thinking to consider the possible uses for it. My version has a much cleaner backdrop but the sun’s silhouette retains all the wonderful nuances and imperfect strokes that often come in hand-painted work. 

And as far as the name of the pattern goes, I just didn’t want to deny the source. Many designers pull from history and present the past in a fresh way, and that was the goal here. It’s not the reinvention of something, but rather, a way to offer a new perspective to a new audience. Thakar was generous enough to offer some words about the original piece, and because of that, I think it gives a breath of life and substance to my interpretation, which is intentionally distilled down to its shapes and colors.

SC: Speaking of your trail of inspiration, I know you're very much an out-in-the-field, experiential kind of learner but when you are sitting still, you might be reading a textile book. Tell us about Undiscovered Minimalism. 

Zak: It's one of my very favorite (new) books by Parviz Tanavoli, which surveys gelims (flatweaves) from northern Iran. They are a bit “unplaceable” in my eyes; I love when it’s hard to identify a work’s origin. In a way it makes the world feel charmingly small, as though all cultures inevitably find influence in each other in some way, even when continents-apart.  

SC: What about films?

Zak: I have to admit that I don’t watch a lot of movies; I have a hard time sitting still for two or three hours and committing. But here are the films that top my list for inspiration: 

[Screengrab from Magnolia Pictures I Am Love starring Tilda Swinton.]

I Am Love (Who doesn’t love this movie? And I am obsessed with Jil Sander, who designed all of the costumes.) 

The Fall 

[Photo via the Victoria and Albert museum.]

SC: Museums around the world? 

Zak: I absolutely love The Noguchi Museum here in New York -- it is one of my very favorite places to visit anywhere. And I always visit the V&A when I’m in London.

SC: Your photo shoot with Zach Hankins at Temple Court has a certain cinematic grandeur and looks as if it took place in an Old World museum. At first glance, when I saw the fabric hanging and those heavily aged walls, I thought Europe or even, for a second, India. But you were right in your own backyard. Any comments on what drew you to the location? 

Zak: I had the opportunity to go on a private tour of the building, which is only three blocks away from where I live. I had walked by hundreds of times and had no idea what was behind its walls. When I entered the first time, I was with a small group, and we were escorted up to the top floor in a rickety elevator --- I think everyone was holding their breath a bit. The doors open up and you step out onto this insane and glorious wrap-around with the glass ceiling above you and the city skyline. You can’t help but be inspired. 

[Zach at work.]

Zak continues: I’m deeply connected to my neighborhood, which is constantly in flux as Lower Manhattan is changing so much, but beyond that, there was no doubt in my mind that this was the right place to do the shoot. It’s undeniably exquisite, and it doesn’t feel at all like New York -- probably why I love it so much. 

The hard part is deciding where to do the next shoot for my new collection. I think it may have to be a destination – I need to figure out how to top Temple Court! 

If you're interested in Zak + Fox pillows, rather than yardage, you can contact Zak's office about a custom order. He says he enjoys working directly with designers and design lovers alike, and notes that custom color is very easy for his team to execute, adding that custom projects can keep a very popular pattern feeling fresh and new. 

Currently, he is working on two new collections. One is based on tribal Turkish textiles (rugs and fabrics) and the other is a focused take on antique Katagami. The latter he collects and is apparently obsessed with. He tries to find the most outrageous examples and, as always, reinterpret them to transcend their origins.  


Krista said...

What a fabulous interview with Zak! He is endlessly fascinating and such a genuine person, not to mention insanely creative. I really enjoyed reading your interview with him. Thanks for sharing!

Style Court said...

Thanks Krista! I'm so glad. Totally agree about Zak.