Photo Credit : Bob Iyall.
Supple, luminous, and lace-like are adjectives not often associated with lumber. Yet all three describe the seventy linear feet of ethereal felt sheers covering the windows of the lumber room, an artist-in-residence and exhibition space in Portland, Oregon.
Designer Nicole Misiti, of the strategic branding firm Felt Hat, envisioned the sheers—along with several other functional art pieces—to embody the spirit of lumber as matter, culture, and idea.
For the window coverings, Misiti chose a microscopic tree cell—the smallest unit of lumber—as her inspiration, magnifying the cellular pattern of a cross section of Douglas fir. Next, she hunted for a collaborator who could breathe life into her idea.
“That’s impossible,” was felt artist Janice Arnold’s first response when Misiti asked her if she could make window coverings using a wood cell pattern.
“No one had ever attempted anything like it, and the intricacy of the cells was in my experience contrary to the principles and qualities of making felt,” Arnold writes in an email. Yet she was so intrigued by the idea that eventually she told Misiti she would try.
An inventor and designer, Arnold makes textiles and textures with wool that have little precedent in design, quality, or scale. With twenty years of research and development as both a solo artist and collaborator, she has redefined what people think of as felt, mining its limitless potential, coaxing the fibers into forms that transcend time, looking at once ancient and modern.
“I know raw wool intimately,” writes Arnold. “On a cellular level it has a highly refined molecular structure that allows the fiber (in its raw state) to change form based on how it is manipulated and finished.” This shape-changing quality, or “fiber alchemy” as she calls it, poses unique challenges and potential.
“Is it possible,” she wondered, “to create a twist on traditional handmade felt in a refined modern way, to replicate a complex predetermined graphic image, that yields an elegant, predictable, repeatable, durable, yet supple and drape-able, result?”
Above: Enlarged pattern printed on waterproof paper, Courtesy of the artist.
Above: JAF Studio assistant - Brittany Mroczek prepping an enlarged pattern ( 22’ x 6’ ). Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Above: Detail of the hand-cut unfelted raw merino wool. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
After months of experimenting, she developed a promising new technique. Using cell structure images, Arnold made a piece for a solo exhibit. Misiti recognized the merit of Arnold’s method, sparking an eighteen-month collaboration in which Misiti created test patterns and Arnold experimented with types of raw wool, and different weaves and weight of woven silk.
Misiti and Arnold’s goal was to create a feeling of being inside the landscape of a cell. After two years of individual and collaborative effort, in 2008 Arnold began making the twenty-seven individual panels. She reworked Misiti’s digital cell designs to allow for forty percent shrinkage. Arnold hand cut each cell from un-felted wool panels measuring twenty-two by six feet, then sandwiched the panels between silk. Once felted, the wool and silk transformed into a single piece of fabric that had shrunk to twelve by four feet. Each panel took over a month to complete.
Above: Felt Arch detail. Photo Credit: Bob Iyall.
When the sheers are drawn, the result is a cocooning wrap of airy, shimmering glow. The filmy silk and felted wool balance the positive and negative space, achieving a lace-like quality that dances from feather light to dense opacity. Light flits through the cell openings providing a counterpoint to the massive wooden beams that support the timbered ceiling of the exhibition space. What Misiti and Arnold achieved is an exquisite tension between structure—the tensile strength of the material lumber —and the organic, cellular forms that pulse with life under a changing Portland sky. Their collaboration is a story of artistry and craftsmanship, lumber and handmade felt.
Above: Palace Yurt, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Fashioning FELT Exhibition, Weekend Arts feature. Photo: Fred Conrad, New York Times.
Additional images provided by The Felt Hat and JA Felt.
Meg B. Holden writes and makes her home in Portland, Oregon.