Elizabeth Whelan, Designer-Craftsperson

Elizabeth Whelan, Designer-Craftsperson

Flywire fabric for Nike by Elizabeth Whelan

Flywire fabric for Nike by Elizabeth Whelan

Elizabeth Whelan gets a kick out of seeing her textiles out in the world, in everyday use. Like on the doctor’s rolling stool at the hospital where her mother went in for a hip operation. Or in The Bourne Ultimatum, in a scene where characters convene in a situation room on Nils Diffrient-designed Liberty chairs upholstered with her fabric.

Whelan designs textiles for “products that meet the human needs of the 21st century,” from sneakers and apparel for Nike to luggage by Tumi. “It’s very cool, as a creator, to walk into a factory that’s making chairs out of your fabric, and see 500 chairs in five or six different colorways,” she says. But, for her, it all starts with the hand.

“I’m a designer who wants to bring craft into her work. I don’t think it’s a far stretch from craft into design. The bridge is short.” 

As a child Whelan had a knack for knitting, cross-stitch, any kind of needlework: “I loved structures.” After graduating from college with a history degree, she decided to follow her passion, and earned a BFA in textiles from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1997 she opened her studio in New York City, where today she and her several assistants take a bottom-up, holistic, hands-on approach to every project. 

“We explore all sorts of materials. We dye yarns. We put things on a loom [a 24-harness Compu-Dobby]. We spin yarns together to see how they work. We draw and paint our weave structures, then put them on the computer to figure it out in terms of a repeat. We do all the samples and protoypes by hand. I try to go deep into the work that way,” says Whelan, who cites the modernist designer-weavers Anni Albers and Jack Lenor Larsen as her inspirations. “It’s that understanding of, how is the wool going to take the dye? How is it going to feel? It’s so deeply rooted, at least for me, in craft,” she says. “But we also prepare the design so that it can be made in large quantities, and put onto chairs, for example. By working all of that stuff out by hand, we can guide production so much better.”   

Whether it’s textured paper wall coverings for Knoll woven in Mexico on old Spanish looms from the 1940s, or fabrics and meshes for Humanscale office chairs produced on high-tech looms in Switzerland, Whelan’s craft skills and sensibility come in handy when she’s at the mills, working directly with technicians. “The best know their craft really well, and I have a lot of respect for them. It’s wonderful when you can connect that way, but you’ve got to know your stuff.” In her practice, “we’ve worked within very advanced technologies. We’ve learned how to sonically weld our fabrics. You can only do that when you know your material well. And you know your material well when you’re good at your craft.”

That’s where craftspeople have an edge and potential opportunity, Whelan thinks. “A lot of times, at least in my industry, people will reach out to a ‘cool’ designer or a ‘cool’ artist, and I sometimes wonder: Do they even how to make what you’re asking them to make? But if you go to a craftsperson with an idea, he or she is going to know how to make it,” she points out, adding that makers are good problem solvers. “To companies, that’s a valuable tool. Often we don’t know how valuable we can be. Sometimes we feel undervalued, and probably are. Other times we just haven’t made the connection to find those that can value us.”