Color's Her World

Designer Susan Sargent uses exuberant hues in unexpected ways to flood home with a rainbow of playfulness

July 14, 2002|By Elaine Markoutsas | By Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

Susan Sargent looks at the world as a kaleidoscope of exuberant hues -- colors that dance, especially when she puts them together in the unexpected combinations that have become her signature.

This hot New England designer would have us tap into our inner child and grab for the brightest color in the Crayola box. She has done that ever since she was a kid playing with paint chips and fabric swatches while other girls collected dolls.

Textiles are what drew the grownup Sargent into the world of home design. The weaver introduced her wares -- quilted, appliqued and boldly trimmed pillows, blankets and hand-hooked wool rugs -- to the High Point, N.C., furniture market six years ago. But she never dreamed she soon would be sharing ink with industry superstars such as Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan.

It's suddenly Susan in the limelight.

Last April, Lexington Furniture Industries launched Sargent's first furniture collection, 50 pieces in all. Several other manufacturers joined the licensing brigade: Robert Allen, a leading designer of decorative fabrics and furnishings, with a line of 70 of Sargent's fabrics; Springs Industries, under the Wamsutta label, with bedding; and Present Tense with tableware hand-painted in Italy.

Sargent also is the author (with Jake Chapline) of a coffee-table book, Susan Sargent's New Country Color: The Art of Living (Watson Guptill, $29.95). The book explodes with 150 images embodying Sargent's vivid colors and how-to information for hand-painting lampshades, fabrics and sheer curtains.

But it also contains sound decorating advice. Sargent calls it "decoration" advice.

"Decorating has become kind of a silly word," she says. "Decoration is taking something plain and making it personal. It's less of a grand scheme. My design is not at all calculated."

Although Sargent is unfolding a full licensing plan, she is horrified by the idea that consumers might, as she puts it, "cop out and buy the whole collection."

"I'm not doing anything that matches," says Sargent from her studio in a farmhouse in southern Vermont.

She's not the first person to mix and mismatch, and there are other designers equally known for color. At the high end are Tricia Guild's Designers Guild, Anna French and Jane Churchill. And there's Marimekko, a Scandinavian design firm that Sargent admits has influenced her. But she says Marimekko's bold-patterned fabrics are much more graphic. Sargent's patterns have an almost childlike naivete.

Her furniture is not country style in the same sense that Shaker is. Instead it is, as she puts it, a state of mind and lifestyle, one that promotes a casual and nurturing environment. It includes pieces for home entertainment and home office in two finishes of cherry, some wicker, and patterned, painted pieces.

One reason she thinks Lexington Furniture Indus-tries took a chance on her is the company's belief that consumers are hungry for color and personality in their furnishings.

"The rooms we have should reflect that we live there," she says. "The creative part of decorating is inheriting something from your aunt that's peculiar and dated, and putting it into the context of a modern home. One should feel totally at liberty to say, 'This is my work in progress.' "

Sargent's career began about 25 years ago. She had been an art major at Tufts and spent her junior year in Sweden, where she studied weaving. There she honed her eye for color while apprenticing as a dyer at a textile mill. She stayed four years.

When she returned to the United States, she moved to a 200-acre farm that her father and uncle had bought in southern Vermont. She lived in a tiny house, establishing herself as a weaver by selling to galleries.

When the family put the farm up for sale, she arranged to buy 49 acres. Sargent hired a local builder to design a 1 1/2 -story house. The building, only 18 feet wide and 20 feet long, was enlarged twice, the second time after her first son was born. The property also is occupied by sheep, donkeys and goats.

Until the early 1990s, Sargent's work consisted of one-of-a-kind tapestries, 12 to 30 feet square, many of which hang in museums and private collections. When a friend asked her to design a collection of tapestry pillows, Sargent traveled to Europe to develop the designs with weavers in Hungary.

This taste for designing textiles for the home evolved in 1995 into her own company, Susan Sargent Designs.

Drawing from nature for color, Sargent looked to other loves around her for themes: gardening, animals and architecture. The small line of rugs, appliqued pillows and coverlets, and hand-painted bed linens was crafted in India.

Retailers as diverse as Neiman Marcus and Pier One Imports carried them, as well as mail-order catalogs such as Garnet Hill and Horchow Home. Now these lines also are carried at her own Susan Sargent Store in Vermont.

Her husband, Tom Peters, and two sons, Max and Ben Cooper, 20 and 17, respectively, began to consider their house as a laboratory.

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