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Brentano Design Studio


Are you curious about how ideas become fabrics? This Report260 takes a look at how the Brentano Design Studio, under the direction of Design Director Iris Wang, does just that. From conception to launch, Aaron, Lan, and Sam work so closely together that it’s hard to separate them—even for an interview.

I sat down with them all for some insight into the design process.

Brentano Team - Customer Service Department

Q: First, can you walk me through the design process?
Aaron: Alright. When we’re doing an original design, it all starts with an idea. Iris and I will discuss it, or Iris will discuss it with Sam, and then we’ll turn it into drawings, sketches, or paintings. When those are ready, we’ll look at them together and make sure everything is right for Brentano. At that point we’ll get into the construction and talk about what’s an appropriate fit for the other collections and patterns that are coming up.

If we’re satisfied with the drawings, we have to put the pattern into a format the mill can use—whether that’s figuring out what repeat size to use or getting an image file on the computer. It’s rare that the first strikeoff from the mill will work; we could go through three, four, or five before we feel it’s ready. Unless the color is critical to how a fabric reads, we only get serious about color after we’re satisfied with the construction. We’ll assemble samples for dyeing or receive yarn banks and write up blanket instructions. Once we’ve selected the colors we think are good, we’ll put them with the other patterns in the line and select the ones that coordinate well. We’re also talking about finishes at that point—if the finish isn’t integral to the construction like with a Crypton fabric.
Q: So, you and Sam work closely with Iris during the design process. When do you collaborate with Lan?
Aaron: My whole life is a collaboration with Lan.
Lan: Really?
Aaron: There are lots of things you have to think about besides being creative. Iris, Sam, and I will do all the work on a fabric until we place the order, and then Lan takes over. But we’re still involved making sure everything is correct: finish, colors, reviewing abrasion samples …
Lan: Contents, width.
Aaron: Lan’s a general. She’s even telling me what to say. 
Q: What’s the biggest challenge?
Aaron: My biggest challenge is taking a piece of artwork I love and turning it into a fabric I love. You want to keep the freshness and spontaneity of the drawing in the final product. It’s maybe the only thing I agonize over.
Q: Can you tell me about one pattern that you particularly enjoyed working on?
Aaron: I loved working on Nocturne. I needed to create brush strokes with texture inside; I had to paint the texture, laying one translucent paper over another. That process was really cool, and what I’m left with are these very interesting, tissue-y sheets with black paintings on them. They look like art in themselves.
Q: Okay, Lan, your turn. When did you start working at Brentano?
Lan: I don’t know, but we can ask Aaron. He’d know.
Aaron: 2001, wasn’t it?
Lan: I started part time helping Iris. We were still in the little small building in Glenview then. I shared an office with [National Sales Manager] Jeff, and Aaron had to sit in the hallway.
Q: In the whole design process, when do you get involved?
Lan: When we’re ready to place an order, I send it out and follow up with mills to get spec sheets and delivery dates and testing yardage. Then I’ll send samples to the testing labs. And make sure we get all the CFA’s.
Aaron: And you make me check them.
Lan: I prepare the new products for the website, adjust colors until I go crazy and can’t see anymore. And then there are all the documents and data for the website. I have to prepare all the specs for the printer for the swatch cards. I put together the collection guides.  
Aaron: We should just fill the page with a list of everything Lan does.
Lan: Labels for showroom samples. I’m involved with all sorts of different things. To make a long story short.
Q: Do you have a favorite pattern?
Lan: I like Rendezvous. And Nightlife. Before Sam joined the studio, I was helping Iris with designs, including Lantern and Lucky Knot.
Aaron: You worked on Ceylon too, right?
Lan: It’s the first one I worked on. And the stitching for Paparazzi, City Block, and Perspective.
Q: Sam, what is your role in the studio?
Sam: I’m not very involved with overall strategizing, but I work closely with the mills to get the details for each pattern just right. I typically design graphics on the computer in conjunction with designing weave processes. You have to think of them simultaneously; different patterns will look better woven in different ways.

Sometimes I take existing designs and modify them, or I help Iris develop her pattern ideas, or I work on my own ideas. On any given fabric, half the work is done during the initial development and half is done on editing strikeoffs—developing the color and making weave revisions. When I develop colors I’m always working with Aaron and Iris closely.
Q: As an artist, what’s your favorite part of textile design?
Sam: Well, my favorite part of this job is getting a new strikeoff for a fabric we’ve worked on with the mill. With weaving in particular, I’m interested in the weave structures and how the structures themselves create the images or the patterns on the cloth—compared to silkscreen printing, for example, where the imagery is created by superimposing motifs on the preexisting substrate.
Q: Is there any one pattern that you particularly enjoyed working on?
Sam: Does it have to be something that came out already? I liked this one … Albers. It’s one of the first ones I worked on at Brentano. I worked closely with the mill and spent a long time tweaking the details of the graphics.
Q: You’ve been around Chicago your whole life. Where’s your favorite place in the city?
Sam: If the weather’s nice, I think the best place to be is taking a bike ride on the Lakefront path.
Aaron My number one is the Loop. I went to school at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and I did a lot of growing up there. It’s inspiring to walk around and see the variety of design there—anything from late 19th century to contemporary buildings.
Q: Lan, where would you take a friend who’s only going to be in the city for a day?
Lan: Downtown Chicago, Navy Pier, Sears Tower, a boat ride …
Aaron: Goodness, Lan, you’re giving all the tourist traps.
Lan: That’s where I take my friends who visit. I’m the tour guide.

If the departments we’ve explored in previous Report260 are the muscle (Shipping & Receiving) and the voice (Customer Service), the Design Studio is the heart of Brentano. Not only do Aaron, Lan, and Sam bring fabrics to life, but they also keep Brentano’s oral histories and traditions circulating. Their passion is contagious!

There are more people and departments at Brentano left to discover, so look out for the next Report260, coming soon …

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