Seeing Red: The Intrigue of Russian Textiles

Seeing Red: The Intrigue of Russian Textiles

Susan Meller's dual passions-collecting and printed textiles-seem to have been bred in the bone. As a child, she seriously collected shells, which she carefully cataloged. At the same time, she played at creating textile designs using Magic Markers on bits of sheeting. In the latter pursuit, she was emulating sample books given her by her great-aunt Tillie, who designed robes for a family business. At age 16 Meller discovered patchwork quilts, which she would collect, painstakingly take apart and organize into individual pieces of cloth. Even then, she recalls, "I loved pattern." Not surprisingly, Meller went on to become a textile designer, to pursue a 30-year career in the textile industry and to assemble one of the foremost textile study collections in the world (the basis for The Design Library, a primary resource she founded for graphic designers, decorators and artists). Meller has documented her collections in two lavishly illustrated books, most recently Russian Textiles: Printed Cloth for the Bazaars of Central Asia ($50, Harry N. Abrams). The intriguing title, with its mingling of the commonplace and the exotic, neatly sums up the esoteric collecting field that fascinates Meller and sets her apart from the typical high-end textile hunter who is searching for silken ikats or woven carpets. "I'm not into the rar­ified things," she says. "My interest is the everyday stuff." According to Meller's view, machine-printed textiles qualify as "fine art that happens to be for a commercial product."

Around 1970, Meller made a chance purchase of a brilliantly colored Lakai tent hanging from Uzbekistan. A true collector, ever vigilant, she had glimpsed it in the second-floor window of Artweave Textile Gallery on Madison Avenue as she and her late husband, Herbert Meller, were driving home to Vermont. The front of the piece was a blaze of silk embroidery on red-
orange felt, the back striped silk; but, as she writes in her book, "One day I noticed something else peeking out from behind the stripe." It was a bold red and black print "unlike anything I had ever seen." The unusual pattern, she says, resembled neither typical Russian peasant prints nor Central Asian ikats, "nor any Russian or Central Asian embroidery or woven textile that I was familiar with."

Meller had happened upon a category of unique cotton textiles produced in Russian factories expressly for export to the nomadi­c peoples of Central Asia, for whom beau­tiful cloth was a primary and treasured possession. For centuries, Central Asia was known as the land of the fabled Silk Road linking China and the West. Under Russian colonial-and later Soviet-domination from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, Central Asia today consists of the independent nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (the "stans"). Meller's pursuit of the brilliant export cottons resulted early on in a lucky find-a box of scraps, purchased for a hundred dollars from a New York rug dealer. This gave her a core collection, which she augmented on yearly trips to Berkeley, California, where Afghan import shops in the Telegraph Avenue neighborhood turned out to be a great source for Uzbek robes, common Central Asian garments typically lined with Russian printed textiles. "Turn the robe inside out and you find a bonus," says Meller, "easily four to six different patterns." The juxtaposition of outer robe and lining materials is often a dizzying optical experience, with printed floral, paisley and abstract cottons set against bold ikats and brocades.

While the textile patterns generally reflect European examples, the Russian designers took a unique approach to traditional motifs. The artist Robert Kushner, in an essay he contributed to Meller's book, says they "turned up the volume-of scale, color, and visual intensity-to rock-concert levels." Kushner finds "something pagan and exotic" about the designs, which have inspired his paintings. An example of such an over-the-top pattern is the swirling, plate-sized-chrysanthemum print on a blazing red ground that adorns the cover of Meller's book. Such Art Nouveau prints are rare, but even rarer, says Meller, are the Constructivist and Soviet-era propaganda prints that reflect revolutionary politics.

To date, Mellers research has unearthed no mill sample books to document any of the Russian textile patterns. She believes they were destroyed during the Soviet era, when all things "bourgeois" were routinely junked. She compares her search to an archaeological dig, "turning up fragments, amassing them, making intelligent evaluations." Meller has never traveled to Central Asia (though she has plans), but she warns that tourists are prohibited from taking any antique-textile or otherwise-out of the area. Neither has she been to the vast bazaar in Istanbul, which, she says, is the current collecting hub (and where, she adds gleefully, copies of her book are routinely spotted) for vintage Uzbek robes. But Meller suffers not at all from geographical restrictions. Since the early 1990s, with the explosion of the Internet, she has been collecting "avidly and intensively" online. "It's wonderful," she says enthusiastically, "You make connections with people you've never met; and instead of going to the bazaars you can sit at home and be in touch with the whole world."