Wild at Art
Fabric designer Kerrie Brown draws inspiration from eclectic sources to create an extraordinary catalogue of bold colours and mesmerising patterns
As second acts go, Kerrie Brown’s turn as a fabric designer has a cinematic quality—an apt analogy, as it turns out, given that her first career was as an equally successful Hollywood set decorator.
“I started in fashion,” Brown says, recalling her first designs made when she was six, creating endless outfits for her Cindy doll. “I graduated to making my own clothes and for a few years I had a fashion label. Then a friend asked me to design the costumes for a short movie she was making. I soon tired of working in costumes and switched to set decoration. It was much more fun working with inanimate objects.”
Brown proved so good at her job that she was nominated for an Academy Award in art direction for the movie Babe, though she says her most difficult set was Michael Caine’s apartment in The Quiet American.
“We filmed all the exteriors in Vietnam and the interiors in the studios in Sydney. The set was difficult because it was round and the furniture just didn’t seem to sit in the room happily. It started as an apartment with a kitchen, dining room, office and bedroom, all leading off the dining room. It wasn’t until I decided to get rid of the formal dining room and make it a sitting room with low French-Vietnamese Deco-styled armchairs and side tables that suddenly all the pieces of the jigsaw started to fit.”
After 25 years, Brown began to realise that her greatest joy was increasingly to be found in the fabrics she needed to source for the various sets. Shortly after she’d finished the John Cusack movie The Raven in Serbia, she was at home in Sydney renovating her Bondi Beach house. “I was finding it frustrating trying to find interesting blinds and thought I can’t have a house full of white blinds. I’d go mad! So I set about working out how to print on blinds and then I became so addicted to the printing process, I started printing cushions and the business just took over.”
Brown turned her back on film to focus completely on the new string in her bow, though her work has been no less cinematic in its dramatic effect. Since 2012, her eponymous studio—located in Sydney’s hipster quarter Woollahra—has been a maelstrom of creativity, turning out an extraordinary catalogue of upholstery fabric, wallpaper, cushions, lampshades, cabinets and, of course, blinds for homes and commercial spaces.
The transition has been smoother than she imagined. “I now get to focus on exactly what interests me rather than having to decorate space stations or sets without gorgeous fabrics, which is so uninteresting for me.”
Her oeuvre is bold, strong colours swirling in psychedelic, mesmerising patterns that are freewheeling in their inspiration—an 18th century Spanish infanta, a medieval cathedral interior, a 19th century botanical painting, ancient Grecian tropes, fuchsia-tinted roses, Rorschach-like block prints, or even a close-up of the veins of marble. What interests her are patterns, each layered with colours and textures. The resulting combination is completely tactile at the same time as it is instinctive.
“I think my style is very eclectic, which is due to working on movies, and I have a camera’s eye to design rather than a textile designer’s eye. The camera loves layer upon layer of pattern and that is how I see the world now. I love to take traditional images and mess with them, and give them an unexpected modern twist,” she says.
Brown’s output is impressive. The sole designer in an office of three, she outsources the printing, sewing and production to small companies she works closely with in Sydney.
“I design very quickly—a product, I think, of working on movies where everything has to be done by yesterday. I often have a number of collections released at the same time or not far apart.”
To prove the point, she had just returned from Singapore Design Week where she unveiled her latest collection. “One of my personal loves is the beautiful marbled paper that you find in the front of old books. So my new collection is a combination of old book marbling with splattered paint, another favourite effect. I’m back in the studio now wading through the feedback, orders and working on a few collaborations that should come to fruition later this year.
“All this in addition to a bespoke arm of the business. My approach with private clients is always to create a product that has an emotional bond with them. They come into the studio and often they don’t know where to start. So I always start with the colours—either colours they like or other colours in the room. From there, we start playing and building colours and patterns with fabrics, cushions and lampshades. This starts a conversation and then I can see what type of person they are, what type of physical and emotional environment they want to live in. It’s pretty much always fun and everyone is usually so happy getting a chance to play. The fabrics are often quite wild, so everyone feels like they can let their hair down.”
In terms of design experiences, it’s a sentiment we don’t hear enough of.