Anatomy Of A Design: Lea Rutledge Debuts The Cape Ann Collection

Lea Rutledge, Founder and Designer, joins us to discuss the design process behind her recently debuted Cape Ann Collection of fabrics.

Raymond Paul Schneider: When did you first start to develop this new collection?
Lea Rutledge: I began to develop the “Cape Ann Collection” two years ago, on a Tuesday afternoon in June, while my two young children were napping upstairs. At the time, I had no what a textile collection was, or how to create a repeat pattern. I was simply watercolor painting, for the first time in over fifteen years, in a stolen moment of quiet. I painted loose and spontaneous images of what I knew – elements of my small country town near the sea that has been home to my family for five generations. From that day on, I painted each day for almost a year. Then, I began to teach myself Photoshop and read anything I could find on textile design. Up until that day in June 2019, my career had been focused on environmental policy, which I had studied at MIT and taught as a faculty member at Boston University. I never considered a creative career, but my paintings, and then my pattern collection, grew organically and quickly. Two years later my dining room has evolved into a working textile design studio. I consider my artwork an ode to my hometown and its rural quiet beauty. I consider my career change, and the peaceful rhythm it has brought my family, to be my greatest success to date.

Raymond: What was the overall timeline from conception to achieving the final design?
Lea: Some of my patterns came together easily and in a matter of days. For example, “Appleton Phlox” was created with one hand while my children were in the bath. I sent it to my printer that evening and have never tweaked it since. But others, such as “Pride’s Sparrows” began as part of a very different motif. I reworked it at least six times over the course of twelve months. I always begin with an idea for a design in my head, with a sense of the movement, scale, and repeat I want to achieve. I will draw and paint and design and rework for as long as it takes until my hands illustrate the idea that I am holding on to mentally. I enjoy this creative process and believe I learn a great deal from it, even if, in the end, it is clear that I need to put aside one design and work on another.

Raymond: What was your initial inspiration, and where did the idea(s) come from?
Lea: The inspiration for the Cape Ann collection came from memories of my childhood growing up on my family’s 1700s farm in the small town of Wenham, Massachusetts. I returned to my hometown with my family two years ago, and these elements of home came flooding back to me – hardy New England summer flowers like geraniums, phlox, and beach roses, the sea shells and pebbles that dot our rocky coast, the horses and hounds that lope through the fields during autumn sporting events. Less tangible but just as inspirational, certain colors or design elements stem from a more nostalgic place. I remember my childhood home on the farm being full of rich colors and family antiques and simple cotton curtains. It was a fresh, happy, easy place to grow up, where the cheer of the décor was balanced by the history and traditions of generations past. I have tried to recreate that combination of tradition and whimsy in the Cape Ann Collection.

Raymond: Please describe your overall creative and design process.
Lea: The first step in my creative process is simply keeping my eyes wide open. I often stop whatever I’m doing to photograph the endpapers of an antique book or the sprig of a flower. If a color in a magazine catches my attention, I fold over the page and run it into my studio to put in my ‘inspiration pile’ along with all my old books that I have covered with Post-Its.

Second, I sit down to sketch. I usually know immediately what I am going to draw. Moving fairly quickly helps me to enjoy the process and not take it too seriously. I’ll typically sketch multiple motifs in this way, then return a different night to paint them. After my motifs are painted, I scan them onto my computer and the technical work starts. I order swatches of the patterns I like most from my printer, then I sit with them for a while in the studio. I hang them on the wall and pin them onto cushions. When the pattern is finalized, I order yardage for myself and my stockists. Every time an order of yardage arrives it is like Christmas here at the house. The children love opening the packages and they share in my excitement. There is no greater feeling than seeing my artwork come to life.

Raymond: Did you have a specific audience or theme that you had in mind?
Lea: I suppose I have myself in mind when I sit down to create my collections. The advent of my textile design business coincided with my transition to motherhood. And with this transition came a surprising amount of time spent at home, as well as the responsibility to maintain some sense of decorum inside of it! It struck me at some point when my children were young that it was up to me to set the stage upon which they will grow, as well as to create a setting in which I would feel peaceful and contented. For this reason, I designed my textiles to be joyful, easy-going, and unpretentious. I also decided to print the majority of my fabrics on a cotton-linen blend that is versatile and durable. I also offer a performance fabric for indoor or outdoor use that have an increased resistance to stains and wear. It has been my own experience that, on a long day, (particularly one spent in the house with children!) one’s spirits can be considerably lifted by elements of color, texture, and pattern, and light.

Raymond: Please describe any challenges that affected the design and perhaps steered you to an entirely new final design?
Lea: One of the most challenging phases of the design process for the Cape Ann Collection was choosing colorways. Because each of my designs begins with a hand-painted watercolor, I am somewhat wedded to the original colors in which I paint my motif. Often, anything different than the original painting looks “off” to me. There is also a considerable difference between colorways I like on my screen versus what these colors look like on linen, and then on wallpaper. I find the trial and error of this phase quite arduous for me. The options for color combinations are infinite and yet must be considered carefully. As a newcomer to textile design, I ultimately chose to follow my gut and trust my own process of elimination, once again leading with nostalgic memories of my families’ colors in our 1700s farm cottage. For those colors I loved but did not end up using, I am working them into my next collection because I cannot bear to let them go!

Raymond: Describe your overall brand DNA and Ethos.
Lea: I try to design patterns that I could see my own family using in our historic New England home. I want my textiles to compliment both the gravity of antiquity and the innocence of childhood. To me, home should have a fresh, wholesome, country feel, where beauty abounds, history is revered, imagination is nurtured, and nothing is too precious to be touched by children.

Photography by Brynna Grae Lee.

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