Danish Textile Designer Margrethe Odgaard schooled at the The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation and at the Rhode Island School of Design in the U.S. not only creates colour but it permeates through every aspect of her life. In the poetic way that she transforms objects in her use of colour, she continues to explore and challenge herself working across a very broad range of objects and materials. The designer was kind enough to grant me an interview considering her extremely busy schedule, and allow us to get a little insight into the mind of this creative colour alchemist.
Photo: Andreas Omvik.
What attracted you to study Textile Design?
I started out studying fashion design, but one day during my first year at the Design School, I walked through the weaving room of the textile department, and from that very moment my heart was set on textile design. The thought of creating your own material, thread by thread, fascinated me deeply, and I suddenly understood that it was not the fashion itself but the material, structure and colours that had my interest.
Why did you choose to continue your studies at The Rhode Island School of Design after your graduation from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen?
During my studies at the Design School in Copenhagen, I longed for more thorough colour studies, but the school didn’t offer any specific colour courses. So I searched the internet and found, that RISD had a series of colour classes with exciting teachers.
What did you do for the French company EPICE where you worked for seven years?
I designed more than five hundred different patterns, each in 10 different colour combinations. All the colours were carefully mixed and hand-painted. Besides designing, I was overseeing production of each collection in India.
What makes Épice unique is that for every collection they hand paint 140 colours. Jan Machenhauer, one of the two founders of Épice, was an amazing mentor. He taught me that design shouldn’t be thought but be created as a synergy between idea, technique, material and craft. And also to almost religiously pay attention to the finishing and details.
When you returned to Copenhagen in 2013 did you feel you were ready to start your own studio?
Yes, I had been ready for a long time. I was like a horse kicking the door of the stable, ready to run out into the field, so when I finally started on my own, I was just full of energy and joy.
You have a rather fascinating condition called Synaesthesia, when two or more of the five senses that are normally experienced separately are joined together. As a designer, has it been a hindrance or helpful in your creative process?
A lot of people mistakenly consider synaesthesia some kind of strange handicap, and some people even refer to it as a state of mental sickness. They could not be more wrong. It is just a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to experiences in a second sensory pathway. It’s a playfulness that drives me to challenge the boundaries of my own field. For example I used the synaesthesia when I made collaborations with chef Jacob Mielcke and musician/composer Teitur Lassen from the Faroe Islands.
You created your own colour system, a hand painted index of 520 colours using popsicle sticks, how and why did you come up with this?
In most of the industry, designers work with the Pantone Colour System, which is an excellent tool of colour communication, but less compelling in terms of richness and complexity. I usually compare the pantone colour system with a keyboard. Highly functional and practical, the quality of the keyboard notes simply do not match those of a real piano. As a consequence, I have painted 520 carefully mixed colours on wooden popsicles and paper for a personal colour reference index, which I use, and continue to develop, in my various projects. I wanted a range of hues that possess an immediate appeal to the senses, not just sight, and I decided that if the colour appears edible, if you are willing to put the colour in your mouth, then it successfully relates to the body.
What is the most important element for you in textile design?
The human and human senses are the focus in all of my work. The word aesthetics comes from the Greek word ‘aisthetike’ and means sensory perception. We feel, taste, see, smell and listen through everyday life, and a stimulation of the senses helps us feel acknowledged and recognized as human beings. In my work as a textile designer, I focus on the role of colour, material and surface in the transition between humans and our surroundings. I work with how colours and surface can stimulate our senses and nourish us, based on the idea that if we meet with care, poetry and quality in our environment, it is more likely that we ourselves reproduce a similar behaviour and consciousness.
You had been chosen as the recipient of The Torsten and Wanja Söderberg prize 2016. The prize money of 1 million SEK to a Nordic Designer makes it the largest in the world within the Design community. How has this win impacted you as a designer and for your profession going forward?
It was such a great and unexpected honour, which still makes me feel both thankful and humble. For my work in the studio it hasn’t changed much – but it is a game changer for sure in how people look at my work now. I hope that it will make people take colours more seriously.
You have teamed up with furniture designer Chris Liljenberg-Hallstrøm to form Included Middle. How did this collaboration come about, and what are your principles in working together?
None of us were looking to start a new collaboration, but Chris and I both took part in an exhibition curated by Li Edelkoort, and through that exhibition we met each other. Collaborating allows us to further examine textile and furniture from a different perspective than when working individually.
The starting point for our duo, was how designers meet the user and how they can interact with the objects. For example in the shelving system, where the frames and shelves can be put together in various combinations creating colour patterns and different sizes of storage space. Or how you can use a set of colour dice to compose wall embroideries.
Colours and patterns are often used as decoration, but we are interested in examining how this can be integrated into objects for the home, giving them a function, making you see three dimensional objects in a different way. What does it mean to the three dimensional shaping of objects in using colours and patterns? And what does it mean to colours and patterns when they have to relate to three dimensional form? Does that create possibilities to create idioms that tells the user that they can interact with the objects? We want to show that colour, patterns and form is like a jigsaw puzzle that enhances and creates with each other from the notion that there is not just one solution, but several aesthetical truths.
Could you tell me a little about the 2014 Siyazama Project in collaboration with Editions in Craft?
In November 2013, I was invited by Editions in Craft to do a 10-day workshop with a group of women from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, who work with traditional beadwork. The aim of the project was to create designs suitable for export, so the women can live from their craft.
The workshop resulted in two products: Colour Cup and Ribbon jewelry. Made of glass beads, Colour Cup has the ability to let light through and colour it, while covering the light bulb as a second skin.
You have designed blankets for Muuto, Included Middle and the latest project in Iceland, the Brynja blankets for Epal. What is your process like when designing blankets, how do you conceive the colours and the patterns?
All these projects started by looking closely at a given material and a craft technique. To be honest I don’t pay attention to trends when I start designing a new product, because it should outlive those fleeting notions.
RIPPLE uses minimum means to create a maximum effect. Woven in pure cotton, the unique leno weave technique allows the air between the fibers to have an insulating effect, making Ripple extra cozy and warm. It has an iridescent, rippled pattern that becomes more visible the closer you look. It revives an old weaving tradition and uses subtly contrasting colours, so that Ripple elicits a novel interplay of function, material, and structure.
BRYNJA is fluffy and warm and named after the Icelandic female name of “armour and protection”. It is made in Iceland of wool from Icelandic sheep. The sheep graze freely, and the wool is purchased directly from the farmers. Within a few hundred square kilometres, the wool is washed, carded, spun and knitted, and only natural energy sources such as geothermal power is used in the production of the wool.
What is the Y Arpeggio Print edition, how do you define colours of musical tones?
Y Arpeggios is a collaboration with Faroese composer Teitur Lassen, based on the idea that you play mirrored patterns in the shape of a Y instead of traditional chords and harmonies. It consists of 5 woodcut prints in an edition of 32 and notation for 5 music pieces. The collaboration combines music and eye music, a graphical notation of music dating back to the early Renaissance and not noticeable by the listener when performed. I used a colour scheme defined by Isaac Newton in 1703, in which he compares each note with a colour by paralleling sound wave with light wave.
Your collaboration with paint company Linolie & Pigment of 12 natural paint colours called The Odgaard Serien will now be shown at the The Biennale of Craft and Design 2017 exhibition. What was your inspiration for those paint colours and how different was it to work with paints instead of textiles?
My intention for Odgaard Serien was to create a range of colours that relate to the senses in a nurturing and stimulating way.
It is my experience that people generally become very insecure when they need to combine and choose colours. The palette was developed so that all the colours interrelate and can be combined in every possible way and make beautiful and intriguing colour combinations. Developing the paints weren’t different from working with textiles, except that the group of pigments is different. Compared with regular plastic paint one of the great advantages of linseed oil paint, is that it uses natural ingredients and real pigments. The colours have much more soul than the synthetic and man-made industrial paints.
We take pictures of places we visit but you make colour diaries, is colour a big part of your interaction with your surroundings and how do you use these diairies?
Colours are an essential part of my interaction with my surroundings. In fact, I think its like that for most of us, but it happens on a subconscious level. According to the Institute for Colour Research in the United States, it takes less than 90 seconds to perceive an object, of which 62-90% of the assessment is due to the colour alone. Colour precedes form in the reading of the surroundings and can dominate an object or spatial experience. But too often the significance of colour is underestimated by both architects and designers.
I’ve been making colour diaries since I lived in the US back in 2004, and recently further developed the concept with a colour diary from Japan and one from Morocco. In Morocco I was walking around the streets of Marrakech and Ourika in the Atlas Mountains, and painted colour combinations found in architecture and objects on-site, which I found especially appealing or intriguing. From my sketches I selected 18 colour combinations and made them into an artist book as a tool of inspiration. The number of three colours refer to the musical chord, a harmonic set of three or more notes that is heard simultaneously.
I make the colour diaries to record colours from different cultures. It’s imposible to mentally remember a colour and to pass on a colour from one person to another, unless you make a visual and precise notation of the colour.
What’s also interesting is that the colour diaries seem to capture a mood or a soul of a place, that could not have been communicated otherwise.
As a textile designer you have made a foray into furniture design, working with African beaded jewellery, creating a paint collection, and even artistic installations such as the Rite Window for the Reform Design Biennale 2016. Is there anything you dream of working with that you haven’t done yet?
As a human being I’m a curious person, so I don’t exclude any mediums as long as I get to work deliberately and thoroughly with colour, material and surface.
What would your advice be to young textile designers in Scandinavia?
Be patient and don’t underestimate the importance of getting to know your personal design DNA.
Work hard and share your ideas, skills and knowledge without hesitation. Think through your hands and listen to the material.
What are you working on now?
Next week I will be opening my solo exhibition at Design Museum Helsinki.
Watch the short documentary on Margrethe Odgaard. Film for Röhsska Museet, Torsten & Wanja Söderbergs prize 2016. Stavfel Productions.