There, on the twenty third page of the Selvedge magazine’s May/June 2011 edition, was a pale, schoolmarmish older lady wearing bright red lipstick. With one hand draped over her knee and the other petting her blackish-brownish dog, she gave the impression of conservative but cool. She reminded me of Helen Surovek, my neighbor who used to come over for coffee on random mornings to prattle with my mom when I was a child. You know her, right? This lady, the one in the magazine, Orla Kiely and not Helen Surovek, looked like someone I wanted to know. And according to the magazine, she is someone I should know – she’s a legend they said. Legend or not, some stellar patterns bordered the pages of her write up that made me start reading.
Orla Kiely grew up in Ireland in the 1960s and early 1970s. The home she grew up was decored in a modern 1950s aesthetic – olive green Formica cupboards and worktops, coordinating green and white patterned wall tiles, and orange gloss ceilings. Living just minutes from the ocean, she spent a lot of time outdoors on the beach, in the fields, or in the mountains. The patterns and colors that surrounded her as a child carved patterning into her DNA.
Kiely attended and graduated from National College of Art and Design in Dublin and moved to New York City after graduation to work for a wallpaper and pattern designer. Shortly after, she moved to England to work for Esprit and study knitwear at the Royal College of Art in London. For her senior collection, she showed a collection of hats that were were purchased by Harrods (you go girl!).
In the late 90s, Kiely business shifted towards handbags at the suggestion of her father. During her first fashion show at London’s Fashion Week, her father noted that it was handbags, and not hats, that the women were carrying. Shortly after, the idea of lamination fabric came to her, something that hadn’t been done before in fashion. Laminated fabric, in those days, was relegated to home decor.
This was only the starting point. Expanding into stationary, furniture, wallpaper, and home decor, Kiely become the “Queen of Prints.” Her trademark print or pattern was called “Stem” (pictured in the center left oval frame in the image above) and it features a brown stem with simplified & multi-colored leaves petering from it.
I’m a frilly, ruffly, and girly type of girl. Antiques and their adornment and clutter appeal to me. So I was surprised that Kiely’s prints and patterns caught and captured my eye. Clean, simple, and measured – just like the pattern maker in me – her prints are also bold and brave. Charming too.
The article in Selvedge pointed out the hidden magnet in her work. Her prints and patterns are also innocent and youthful and that translates to trustworthy, understandable, and secure. Maybe that’s why Kiely’s patterns and prints appealed to me. The morning I read the article on Kiely was the Saturday before Hurricane Sandy hit. Although the storm wasn’t on the top of my mind, it sure was mixed somewhere in the jumble of things inside my head. Maybe I grasped onto something clean, simple, and secure as I was in a tizzy about the track of Sandy. I wonder if I would think differently of her patterns if I read it for the first time today, post-Sandy.