In a new book, the inspiring world of the Design Library

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Michelle Obama wearing a coat designed by Francisco Costa, then creative director for Calvin Klein, to escort husband Barack to receive his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in Oslo. Costa designed the coat’s fabric (shown at left during color trials) drawing nspiration from mid-20th century pattern samples supplied by the Design Library. Photos from Patterns, pp. 296 and 297.

Francisco Costa had a tall task: To design a coat for Michelle Obama to wear alongside her husband as he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in Oslo.

Costa turned immediately to a fabric he had developed with inspiration from the Design Library, which describes itself as having the “world’s largest and best organized collections of documentary fabrics, original paintings, wallpapers, embroideries and yarn dyes.”

Founded in 1972, the library has an archive of seven million samples of pattern design, stored mostly at its headquarters in Wappingers Falls, New York, a converted fabric mill, appropriately enough, built in 1907.

Costa, who at the time was creative director for women’s wear at Calvin Klein, had developed the fabric from two different velvet samples that had been produced in the mid-20th century.

“I felt strongly about wanting to reinterpret a traditional technique in a new way,“ Costa recalls. “It was not only a hit on the runway but in the White House as well! I was thrilled when First Lady Michelle Obama chose to wear a look that I made for her using the fabric.”

The Design Library is well known to designers such as Costa. But among most of the rest of us, it is an obscure institution.

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The cover of “Patterns: Inside the Design Library,” just out from Phaidon, and pattern samples from the ”Neon” section of the book.

That may be changing, however, with the publication of Patterns: Inside the Design Library, which offers a digestible full-color glimpse of the library’s holdings dating from the 1750s to the late 20th century. It also presents an introduction to the library’s unique system of categorization and offers a guideline on how the archive can be used, which is helpful to professional designers. And for students and interested amateurs, who might not otherwise be able to get into the archive, the book offers, with its 332 pages and 500 color and black-and-white photos and illustrations, a chance at inspiration anyway, all by itself.

Textile designs serve no practical function, says Peter Koepke, owner and director of the Design Library and author of Patterns, just out from Phaidon.

“But they can transform an environment, tell the story of a culture, symbolize a tradition, establish unity, convey a personality, or express a mood,” Koepke writes in the new book.

“A designer never knows what he or she will find when entering the Design Library,“ Koepke writes, “but inspiration is guaranteed.”

And inspiration is exactly the point of the Design Library.

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The Design Library in Wappingers Falls, New York, where 7 million pattern samples are archived in a former fabric mill built in 1907. From Patterns, pages 12 and 13.

The library attracts professional visitors to Wappingers Falls, where the full archive is available, and also to offices in New York City and London, which hold much smaller sample sets.

“The Design Library is a constant source for inspiration as we start the seasonal creative process,” says Lee Holman, executive vice president and creative director at Lululemon.

Essentially, the Design Library functions like any library, though rather exclusively and esoterically. Those using the library are generally professional pattern designers, often from the world of textiles, and their visits are carefully curated by a “librarian,” or staff consultant. Those consultants work closely with clients to glean general area of interest on a project. They then pull appropriate pattern samples, sometimes thousands of them, to present to clients on visits to Wappingers Falls, the London or New York offices or even in client offices. Clients represent fields ranging from high fashion and sportswear to home textiles and wallpaper. They are the customers who sustain the Design Library’s business.

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Among the “stacks” in the Design Library, which functions much like an ordinary library, only storing pattern samples instead of books. Photo by Mark Mahaney.

Like any collection, the Design Library needed a system of categorization. Library founders Susan Meller, a textile designer, and husband Herb, an investment banker, modeled their system on the family-genus-species one used in biology. They established their top headings, though, as Floral, Geometric, Ethnic and Conversational, into which all samples fall, though divided further into 1,200 subcategories.

The new book could not begin to represent the breadth of the library’s collection, but it offers a large enough range of samples to suggest not only what is possible but provide actual inspiration for even a casual page turner. Over more than 250 pages in its middle section, the book presents pattern samples arranged in annotated categories from A-Z, beginning with Abstract, Bling, Chaos, Distressed and Exotica and ending with Velvet, Watercolor, X-Rated, Yummy and Zig-Zag. In between are such delightfully descriptive categories as Feathers, Jazzy, Jungle, Paisley and Skins.

The front section of the book introduces the Design Library, both inside and out, and describes its mission and the process. A section in back presents case studies from 10 companies that have used library for inspiration, including Calvin Klein, Clinque, Lululemon, Nike, Oscar De La Renta and Target.

“The Design Library places patterns from the past into today’s most creative hands, sending them back into the world,” Koepke writes.

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Peter Koepke, owner and director of the Design Library. Photo by Mark Mahaney.