Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Elegance of Textile Design: Laura Foster Nicholson

Perhaps this coming week I will sign my first contract for licensing... I'm thrilled at the prospect of this next great progression into this amazing market labyrinth and feel very excited that this possibility will actually happen and that some of my efforts will finally pay off! Crossing my fingers...

But dreams aside, let's talk textile licensing with our wonderful guest and artist Laura Foster Nicholson. After receiving a BFA and an MFA, she set off to develop her career as a fine artist making hand woven tapestries. She built a strong career, exhibited internationally, won prizes and grants, and got published. When she finally felt she could branch out ("it takes real focus to do that!" Laura says), she decided she really wanted to design woven textiles and explore the jacquard loom.

That interest has led Laura through interior design textiles to designing her own line of jacquard ribbons, and then to branch out into woven, embroidered and printed textiles for home furnishings companies. "It is all fun" - she says. "The fine art keeps me grounded and is the deep wellspring of rich ideas and the design work grows out of that and lightens it up to share with a wider audience."

LFN Textiles for Renaissance Ribbons, summer 2011
(courtesy RR)
TMFMA: What brought you to art in the first place? I’ve been involved in fine art & sewing since I was a child, I always knew I would be a fine artist. I majored in "fiber" in art school – the arty version of textiles – and never looked back. I am first and foremost a weaver of one-off, narrative tapestries. I enjoy designing textiles for industry as it is another way to make textiles and a different set of ideas to work with.

TMFMA: What's exciting about your creative work? I balance my career between fine gallery art and textile design, which includes designing a line of ribbons for Renaissance Ribbons, and I design household textiles under license with Crate & Barrel and Land of Nod. I love working with those companies and like figuring out how my distinct style can work with theirs.

I really enjoy working with museums to produce either textile designs or small runs of handmade items for them and am designing right now for the shop at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. This particular relationship came about because I had done an extensive series of tapestries about the vegetable garden there years ago, and I went to them and suggested we work together on products. Work like this gives me the opportunity to look into stories I am interested in and make or design something in response. The clients I work with tend to be curious, collaborative, and respectful of my position as a fine artist as well as a designer and craftsperson.

LFN Textiles for Monticello: table linens and china plates, 2011-2012
(courtesy Monticello)
TMFMA: What's your favorite medium or tool/s you create with? I love to weave and to sew. The knowledge of these skills helps in designing textile items, and I adore materials, so I can bring a tactile appreciation to designed product.

TMFMA: Who or what has inspired you in your art? William Morris has always been an influence as a designer who saw the total designed environment. I also took my MFA at Cranbrook, another “total environment” designed by Eliel Saarinen and furnished with textiles designed and made by his wife, Loja Saarinen.

TMFMA: How long have you been doing art licensing? I began pursuing licensing in the mid-90's with high end interior textiles companies and landed a contract with Jack Lenor Larsen. I had published some work wherein I had upholstered chairs with hand woven tapestry fabric, and Jack called me and invited me to collaborate with him. It was thrilling working with a master like him and seeing the direction he took my designs, which were all based on my handwoven tapestries. The downside was that I was frustrated when many of our developments were killed (Larsen was purchased by Cowtan & Tout while I was working with them) and all of this beautiful sampling came to naught – we did get one beautiful drapery fabric out. After that I tried for some time to design fabrics and get them produced myself – had I known the investment required I doubt I would have even tried! – and that segued into the ribbon business.

LFN Textiles for Crate & Barrel: Zak wool rug, 2012
(courtesy C&B)
I started LFN Textiles Artist's Ribbons around 2002 and designed, arranged manufactured, marketed, packaged and shipped etc etc. I was relieved when Renaissance Ribbons offered to buy my inventory and take over the business, leaving me free to design under license and work with them – they are wonderful collaborators. About that time I was approached by a buyer at Crate & Barrel who had found my ribbons and thought my style was a good fit, and that really gave me a boost in terms of two solid licensing partners. I love having designs out there with my mark on them, it makes my work and vision available to people who love my artwork but can't afford it. And it also allows for whimsy and lightheartedness and uses styles that would simply not work in my weavings. But it is important for me to balance both worlds – the intimate and personal world of my art with the polished and outward looking realm of design.

LFN Textile - Garden Floral Rugs
TMFMA: What brought you to exhibit for the first time and how many shows have you exhibited in - if any? I haven't exhibited at any licensing shows. I still do it all myself, though I am considering finding an agent who would take my work to shows.

TMFMA: Do you work with an agent or do you represent yourself? I represent myself. I think if I want to expand much further I might need to get an agent. I tried to work with one but I found it really restrictive as he told me exactly what he wanted, what colors, what was marketable. I am too old to follow orders like that!

TMFMA: How does one go about getting licensing deals? What's the "protocol" if any? I try to target potential clients with whom I have something in common. I have a great interest in gardens and in historic textiles, so botanical gardens and museums are natural niches for me. The market is quite a bit smaller, but you can build loyal relationships with clients in this way and it is immensely satisfying.

LFN Textiles for Renaissance Ribbons,
Spring 2012 satin jacquard ribbons
(photo Courtesy Renaissance Ribbons)
TMFMA: What do you suggest new artists do to present themselves to the world of licensing for the first time? Be sure of your style, understand the application (it DOES matter whether it is going on a mug or on a textile), and be willing to be flexible enough to work with people easily but not so much that you lose your identity – unless you have no personal investment in yourself as an artist and only want the money.

TMFMA: Please give us your analysis of the market based on your own experience and contacts. Well, since I began in earnest in 2006 with two companies, one market – household textiles – has contracted and gotten more restricted in the chances they are willing to take, while my designed line of ribbons has expanded rapidly and sales are up.

TMFMA: In your view, what was of major interest to manufacturers this year? In my area, hand-drawing seems to be the request I hear over & over.

Hand woven brocaded tapestry by Laura Foster Nicholson,
Purple Loosestrife, 2007
TMFMA: What do you think the main trends are for 2012-2013? My clients are asking for more hand-drawn work, maybe pen & ink or watercolor washes. It is certainly a reaction to all of the vector-drawn, computerized design out there. In terms of color, I always look ahead to seek out colors I have not seen around for a long time and anticipate color trending in that way. Purple, for example, which came back full strength last year, now yellows, particularly those leaning towards chartreuse.

TMFMA: What advice would you give other artists that are considering the art licensing field? Take it with a lot of salt.  You must know your strengths and not try to be everything for every client, yet your work needs to respond to some trending.

LFN Textiles for Land of Nod:  Bedding set, 2011-2012
Find the trends you have sympathy with, which suit your personal strengths, and go for them. I don't go after fashion, for example, as I have always vastly preferred home decor fabrics.  You can develop a range of styles and techniques within your found niche. Dare to be different enough to attract attention, but don't ever simply imitate styles which seem the most popular.


Heidi Rand said...

Another fantastic interview, Alex. What helpful, generous advice. Thanks!

cathi mingus illustration said...

Good Luck with your licensing contract! That's exciting.

Unknown said...

Thanks Cathi! It's so very exciting indeed!!