The Design Library

by Eve Hollands on

Tucked away in a beautiful building off Oxford Street, is the largest collection of surface design of the world. One of the best kept secrets in London, The Design Library is a visit every design professional should make. And I was fortunate to have been let in! The timeless beauty found in its archives is a source of inspiration and the spark to get any creative imagination going. The London branch (the main headquarters are in New York) holds 60,000 prints and patterns that are organised into1,200 categories. Unlike a museum, that keeps everything carefully protected behind glass, The Design library is a room full of orderly piles, that you can easily access depending on what catches your eye.

There are original fabrics that date from the 1750s to the1980s. Much like Alan Lomax did, collecting samples of folk tunes that not only held incalculable musical value but also offered a broader cultural context of society of that time, what you find here, are years of art, design and fashion, unfolding to tell a visual story of human history. The archives were carefully collected and curated over the years by Peter Koepke and Susan Meller, who teamed up in 1990. Peter was a private New York City dealer that sourced Amazonian textiles and pottery for collectors and museums and Susan Meller is a renowned author and textile collector. Peter began to work as a design consultant for Susan, until he bought her business in 2002, turning it into a world-renowned reference for print and pattern inspiration.

Kate Denham who is the head of the London branch, graciously received me and took the time to show me around. This is an honour because only design professionals may access this library. They can range from fashion designers to people from the film industry or even stationary brands. Some of them just come to rummage around and hope to find something that interests them and others have a particular brief for which they need to prepare.

The fabrics are one of a kind mostly, and although there are some from recognised designers such as Sonia Delaunay or Raoul Duffy, the majority are anonymous pieces. With no label or identity, it is left to your imagination to recreate who made it, in what country, and what for. What better set up for a designer just starting their creative process? Because what The Design library offers are ideas, glimpses of magic that can be interpreted as many ways as you want. While many designers use the print as is, others may just use it as a starting point to set the mood for their collection, interpreting the graphics into their own particular work of art.

What makes this archive so unique is its capacity to bring meaning into design. It is not only physical beauty they offer, these patterns and prints also reflect moments in time that are frozen in the textures and the colours. Who made them is not relevant but the samples themselves are evidence of a social narrative. The prints tell us stories of the way life was understood and seen. They are an anthropological legacy to pass on, reinterpreted again and again in new collections and for new generations.

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