For this month’s profile, we speak with Emma Harling about her recent collaboration with Chatham, some common misconceptions about her work, and the chance to deep dive into textile archives.
Textile Society of America (TSA): Emma, can you would you share a bit about your process and inspiration?
Emma Harling (EH): I continuously gather material and information that may come in handy later. I sketch, read, explore my surroundings, visit archives, see art and design shows, collect reference material and color combinations, build out palettes, create small swatches of material explorations. These investigations inform both my personal and commissioned work and makes me a better designer who brings thought, creativity and value to the projects I take on.
My main focus right now is textiles concerning the home, as an extension to the question of how to live. I am fascinated by creators of gesamtkunstwerk in general and female pioneers in particular. Recent deep dives have been the work of Elise Djo-Bourgeois, Ingegerd Torhamn, and Greta Magnusson Grossman.
I just designed a mohair and merino wool throw for Chatham, a heritage woolen company who were known for their woolen blankets, upholstery and apparel since their founding in 1877 until the mill shuttered in the late 20th century. In recent years, 5th generation, Brooklyn-based Alex Chatham has been hard at work relaunching his family business utilizing local and sustainable production methods. Alex asked me to create a new design, pulling inspiration from the Chatham archives. I found some great plaids from the 1930’s which I updated in terms of scale and color. We created a modern heirloom of incredible quality which will be widely available this fall.
TSA: That was an incredible opportunity to explore textile history. Have you had a chance to visit any other archives?
EH: A favorite textile memory is when I had the opportunity to go through the archives of Ljungbergs textil, which was a hand screen printer around the corner from where I grew up. Erik Ljungberg was one of the early textile screen printers in 1940’s Sweden, and set up a small workshop where he printed fabrics for Svenskt Tenn and NK:s textile division, meaning designs by Josef Frank, Astrid Sampe, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, Viola Gråsten, and other Scandinavian design giants. Ljungbergs were granted the rights to reproduce many NK designs when their textile division was shut down in ’71.
Ljungbergs was still around as a company when I was growing up – my mother decorated our house with fabrics from the factory outlet when we moved to the area. They have faced bankruptcy a few times since. I visited the archives when they had been bought by a larger printing mill, Rydboholms – which also filed for bankruptcy a few years ago. During my visit, I went through binders of print proofs, color mixing charts and boxes of artwork which makes up a great legacy of design and craftsmanship that many seem to care for, but no one can seem to keep going. What’s left of the business is now owned by a weaving company – I would like to check in one day and see what happened to all that material.
TSA: Does your work tend to reflect a communal process or more of an individual practice (or both)?
EH: I have an individual studio practice and enjoy collaborating on different projects. Achieving work through communal and collaborative efforts feels highly rewarding and is always a great tool for development and further learning.
TSA: Are you actively collecting textiles?
EH: It is not an active collection, but I do have more wool scarves and blankets than the average person. I can honestly say that Chatham blankets are the best ones!
TSA: Do you encounter any misconceptions about your work and how do you address these?
EH: A lot of people assume that my main activity is hand weaving when I tell them that I am a textile designer. I consider myself more of a visual artist with a wide knowledge of processes, material and applications. I have created artwork for everything from area rugs to underwear and most things in between. I like industrial processes as well as manual craft and find it important to understand both in order to be a good designer. I like to sketch and prototype, but don’t necessarily feel the need to create every aspect of my work by myself from start to finish. I know my limits, value other people’s expertise and like when something else adds to the end result.
TSA: How do you imagine that humanity might engage with textiles in the future?
EH: I believe that tactile experiences, quality materials and good craftsmanship will be vital as counterbalance to a fast paced world with increasingly virtual experiences.
TSA: Do you have any textile-related books / resources that you particularly recommend?
EH: My favorite topic is modernist women who merge art and everyday life. One book that I always return to is “Colour Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay” (Thames & Hudson, 2011). I bought this book at 22, just as I was figuring out what route to take with my career – something really clicked for me when learning more about the wide application of her work. Another favorite is “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction” (Kunstmuseum Basel/MoMA, 2021) – she is one of my all time favorite artists who mastered all fields of art and design including textiles.
As for other types of resources, I recommend finding museums that would have interesting textiles and request to view works from their collections.
TSA: What projects are you currently working on and looking forward to?
EH: I am currently working on new patterns, and developing some hand knotted pieces based on the Scandinavian rya technique. I look forward to doing further rya research when I go home this summer.
Emma Harling, b. 1989 in Göteborg, Sweden, is an artist and textile designer based in New York City. She studied printmaking at Dômen Konstskola and holds a degree in art history from Södertörn University. She works on personal and commissioned projects and collaborations in the fields of interior textiles, fashion and design.
Her work explores color and pattern, rhythm and repetition across a range of materials and artistic disciplines. All work starts out as drawings that go through a mechanical process, whether it be a manual printing press, digital print or loom. A great interest in design history, craft and manufacturing processes drives her design explorations.
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