Call of the wild Designer Lynn Chase turned a lifelong love of animals into a successful career in home furnishings -- and conservation.

September 07, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Like her tigers, elephants and monkeys, designer Lynn Chase's jaguars inhabit a sort of African Eden. They are tabby-cat jaguars, lying peaceably with parrots and pastel flowers on the striking black border of a dinner plate.

When the artist and animal lover introduced Jaguar Jungle, her first dinnerware pattern, in 1988 -- and with it launched Lynn Chase Designs -- she was ahead of her time. The animal motif and nature craze in home furnishings was yet to come. In fact, marketing consultants advised her against the pattern.

"No one wants to eat off fur," they told her.

Chase went ahead with the design anyway.

It turned out people didn't mind eating off fur. With its black border and 24-karat gold band, Jaguar Jungle is more formal than some of Chase's other patterns and mixes well with both antique and contemporary table settings. Almost 10 years later, it's still one of the company's best-selling patterns. In 1991, the International Tabletop Association recognized Chase's influence on the home furnishings industry with its Impact Award and Best Design for Jaguar Jungle.

These days, when mixing and matching everything from fabric patterns to furniture periods has become one of the most important trends in interior decorating, Lynn Chase's china is at the height of its popularity as both giftware and as bridal registry patterns.

People may buy a few bold salad plates, for instance, to mix with their regular china pattern. David Schuler of Sunnyfields, one of the local shops that carry her designs, routinely displays patterns like the yellow-and-blue Costa Azzurra with blue Wedgwood, and it looks strikingly au courant.

"Today's older brides have often inherited china," says Schuler. "They want to add in a more whimsical touch, and this becomes their secondary china."

Some of Chase's patterns are meant to mix and match with each other. After Jaguar Jungle, Chase designed Amazonian Jaguar, tableware that's "nothing but fur," as she describes it. "A plate of fur."

(That's not quite true. Amazonian Jaguar is simply a more abstract design than Jaguar Jungle, one that goes beautifully with its predecessor. The plates are white with a sophisticated jaguar-print border in black and gold.)

Local connection

While most of her designs are inspired by exotic places, Lynn Chase is actually a native New Yorker with a Baltimore connection. She, like her mother and aunt, went to boarding school at St. Timothy's. She graduated in 1966, winning the school's art prize for her drawing.

Her love of animals started at an early age at her family's home on Long Island, where her mother bred golden retrievers. While other little girls might have had a favorite kitten, Chase collected lizards, pigeons, rabbits -- "including a brown rabbit I used to sleep with."

After graduating from Bennett College and the New York School of Interior Design, she made her first trip to Africa in 1969. "I was hooked," she says. The next few years she traveled extensively in Africa and South America, sketching and photographing the endangered species that would become the inspiration for her designs.

In the '70s, Chase became known as a wildlife painter, with frequent one-woman shows here and in Europe. Her first foray into home furnishings came in 1982 with a series of collector's plates and figurines for Lenox.

She decided to start her own company in 1988, she says, "because I wasn't getting anywhere. I wanted to be well-known in the home furnishings arena so when I plead a cause I'll be heard."

The cause Chase wanted to plead was conservation, and to that end she created the Chase Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit organization. A portion of Lynn Chase Designs' pre-tax profits go to the foundation, which supports wildlife studies and projects around the world.

Lynn Chase Designs' celebrity clientele list includes Sting, Queen Elizabeth, actor Michael Douglas, designer Tommy Hilfiger and Vice President Al Gore's daughter Karenna, who listed a Chase pattern on her bridal registry list. Chase's porcelain has been featured in Food & Wine, Bride's and Home magazines. A five-piece place setting in porcelain ranges in price from around $100 to $300; her faience patterns, pottery hand-painted in France, are less formal and somewhat less costly.

Older inspiration

Part of the appeal of her tableware is that in spite of the contemporary look of her designs, Chase has been strongly influenced by the Sevres and other 18th-century porcelain her family owned.

"When I had dinner at Granny's house," she says, "I would always be very aware of the porcelain. I would flip the plates over and there would be little designs on the back" -- put there by the artist to cover the pitting caused by this new (to the Europeans) process.

Chase was so enchanted by this whimsical detailing that many years later she would add dragonflies and leaves and little butterflies to the underside of plates or the inside of mugs when she designed her own china. They have become something of a hallmark.

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