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Material Girl

Joanne Furio | January 20, 2012 | Home & Real Estate Style & Beauty Story Style Home Life Fashion Interiors

Woodcuts, ink drawings, and collages become patterns on textiles in the hands of Laura Lienhard, a former studio artist who now creates fabrics that can turn fur­niture into works of art. Trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, the textile designer recently moved her business from the artsy outpost of Burling­ton, Vermont, to equally artsy Sausalito, where she works in a light-filled studio with killer bay views. With an emphasis on natural fibers, Lienhard designs fabrics by hand, uploads them, and has some hand-screened in Rhode Island (she also has them domestically milled when possible). Interior designers Douglas Durkin and Alison Davin use her materials, and now Lienhard is sharing her intricate knowledge of the medium—from fiber to finished fabric—so you can find or create a great work yourself for any room in the house.,,

If I find a fabric I love, what are some interesting ways to use it? Lamp shades and wall upholstery. Michael Smith—a Los Angeles designer who worked with the Obamas on the White House—uses handwoven hemp on walls.

Around here, hemp is probably better known as something you put into a pipe. Fill me in on its qualities as a fiber. It’s similar to linen in that it’s a long fiber and very strong. It grows easily without a lot of pesticides and irrigation, and it’s beautiful in its raw form.

Linen is such a popular fabric for upholstery and curtains, but isn’t it too fragile for everyday use? That’s a misconception. Linen is actually stronger than cotton. I have a stonewashed linen on my sofa, and it’s really heavy—it feels almost like leather.

Any drawbacks to linen? Low-quality linen isn’t as strong. And people are afraid linen is going to wrinkle. It can if it’s used as a slipcover rather than upholstery—but some people want that shabby-chic look.

What else is new in textiles for chairs and sofas? A lot of designers are now using outdoor fabrics indoors. These used to be very stiff and not very exciting, but the hand, or feel, of the fabrics and the range of colors and finishes have really come a long way. Sometimes it’s even hard to distinguish between an indoor and an outdoor fabric.

Outdoor fabric for indoor furniture? It’s very durable and good for high-traffic areas and families with young children or pets. Plus, you can move the furniture back and forth between your living room and the patio. And all these fabrics are light-fast—they won’t fade in the sun—and most are inherently stain-resistant. Although nothing can protect you from a three-year-old with a Sharpie.

Are designers using indoor/outdoor fabrics for drapery, too? Especially here. The sun is a big factor in California. Sheers also are popular because they’re so simple, but the newer versions provide more coverage and are made from more of a midweight fabric.

In fashion, pattern-on-pattern has gone viral. In decor, how do you combine different motifs without making the room too busy? I would start with a unified color palette and add more texture. Then layer in the prints and graphic patterns from there. Or you can use a soft pattern as a backdrop and add on bold color. Only designers such as Kelly Wearstler can use a riot of pattern and make it work. But even when she does it, the palette she operates in ties it all together.

What about the tradition of covering a chair or sofa in two different fabrics (one in back and one in front)? How do you pull that off? The palette has to be related. I just did that with a pair of chairs by Luther Conover— a midcentury Sausalito artist—that I found on Valencia Street. I worked with two different textures and kept the colors the same. Textural shifts within the same hues are easier to work with than different patterns.

What have you been inspired by lately? At the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York, I was struck by the freshness of some of her color combinations and patterns. Even though they’re from the ’20s and ’30s, they look like they could be from Prada today.

Where do you go locally for good eye candy? Some­times I just walk out the door to Heath Ceramics to see what they’re up to. I also love Erica Tanov’s work. She designs a lot of her textiles and has managed to keep a high level of quality and artistry, which is hard to do.

How has the move from Vermont to the Bay Area affected your work? The colors I’m using now are a little clearer and brighter. In Vermont, I felt as if I was always looking through a dirty window. Burlington’s one of the cloudiest cities in the country. The light here is so incredible.

But you work in Sausalito, which is frequently blanketed in fog. The fog burns off. I’d take that any day over New England gray.

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