On Hambidge and blue

Rissanen_three-of-threes-2017As I mentioned in the first post, Betty Kirke’s research on Madeleine Vionnet was influential on my thinking in many ways. In the conclusion of my undergraduate dissertation on Vionnet in 1999 I speculated that it might be possible to design clothes without wasting any fabric, having spent a good two years by then analysing Vionnet’s approach to cutting. Five years later I began a PhD on the topic, and well, here I am doing a residency at the library that holds a copy of that doctoral thesis. (US readers, a doctoral dissertation in Australia is called a thesis, while an undergraduate written work is called a dissertation, for a complete reversal of the terms. In the US I speak in American terms, and on this blog in Australian terms.)

Kirke’s book on Vionnet is interesting in many ways beyond Vionnet’s approach to bias; I highly recommend reading the entire text. Among other things, Kirke discusses the relationship between Vionnet and Thayaht (aka Ernesto Michahelles), an Italian Futurist artist, who was behind some of the most iconic illustrations of Vionnet’s work in the early 1920s. Both Vionnet and Thayaht shared an interest in dynamic symmetry, the work of Jay Hambidge. This in turn became a large influence on how I designed particularly in the last year of my undergraduate degree. I am returning to Hambidge’s ideas in the work I am undertaking during the residency, not yet fully knowing what that exactly means.

Whenever I begin a new piece, I am faced with a choice about its size. I mostly work with cotton Aida cloth that’s 150cm wide. Where to cut? Sometimes there are clear, already-set constraints that make the choice easier. For example, I recently completed a piece that was an off-cut left behind from another work. The space was already constrained; often that can be helpful (it maybe the designer in me speaking) because it eliminates some decision-making and speeds up the process. I didn’t have the same constraint with the project about the UTS Library; I simply had a bolt of Aida from which to cut a piece of my choice. I had allowed some excess around the piece to eventually wrap around a frame, but even then its dimensions have remained ill-defined until I returned to Hambidge’s work in the past two weeks.

Dynamic symmetry has its roots in the golden section, or the golden mean, the proportions found in nature as well as ancient Greek art and architecture. At its simplest, 1:1.618. The magic of numbers as Yeohlee Teng calls it. The three composition and density studies in complementary colours , above, pay homage to Teng’s magic of numbers (I spent many an hour at the UTS Library pondering Teng’s work before moving to New York and becoming friends with her); each is a play on the number three.While working on them I also thought a lot about one of the greatest teachers I had at UTS, Peter van Sommers. van Sommers gave several lectures on colour theory during my first semester at UTS in 1996. He also assessed that final dissertation on Vionnet; I still have the pages of wonderful, hand-written feedback from him. In short, van Sommers bookended my undergraduate studies.


Rekindling my interest in Hambidge allowed me to resolve the dimensions of the first piece; I will share the mathematics of it in a later post. Doing the complementary colour study was useful in that I very quickly chose to reject that approach. Instead, I’m moving forward with a palette of blues. It is a safe path for me; blue is a familiar ally. And there’s nothing wrong with that in this moment in time. In many ways the residency is becoming a reflective, auto-biographical moment, and in that context the calmness of blue feels fitting. Now for stitching the vast space…

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