Patterns: Inside the Design Library by Peter Koepke Phaidon, 2016

Some pattern fans, present company very much included, have a teensy problem: hoarding collecting every single gorgeous sampler book they can find. But acquiring Patterns: Inside the Design Library by Peter Koepke (Phaidon, 2016) may embolden you to junk its many, less-brilliant coevals. Exploring the Design Library’s 7 million pattern examples in a finite book takes an inventive premise with a whiff of exciting infinitude. It’s a problem I recently tackled in my own book, Patternalia, a challenge made arguably trickier by the need to gloss the world’s largest pattern archive. I spoke with the Design Library owner and director Peter Koepke about how the book came together.  

 I loved your book’s three-part structure: a brief introduction, followed by an A-to-Z exploration of pattern types, then a series of applied examples. Of all the millions of ways you could’ve told the story of the Design Library, how did you hit upon this structure as the right one?

Section 1 is rather like walking into the main archive of the Design Library in the Hudson Valley in New York. Not many non-professionals get to visit, so I think the photography of Mark Mahaney artfully gives the feeling of the space as it takes one through the rooms and collections.

Section 2, the A-to-Z of pattern designs, was born of a meeting with Emilia Terragni, our publisher/commissioning editor at Phaidon. Neither of us wanted a typical surface design book in organization or feel—with classifications like Floral, Geometric, Ethnic, etc. The A-to-Z incorporates some fairly conventional design terms like Abstract and Watercolor, but also includes terms that are less expected, like Chaos and Underwater. The idea of an A-to-Z conveys the nearly unlimited sense of scope of surface design and the Design Library archive. Emilia and I both loved it immediately.

Section 3, [the applied examples], makes it real for the reader. It’s amazing how many times I’ve tried to explain to acquaintances at, say a dinner party, the level of thought, skill, and effort that goes into the pattern they’re wearing or sitting upon, and the importance of that pattern in their choice of what to buy.

The Design Library. Photograph: Mark Mahaney
The Design Library. Photograph: Mark Mahaney

Which patterns do you think are under-appreciated, ones you’d love to see get more play with modern designers?

In my 25 years at the Design Library I’ve seen many pattern types rise to the top of trend. Some briefly resurface while others never lose the buzz of popularity. Even the classic paisley had a period of quiet in the 1990s and Art Deco was completely “out” for decades. Now both seem here to stay.

I’m a huge fan of design styles such as the earliest commercially produced designs from the 18th century, as well as those that began new modernist movements in the 20th century such as Fauvist, Art Deco, and Sixties. But one of the most surprisingly chic developments is the application of very old Oberkampf designs from the late 1700s to super-contemporary uses.

Trend-wise, which patterns do you see emerging that excite you? Which are fading in relevance?

It’s an exciting time right now because almost anything goes. Brands convey their images with pattern and then individual consumers make choices that reflect their own personality that year, or their mood today for work, or this evening for a party. Geometric and ethnic patterns are very strong, but beautiful flowers still have a place. And most companies like to present at least one eye-catching conversational or novelty design per season, like insects, fruit, letters, or graffiti. Some companies use many at a time. There are really no rules any more and tremendous independence among designers and consumers.

Moving into the A-to-Z section, the Distressed patterns interested me because they work on two levels: the original motif design and the visual evidence of wear or attempted reconstruction. 

I think age and patina do change things, often adding interest and beauty. The 18th century woodblock printed wallpaper on top of page 76 depicts a charming oak leaf and acorn with a lovely border; simple in style, but due to its condition, easily imagined on the wall of a garden room at the time of Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton.

In the Jazzy entry, you write, “Whether smooth or discordant, Jazzy demonstrates a learned awareness of structure, and how to play against it.” Can you share an example where this is particularly true.

The blue-and-black design [pictured below] is a timeless printed silk from Studio Bianchini-Ferier in France, 1939. The geometric pattern of simple rectangles and circles suggest to me piano keys and the open bell end of a trumpet or trombone. But what adds to the interest is there is nothing literal about it. The arrangement conveys a balanced rhythm. The basic shapes are unexpectedly placed but form a harmonic structure, much like a good jazz tune—with improvisation.

The X-rated patterns beg for some further context. How did these patterns originate, and how were they used?

Most of the X-rated designs in the book date from 1960s-70s France. The studio called Atelier Saint-Fiacre was run by Pierre Kittler. They were a major studio then in Paris and later one of the first important acquisitions of the Design Library. I cannot really say how they were used as I never saw them in application. I’d guess they could have been used on the tight fitting stretchy nylon shirts and blouses—fun and provocative disco garb perhaps?

In section 3 I was drawn to the Calvin Klein example. It’s a feat of technical reimagination: creative director Francisco Costa takes a plush velvet devoré pattern and recreates it by computer, giving it a subtly more modern edge. I also loved the Target example, where the original pattern is barely remixed at all, but it’s a perfect choice for their brand. Can you share any backstory on these?

Francisco Costa is a genius of design development imagination. He comes to the Design Library, seems to browse almost aimlessly, and finds inspiration almost anywhere. He can combine two or more ideas and come up with a new fabric altogether. He has enormous reverence for the ideas from the past, and then takes them a step forward.

As for Target, most companies’ design teams are working on timelines that require them to use designs in a fashion quite similar to, or even exactly, like they were originally painted, printed or woven.

On a personal note, how did you get so interested in the world of patterns?

The first beautiful patterns I collected were found on tribal textiles and pottery of the Upper Amazon of Peru. These were all 20th-century pieces, so actually contemporary expressions of the human drive to personalize and beautify. Before joining the Design Library I collected and sold tribal collections to museums, corporations, and individuals. Of course I had no idea any place like the Design Library existed before coming to work here.

I’m fascinated by the infinitude of surface pattern, the expressive role it plays in our lives, the constant evolution of pattern to fit the times and products, and limitless historical and contemporary record contained in the Design Library.

All images courtesy Documentary Designs, Inc. d/b/a The Design Library unless otherwise stated.