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Person to Know: A Designer Who Turns Simple Paper Shapes Into Kaleidoscopic Textiles

By Alice Newell-Hanson

Kestler piecing together a pattern for a textile.
Nick Ballon
Kestler piecing together a pattern for a textile.

Six days a week (unless it’s snowing), the Swiss textile designer Sonnhild Kestler rides her black Ciao moped west across Zurich, from the wooded residential neighborhood of Zurichberg — where she lives in a green-shuttered 1914 apartment building with her partner, Arthur David, a visual artist — toward the Limmat River. She has navigated the city this way for 35 years, a clutch of reusable striped shopping bags fanning out from her handlebars or a large roll of fabric balanced precariously across her thighs. Invariably, she’s making her way either to her printing studio, on the second floor of a former weaving factory that backs onto the river in the industrial area of Höngg, or to Thema Selection, an influential fashion boutique in the city’s Old Town where she maintains a vibrant shop-within-a-shop stocked with her wares: handcrafted dresses, pillows, scarves and home goods screen-printed with gleeful, kaleidoscopic patterns.

The shop is on a narrow cobblestone alleyway near the Cabaret Voltaire, one of the sites where Dadaism was born over a century ago: The artists Sophie Taeuber, Jean Arp and others used to gather there to give performances and discuss the creation of a new aesthetic philosophy over drinks. It’s a fitting stage for Kestler’s own avant-garde sensibility. The designer, 55, who grew up in a small village outside of Baden, Switzerland, arrived in Zurich at 17 to study textile design. After graduating, she opened a fashion store with the designer Matthias Georg where she sold her first pieces. A few years later, she got to know the owners of Thema Selection, which was founded in 1972 by a group of freethinking friends from the city’s then thriving squat scene. In the decades since, her creations have earned her a loyal local following, and in 2010, the Swiss Federal Office of Culture awarded her its Grand Prix of Design.

Nick BallonLeft: An array of paper cutouts that evolved into a rug pattern for Kestler’s new collaboration with Maharam. Right: Her two finished rugs for the new Maharam collection, with screen prints in the window.
Left: An array of paper cutouts that evolved into a rug pattern for Kestler’s new collaboration with Maharam. Right: Her two finished rugs for the new Maharam collection, with screen prints in the window.

Still, she is not widely known outside of Switzerland. Kestler’s time-intensive, almost ritualistic process is what makes her work so exceptional and is also the primary obstacle to its wider circulation. Her company, which she started in 1988 and which sells products under the label S.K. Hand-Druck, is a one-woman textile manufacturer, its every product the result of long hours spent painting sheets of paper in custom shades of gouache (dusty lemon, petrol blue, flamingo, marzipan), cutting them into shapes (abstract flowers, radiating palm fronds, elephants, temples) and then arranging the shapes into elaborate collages that she uses as the basis for screen prints. Kestler prefers to work alone, often barefoot, so that she can walk across her long wooden worktables, which are almost always laid with colourful constellations of paper, surveying her cutouts from above and adjusting their placement as she goes.

“Her approach is different than that of anyone else I’ve worked with,” says Mary Murphy, the senior vice president of design at the New York-based textile company Maharam, which is releasing a collection of three cotton upholstery textiles and two rugs designed by Kestler this month. “So many people call themselves designers nowadays, but Sonnhild is the real thing.” One of Kestler’s Maharam fabrics has an interlocking teardrop motif inspired by 19th-century German tapestries made from military epaulets. Another distills her unique language of symbols — naïve botanical shapes, building-block-like stacks of small diamonds and squares — into a patchwork of abstract icons, while the third features stripes inspired by a photograph of a streaky night sky. On the two handwoven cotton rugs, meanwhile, cutout shapes repeat in dizzying sequences that recall the hypnotic designs of Buddhist sand paintings.

Nick BallonPaper shapes to be laid out.
Paper shapes to be laid out.

Kestler’s studio is as idiosyncratic as her patterns. It’s a work space, yes, but also an ever-expanding library of references and treasures: Papers and tokens spill from the wooden bookshelves and antique haberdashery cabinet and climb the walls. There are locally sourced mementos: A paper laurel wreath from a 1931 Swiss sports competition encircles an upper corner of an oil-painted canvas depicting a steamboat on Lake Thun in the Bernese Oberland. But for the most part, Kestler’s discoveries are from farther afield: a beaded yellow parakeet from Syria, an inflatable blue cat from Japan, a pair of latticed gold jutti slippers from northern India and a papier-mâché mask depicting the Hindu goddess Kali, with her lolling blood-red tongue. “I like it because it’s too much,” she says.

Kestler designed her first collection for Maharam in 2008. Back then, she was experimenting with motifs from traditional European crafts and folklore — for instance, the densely embroidered fota, or wraparound skirts, of traditional Romanian dress — but increasingly, her ideas originate in India, which she now visits at least once a year. On a trip last year to northern Rajasthan, Kestler was enchanted by a mural depicting black clouds at a haveli, an ornate merchant’s house. Back home, she captured its mood in a new motif. Kestler compares her traveling self to a vessel, or a conduit for images and ideas that she’ll later reconfigure, with scissors and gouache, until she has created something that appears outside of time and place, maybe, but is rooted in her own aesthetic.

In fact, she has begun to see her practice as a way to forge connections between people and places both left behind and newly discovered. As a child, she visited her grandparents in the East German medieval port of Wismar for three weeks each summer. That city, with its spired Gothic churches and windswept shoreline punctuated with striped beach chairs, still exerts some indeterminate influence over her work. In her studio, she keeps a four-foot-tall carved wooden head that she found on a trip back to the area in 1990. She has decorated its rough, almost primitive contours with bright strings of beads, metallic rosettes and a pompom-adorned crown. Like a totem of her own personal folklore, it isn’t entirely new or old, homespun or exotic, but, rather, allusive: to the many-coloured stories that live somewhere in between.