The Aesthete: Kaffe Fassett opens his black book of style

The godfather of textile design loves French flower paintings, laughing Buddhas, and Leffe Belgian beer. By Lucinda Baring. Portraits by Guen Fiore

Kaffe Fassett at home in London
Kaffe Fassett at home in London | Image: Guen Fiore

My personal style signifier is a blue-and-white scarf – ethnic in style. I have a huge collection: Indian, African, Chinese tie-dye. 

His carpet from Aleppo, with the folk-art girl he calls Villanelle
His carpet from Aleppo, with the folk-art girl he calls Villanelle | Image: Guen Fiore

The last thing I bought and loved was a little china vase from the Mint Museum uptown in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was drawn to the pure orb of colour – an unusual purple close to a plum but not as dark as an aubergine – which is surprising for me, as I love pattern. This is a wonderful little shop, stocked by somebody with a fabulous eye. 

Advertisement

And on my wishlist is an antique – probably late 1800s – patchwork quilt I spotted at an exhibition in Bedford, Pennsylvania. It belongs to a dealer called Mary Koval and I love the simple pinwheel pattern in shades of pink, prune, purple, old rusty browns and wonderful blues.

One of Fassett’s collection of antique laughing Buddhas
One of Fassett’s collection of antique laughing Buddhas | Image: Guen Fiore

My style icon is Ottavio Missoni. He was a sportsman, so he was tall and stunning, with silver-grey hair. He could wear a wonderful big Missoni cardigan or just simple shades of grey, but there was always a painless elegance. 

A lamp by Alessandro Mendini at The Conran Shop, Marylebone
A lamp by Alessandro Mendini at The Conran Shop, Marylebone

The best book I’ve read in the past year is Educated by Tara Westover, which is extraordinary. I read it because I am intrigued by Mormonism, but I wasn’t expecting the high drama, the opera. The relationships ­– with her abusive brother; her father, such a fascinating creature; and her mother – are so complex. 

Fassett’s vase from the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC
Fassett’s vase from the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC | Image: Guen Fiore

An unforgettable place I’ve travelled to in the past year is the Chicago River. We took a brilliant architecture tour of downtown Chicago by boat. I was stirred by the power of imagination it took to visualise those first skyscrapers – the use of steel and glass in these huge early structures – and we watched them evolve as we went down the river. My world is informed by looking at pattern and shape, but I’m also intrigued by the relationship between artist and patron, between vision and money – the tension, the wooing. This tour was fascinating. architecture.org

Ottavio Missoni, his style icon
Ottavio Missoni, his style icon | Image: Getty Images

If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be a theatre-set designer. I worked on Greg Doran’s production of As You Like It for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2000 and loved helping conjure this magical world and seeing the costumes and sets come alive. I fell for the story and Shakespearian language and would sit in every rehearsal, knitting giant needlepoint cushions for the stage, just drinking it all in.

Paul Smith socks
Paul Smith socks

The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Odilon Redon, the French flower painter. His paintings are so alive, yet mystical. But the most important thing is the colour – my obsession in life. 

A floral painting by Odilon Redon
A floral painting by Odilon Redon | Image: Getty Images

The best souvenir I’ve ever brought home is a carpet I saw on the back of a truck in Aleppo in the late 1990s. It shows a funny folk-art little girl – I call her Villanelle – wearing small high-heeled shoes and carrying a basket of bright flowers on her head. I bought it off this Chechnyan dealer, a big rogue of a guy. I love the monstrous colour and the humour. It has inspired a needlepoint design for a big floor cushion coming this year.

The Rupert Spira reject tiles on Fassett’s bathroom floor
The Rupert Spira reject tiles on Fassett’s bathroom floor | Image: Guen Fiore

An indulgence I would never forgo is my annual trip with my sister to a health farm called Rancho La Puerta in Baja California. We sleep in casitas, get up early and go for long walks up the mountain, eat fabulous organic food, take yoga and Pilates classes and read by the pool. In the evenings there are fascinating lectures by, say, a doctor or an author or an amazing scientist. I always meet such interesting people there. From $643.

His priceless knitting needles
His priceless knitting needles | Image: Guen Fiore

I have a collection of antique china laughing Buddhas. I have loved their big fat jowly faces since I was a child living in San Francisco. Something about these statues moved me and they’ve become a good omen: if I spot one, I know the day is going to be all right. I bought my first in the 1970s and have gathered a collection from all over the world. 

The best gift Fassett’s received – a rose named after him
The best gift Fassett’s received – a rose named after him

In my fridge you’ll always find Hellmann’s mayonnaise; lemons; fresh organic market veg; Maille Dijon mustard; pale, dry rosé; Leffe Belgian beer or Carlsberg Special Brew; and dark chocolate, sometimes with nuts or ginger.

Fassett’s best read in the past year
Fassett’s best read in the past year

A recent “find” is Backstreet Café in Houston. It is the sister restaurant to Hugo’s – our go-to gourmet Mexican, also in Houston – and is set in a wonderful old house on the outskirts of the city. The weather is mild, so you eat year-round in the garden, sitting underneath a huge oak tree strung with fairy lights. The food is simple market-to-table stuff: I like the shaved Brussels sprouts with warmed walnuts, cranberries and feta, and the wild mushroom soup is like nothing I’ve tasted before.

Fassett at home in London
Fassett at home in London | Image: Guen Fiore

The grooming staple I’m never without is shaving foam. I can’t stand gel. I love to be properly shaved by a barber with blade, soap and brush, but this is the closest I get to it at home.

Advertisement

If I didn’t live in London, the city I would live in is San Francisco. I love the architecture and the colours of the city, especially the pastels – there is a kind of fleshy pink that is very typical of San Francisco buildings. I also love Chinatown for its shocking sense of colour. I can remember as a child seeing three tangerines sitting on a great big square of fuchsia paper in a shop window. It blew my mind: that orange on pink. 

The last meal that truly impressed me was my friend the author and journalist Brigid Keenan’s kedgeree. It was elegant, light as a feather and delicious. She lived in Syria for a while so the rice had a Middle Eastern flavour and she served it with tzatziki, mango chutney and a tomato salsa made with cumin and other veg from the garden. 

Currently, I’m listening to Radio 4. I schedule meetings around my favourite programmes: Open Book with Mariella Frostrup; Desert Island Discs; Soul Music; and I can’t miss the play.

The best gift I’ve given recently was a mural I painted up the spiral stairway at Number One Bruton, a new boutique hotel in Somerset. It is my English, primitive take on Chinese wallpaper: peony trees with great big leaves in shades of ivory on a wonderful smoky-pale-green background. It was a present for Brigid Keenan, whose daughter owns the place, and it took two days of intense work in the freezing cold, the wind blowing in through the open doors of the unfinished hotel. 

And the best one I’ve received recently is having a rose named after me by my partner Brandon. The Kaffe Fassett rose starts out a deep-wine colour that turns into wonderful dark antique pink as it opens and meets the warmth of the day. We have three planted in our garden.

Objects I would never part with are my knitting needles, the tools of my trade.

The last song I downloaded was Bring Him Home from Les Misérables. I find the musical a bit harrowing, but this song is exquisite. I heard it on Britain’s Got Talent, sung beautifully by an amateur called Alex Keirl. I found myself really moved. 

If I had to limit my shopping to one neighbourhood in one city, I’d choose Marylebone High Street in London. I don’t always buy much, but I love to look. I’ll start with a rhubarb flan or quiche Lorraine from Paul pâtisserie, then I’ll go and see what’s new at Designers Guild. I used to design for Tricia Guild, who is brilliant at working with developing artists and she credits me – and Howard Hodgkin – with bringing her into colour. Then it’s The Conran Shop, where even the packaging is interesting. I might turn a geometric pattern I see into a knitwear design, and recently I found some little coloured lights in funny shapes that have inspired a beautiful fabric. On my last visit I also bought a John Derian book from its amazing collection of coffee-table books. Anthropologie is great for presents and off-the-wall design – quirky pottery, clothes, furnishing fabrics – and I also like Paul Smith for socks and scarves. He does colour for men, which you don’t see very often.

My favourite room in my house is my bathroom, because it has a tiled floor by the British ceramicist Rupert Spira. He is focusing on black and white now, but he used to work in spectacular colour. He likes his tiles to be uniform in tone, and I have created the most beautiful floor out of his rejects, in purples, pinks, ochres and gorgeous cobalt blues. 

The technology I couldn’t do without is my digital radio – my only gadget. I don’t know how to drive or work a computer, and I don’t have a mobile phone.

My wellbeing guru is Trevor Tennent, who is a Kiwi masseur based in Soho. I don’t like a deep, painful massage – I want to drift into a dream without being disturbed. He’s my man. I also love a mani/pedi. I used to think this was a girl’s thing, but I tried it and went straight to heaven. I walked out on these little kitten feet.

The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was a wonderful deep- purple wool scarf I found in an ethnic shop in Olympia old town, in Washington. I love purple and will wear all different shades, often all together. 

See also

Advertisement
Loading