Although she’s worked for only two companies, textile designer Dorothy Cosonas, 48, has worn a number of hats. Her first, acquired in 1984, was as assistant to Sina Pearson, then creative director of contract textile company Unika Vaev. Ten years later, Cosonas was named Unika Vaev’s design director and five years after that, its vice president of design. In 2005, she left to become creative director of KnollTextiles, the company founded in 1947 by Florence Knoll. (Its history is the subject of an exhibition opening in 2010 at New York’s Bard Graduate Center.) Cosonas recently introduced Knoll Luxe, high-end fabrics for the corporate and residential markets, to which she’s adding a new collection this month designed by the fashion duo Proenza Schouler.
Your specialty is contract textiles, and yet you’re smitten with fashion. (For instance, you once based a contract upholstery pattern on the scalloped lace border of a Chanel dress.) How do you see design and fashion aligning?
Well, beautiful is beautiful and good design is good design. For me, fashion has always been ahead of the curve for design and color. I’m not alone in this. Florence Knoll founded KnollTextiles because she saw a lack of suitable fabrics available for modern furnishings in the postwar period. Many of the early designs were derived from classic men’s suit fabric. Her fashion sense was the driver.
This month, you’re adding fabrics by Proenza Schouler to Knoll Luxe. Of all the hot young runway designers these days, why did you pick this duo?
Jack and Lazaro represent American design— something that Knoll has been committed to from its founding. Their ready-to-wear is clean, timeless, and classic with a modern twist. They did six patterns combining neutrals with punches of rich, dramatic color, such as royal purple and emerald green.
Do you have any kind of relationship with Florence Knoll?
In 2004, I was at Unika Vaev’s display booth at ICFF. A refined elderly woman introduced herself as Florence Bassett. After looking at my designs, all she said was, “You do nice work.” Little did I know I was speaking to Florence Knoll and that in less than a year I would be continuing her tradition and point of view at KnollTextiles.
You went straight from school to Unika Vaev and remained there 21 years before going to Knoll in 2005. What was most challenging about the transition?
I had many responsibilities at Unika Vaev, but it was as Sina Pearson’s assistant that I learned the core disciplines of upholstery design: how to be meticulous, how to have a color sense, and most importantly, how to create fabrics that are correct for the contract market—in essence, I learned point of view. Unika Vaev, though, is a boutique house that focuses mainly on upholstery. At KnollTextiles, the scope of work is far greater, and the company is a much larger machine. That transition is something I struggle with even today.
I read that you spent four years working on the sales side at Unika Vaev. What did you learn as a salesperson?
My greatest lesson was that your personal opinions about design should be kept to yourself. I remember Sina had designed a textile that I really disliked, but I didn’t say anything. I took the fabric on sales calls and pitched it—and lo and behold, I got one of my biggest orders for that product. It’s ironic that in that job I had to be neutral about design, but in this job I must be passionate.
The catalog for a 2002 Bard Graduate Center show on women designers quoted you as finding it tough for women to be in this business. In what way? Is that still true for you?
I was talking about my struggle for recognition from the higher-ups at the ownership and management levels. As Unika Vaev’s vice president of design, I was one woman dealing at the management level in a man’s world. This is not an unusual position for textile designers, who are often women. I still feel there is a Mad Men dichotomy in the workplace, although at KnollTextiles most of the players are women.
You’re married to the furniture designer Timothy deFiebre. Do you influence each other?
We work separately on our own projects and show them to each other at different stages of development to completion. Since we go by different last names, most specifying designers don’t know we’re married, but many times my fabric is used on Tim’s seating. Somehow they see a connection on a level they’re not aware of.
Knoll Luxe was launched in a down economy that promises to get worse. If you knew that when you designed these fabrics, would you have approached them differently?
What does luxury mean to you as a designer?
Knoll Luxe was obviously conceived as a higher- end line, but luxury is not just about price or cost. It is really about what’s correct and appropriate, and in the long run unique and special. I’ve been in this business long enough to know both good times and bad times, and have seen specifiers and designers fight for a fabric they love and therefore find the budget to be able to use it.
Julie Lasky is editor-in-chief of I.D.