Five Questions For: Hannah Alderson, Robert Allen

The talented and textile-minded Hannah Alderson.

Gang, meet Hannah Alderson, Director, Design & Merchandising, Robert Allen!

John and I are so lucky to work with the amazing studio team at Robert Allen (now the Robert Allen Duralee Group) to bring our fabric vision to life. Among the shining stars who help us on the Robert Allen design front: Donna Rinaldi, Lucy Maitland, and Holly Merry. We are also so very fortunate to work with the brilliant Hannah Alderson, the Director, Design & Merchandising at Robert Allen and a shining star in the glittering textiles world. Smart, creative, a visionary… and Hannah’s really darn cool, to boot.

So, dear Hannah, let’s unveil your stellar bio:

“Hannah Alderson has served as Robert Allen’s Director of Design since 2011, where she is always on a search for the next great color story. She grew up in Brooklyn, studied painting at Harvard, and received her MFA in Textiles from Rhode Island School of Design. Her work provides her an opportunity to touch and feel every conceivable fabric available under the sun as she seeks out the most inspiring linens, wools, cottons, velvets, and prints for Robert Allen’s collections. Her all-time favorite fabric is denim.”

Wow, impressive.

Let’s dive in!

  1. MADCAP COTTAGE (MC): Tell us about your position at Robert Allen and what a typical day is like for you.

HANNAH ALDERSON (HA): I am Design Director for all collections under Robert Allen’s residential division which means I play with fabric all day, and sometimes trim.

On a typical day I am meeting with textile mills that are showing their latest collections. Mills visit our lower Manhattan studio from Italy, Turkey, India, Belgium, and, of course, the US. I am usually looking for great embroideries, interesting wovens, textures, and, of course, pattern. When I start a project, I develop a creative brief, but I love to be surprised. Sometimes a mill will come in with something fantastic that we didn’t know we wanted and we will make it work.

When we find something we like, we will either develop it with a new piece of artwork or color it in the color palette we have developed for the upcoming season at Robert Allen.

My favorite days, of course, are when I get to work with the Robert Allen @Home team on the Madcap Cottage collection. I particularly love the beginning of a project when we scope wide and soak up all of your amazing influences. EDITORIAL NOTE: Swoon.

With every design project, I keep the ‘big four’ parameters in mind: Color, Pattern, Construction, and Application. I usually start with color.

While we develop our own color chips in our CAD studio, it is important to actually see how that color translates from a paint swatch into three-dimensional yarns and fabric. For example, a mossy green might be beautiful in a silk-velvet, and look dead in a cotton twill. That is why we have our mills develop color blankets, or trials, of each pattern that we want to put into the line. As for pattern: it’s all about the layout and scale (I always say go bigger). A great pattern should work on a pillow… or a stage curtain. Hopefully the repeating pattern creates a rhythm and environment that becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. Madcap Cottage’s Bermuda Bay pattern is the perfect example of this kind of drama!

  1. MC: Where do you find inspiration? Is there one city that is especially inspirational? A certain magazine? A favorite book? Movie?

HA: Ever since I can remember, a wander around the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been my go-to to kick start inspiration. I like to start with no particular destination and take turns into obscure galleries. Open storage in the American Wing has lovely vignettes of cups and glasses and can inspire color palettes. My favorite quiet spot is under the main staircase where you can see Coptic textile fragments from the 3rd century. The Arts of the Islamic World galleries are a must on every trip.

For the last two years I have visited Florence by myself at the tail end of my annual trip to Lake Como for a textile fair. I take the same wandering approach there that I take at the Met, going everywhere on foot with only a vague sense of my final destination. That process of getting a little lost, of looking, and, of course, taking pictures gives me so much energy for my work. I feed on it all year. This year I became fascinated with the engraved marble tombs on the floor of Santa Croce. I still haven’t made it to the statue of David, but rain brought me to the Uffizi this year (usually I like to be outside) where I saw Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ for the first time. I almost died. That dress!

In all of my wanderings I try to incorporate some vintage clothing hunts. I am a sucker for a 1960s dress suit. I have collected over the years some very snappy pieces though they are getting harder to find (and fit into). My style icon is Ingrid Bergman in the film ‘Indiscreet.’ There is one scene where she is wearing this amazing printed opera coat and kisses Cary Grant on the banks of the Thames. Goals.

  1. MC: What do you see coming up down the road on the fabric front, any trends? Any colors?

HA: Great patterns are always in style. I think the lasting ones usually have some grounding in history. The history of textiles is like one long remix: styles and motifs get reinterpreted over and over again. As for color, I just watched a documentary on Fabergé and am obsessed with the cobalt blue on the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches. They often have gold stars. I have to make this happen on a fabric.

  1. MC: Is there a designer from the past or a certain era that has really influenced you?

HA: I have some favorite textile designers I never get tired of: Vera Neumann, E.A. Seguy, and Leslie and D.D. Tillett. I have lately become fascinated with the ceramics Finnish designer Birger Kaipiainen. My favorite painter is Alice Neel.

  1. MC: Tell us about your home and your personal style. What would surprise us about your home?

HA: That my sofa is badly in need of new fabric! I keep saving it for the next Madcap line… I’ll need to consult with you. Chintz, please. I love a green room. My favorite room color is Gumdrop by Benjamin Moore. My favorite piece of art is a big vintage botanical print from Kabinett and Kammer in Andes, NY which was a gift from my aunt-in-law, Brooke Alderson. Pink, green, and sunny yellow are my go-to colors for a cheerful home. Is there anything more pleasing than a bookshelf full of Nancy Drew yellow- and black-spined books? My twin sister and I split our childhood collection—she got the even-numbered editions, I got the odd.

I love vintage ceramic lamps, too. Overhead lighting is the worst. When I was a teenager, I removed the ceiling light bulb in my room. Blanche Dubois, even at a young age. As for my personal style, I keep it simple (except for special occasions). When I’m showing fabric with a lot of pattern and color (like Madcap), I don’t want to compete!

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