Q&A with Michelle Fifis, Pattern Observer

Michelle Fifis knows pattern, from its tiniest details to the vaster big picture. She founded the popular design blog Pattern Observer in 2010 after ten years in textile and surface design, both client-side and as a freelancer. Her blog is both exuberantly pattern-filled and eminently practical, ranging from her latest street finds to pragmatic e-courses on topics like The Sellable Sketch and The Ultimate Guide to Repeats. Her annual Patterns Industry Survey details industry trends that governs the market bringing creators, agents and sellers together — an invaluable niche-industry resource.

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I approached Michelle via Twitter to probe the sometimes-secretive world of textile and surface design — and she responded with alacrity. Our Q&A (via email) follows.

From the Pattern Observer post on Mexican embroidery: http://patternobserver.com/2013/06/05/street-patterns-mexican-embroidery/

From the Pattern Observer post on The Sugar Lab, a design studio using 3-D printing with sugar: http://patternobserver.com/2013/06/11/3d-patterns-and-the-sugar-lab/

From the Pattern Observer post on The Sugar Lab, a design studio using 3-D printing with sugar.

PRINT: How did you first realize designing patterns specifically was the route you wanted to pursue? 

MICHELLE FIFIS, PATTERN OBSERVER: I majored in fashion design in college and as much as textiles and patterns interested me, I never considered it a career option. I just didn’t know that you could earn a living doing something that was so much fun. Everything changed when I interned with the fashion and textile designer Zandra Rhodes. I remember walking into her studio for the first time and seeing the textile designers hand-painting her signature silks. I immediately fell in love with the process and felt right at home.

To those of us who work in other areas of design, pattern-making seems slightly exotic. Can you summarize for us how the market for pattern creation works?

This industry is wonderful for artists and designers because it allows you to work in so many different ways. The first option is to develop artwork which is sold or licensed to manufacturers. This can be done through a sales agent or on your own at trade shows, such as Printsource or Surtex. If you prefer more interaction with clients you can choose to work much like a graphic designer, either freelance or in-house, developing patterns for a specific brand.

Designers also have the option to work in a variety of markets or to specialize in one market, such as apparel or housewares. There are slight differences between the markets, but they operate in similar ways. For example, the copyright to a pattern is generally sold in the apparel world because the products stay on the sales floor for such a short period of time. In other markets, the designer typically maintains the copyright, licensing it to the manufacturer for a specific amount of time. When I am working with designers I recommend they focus their business in some way, either on a specific market or by creating work with a signature style.

Let’s talk current pattern trends. Which are you excited about now? Any patterns simmering that you expect to become very popular in the future? 

The Resort ’14 runway shows are currently taking place, and there seems to be an emphasis on movement and directionality in many of the patterns. It is very high-drama, with more complex layouts and bold statement patterns.

Textures and hand-painted patterns have been very popular for the past few seasons. As much as I love this look and know it will never totally go away, I’m just starting to notice a re-emergence of patterns with a clean, vector-like feel.

I won’t pigeonhole you into choosing your very favorite pattern … but I am curious for a few you’ve especially enjoyed lately.

I am really intrigued by the big picture: how patterns are used together as a collection and how they enhance the final product. Alone, patterns are beautiful and I could look at them all day, but the magic happens when four or five are brought together and work to tell a complete story.

I love the way that fashion designer Peter Copping recently used patterns in his latest collection for Nina Ricci. The individual designs differ in almost every way, detail level, style, direction, et cetera, but are brought together through color and the final product. It is really a fantastic collection.

From the Nina Ricci Resort 2014 collection, via Pattern Observer’s Pinterest board and Vogue.com: http://pinterest.com/pin/526147168937034421/

From the Nina Ricci Resort 2014 collection, via Pattern Observer’s Pinterest board and Vogue.com.

From the Nina Ricci Resort 2014 collection, via Pattern Observer’s Pinterest board and Style.com: http://pinterest.com/pin/526147168937069061/

From the Nina Ricci Resort 2014 collection, via Pattern Observer’s Pinterest board and Style.com.

What really makes you DISLIKE a particular pattern? What’s the gravest sin of this work, in your view?

A poorly executed repeat can ruin the most beautiful pattern and sadly, I see this all the time. Repeats are an art form and are just as important as the concept and initial layout. I encourage designers entering this market to learn and understand the process, but if they are not your thing, do not feel forced to work in repeat. There are plenty of designers out there who love repeats and are happy to do that more technical work. We should all be doing what we love instead of forcing ourselves to do it all.

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