The partners of the Design Group have a vision: They see people decorating their bedrooms, bathrooms and even themselves with fabrics in an array of vibrant patterns drawn from some of the most ancient cultures in the world.
The patterns are based on motifs from Central America, Africa, India, Russia. In the vision, the Design Group sees African-Americans seeking African-inspired designs to bring their heritage home. And it also sees Hispanics and Jews, WASPs and Chinese, Russians and Scandinavians, looking for something beyond the relentlessly European-style florals that dominate the American domestic textile industry.
"Because we are woman- and minority-owned, we wanted to come up with great patterns that are not necessarily 'Afro-centric,' and not 'minority,' " said Leland Paul Michael, president of the group of half a dozen principals. "We said, let's do global, let's do many cultures and backgrounds."
Besides Michael, the New Jersey-based group consists of two graphic artists, Renwick Bullock (a Baltimore native) and Colin Houlder; treasurer Irene Pomianowski (formerly of the IRS); secretary Michelle Phillips; and Brian Stanley, the business manager, who has a background in import-export marketing.
At first, Michael said, the designers weren't sure whether to go into apparel or home fashions. "We weren't afraid of the competition in apparel," he said, "but we thought that in the home-fashion market there was room for something new."
Last year, Dan River Home Fashions thought so too, agreeing to license bedding and accessory designs by the Design Group.
So far, there are four lines in production: Mali, based on mud-cloth designs of the Segou region of Mali in West Africa; San Blas, inspired by the reverse embroidery of Mola panels of the Cuna Indians of Panama; Uzuri, based on embroidered robes in the Swahili coastal style of East Africa (the robes also inspired the more familiar printed dashiki); and the newest pattern, Tanzania, based on painted bark-cloth designs from Tanzania and Zaire.
Still in the works are designs based on patterns from Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, France, Egypt and Tibet -- as well as an African-inspired floral that is anything but conventional. It has large, wide-spaced sprays of tulips and peonies against a kente-cloth-inspired background.
To develop their designs, Bullock said, they study the patterns that appeal to them, looking for a "feeling," an unnameable quality that fits their overall concept and the design needs of what they are producing. For instance, one piece of a pattern may become a bottom sheet, another piece may become a top-sheet border, and yet another motif may become a comforter or a bed skirt.
"We take that [motif] and we lay it out, and we figure out a diagram of exactly how we want the template to be placed on the pattern. Then we work in the repeat and the color combinations," said Bullock, who grew up in Northeast Baltimore and graduated from the Community College of Baltimore (now Baltimore City Community College) and New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
Usually, Bullock said, there are three to four variations of each design to work with. The original pattern designs are painted by hand; the group believes working out designs on a computer would remove the hand-crafted look of their work. The goal is to reinterpret, not copy, the original designs, while remaining true to the spirit of the work.
"We didn't believe we could improve on the original designs," Michael said. "But we thought what we could do was to draw people's attention to cultural backgrounds and to an authenticity that embraces that culture."
The lines in production so far include sheets, comforters, bed skirts, robes, shower curtains, hampers, tissue-box covers, painted and carved wooden boxes, picture frames, wastebaskets, dolls, gift baskets and other items, most coordinated to work together or mix and match. The designs have clear, luminous colors -- red, black, gold, green, blue, brown, chartreuse, lavender, rose and sea-green -- and subtle, painted textures that invite you to touch. Some items are manufactured, like the bedding and hampers, and others, like the decorative boxes, are hand-crafted by the Design Group members, with help from family.
Once the designs are worked out, the Design Group makes a presentation to Dan River designers and merchandisers in New York, Bullock said. There it is decided which patterns will be put into production. Sometimes the Dan River people ask for changes -- different colors, redesign of a component they don't think works. They rejected a basket-weave pattern, Bullock said, because they felt "It wasn't something consumers would want to sleep on."
Although the lines so far have limited distribution (none is sold here), they've been well-received by consumers who see them, Michael said. In June, the group got a chance to exhibit and sell its designs at the 1800 Belmont Arts building in the Adams-Morgan area of Washington. The building houses a number of African-American businesses that sell products ranging from jewelry and clothing to memorabilia and sculpture. The Design Group set up a temporary shop there during an event called "In Celebration of Black Men."
"We were so successful the first weekend, we went back for the second weekend," Michael said. As a result, the group is thinking of opening a small retail outlet, either in Adams Morgan or in Baltimore. One of the most interesting things about the shop, Michael said, was that "We got the opportunity to speak to consumers who'd never seen the product before."
Members of the group, which operates out of Michael's home in suburban New Jersey, are satisfied with its progress. "If there are 10 steps [to success], we're probably on No. 4, which is very good for about 4 1/2 years," Michael said.
The company is entirely self-financed. "The majority of people in the company have full-time jobs," Michael said, "and a percentage of their salaries all go into running the business. I describe the company as being cash-poor. We do make a profit, but all those profits go right back into the company." However, he added, "We don't owe anybody any money."
They may be short on cash, but they're not short on ideas. They have plans to expand into new product lines -- kitchen items, for instance -- and they hope to add seasonal lines as well. "We're about to go into a whole watermelon thing" for summer, Michael said. They also hope to move into furniture design, first with fabrics for commercial use, then into designing furniture "in a contemporary/Shaker" style.
Michael said some of their fabric designs may appear in apparel, or they may be sold by the yard in boutique settings, much as Marimekko fabric was in the '70s, or as IKEA fabric is now.
"We're looking to take it into a total lifestyle concept," Bullock said. "Where we go from here is just a snowball effect -- it just takes off."
For information on buying Design Group products, call (800) 736-4919.
Pub Date: 7/21/96