Housed in a turn-of-the-century textile bleaching factory in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., an artists’ community located 60 miles north of Manhattan in the Hudson River Valley, The Design Library is an inspiration mecca for designers across the board. Looking for a Japanese hand-cut mulberry bark pattern? Check. A Raoul Dufy original paper impression? Check.
Founded in New York’s Garment District more than 30 years ago by textile aficionado and author Susan Meller and her late husband, Herbert Meller, the library was originally created as a resource for the home furnishings industry. Today, its client base has grown to include a great deal of apparel designers, and for good reason: the library houses more than five million samples dating from the 1750s to the late 20th century.
Peter Koepke, who began working at the library’s home furnishings division in 1990 and purchased the business from Susan Meller in 2002, is now chief executive officer. Meller, however, still serves as a mentor to Koepke. “She has an incredible amount of textile knowledge,” he says. “I still call her whenever I need historical clarification on something.” Meanwhile, president Richard Weissman, who joined the library in 2004 after stints at Lord & Taylor, Perry Ellis and Kellwood, heads up the firm’s apparel division.
When the company moved upstate from its New York space seven years ago, Koepke, who lives nearby in Cold Spring, was skeptical. “I thought it was risky,” he says. “But it’s actually been better — people love taking the day to come up here, and I think they really appreciate the environment.”
Not to mention the selection. “You can travel the globe, all in one place,” says Rebecca Kaufman, creative director of apparel and footwear for Nike’s Global Golf line, who has been making frequent visits to the library for the past year. “Throw your dart and land on any subject matter and they’ve got something to fill your need — from French tapestries to chinoiserie.”
Kaufman also waxes poetic about the location. “The environment alone is inspiring,” she says. “Then, you enter the actual space and it’s simply amazing what they have.” Her recent acquisition? A Japanese paper impression from the early 20th century that was originally created to be made into a wood etching screen to print kimonos. Kaufman had it developed into a print for a men’s cotton polo for the company’s high-end Tiger Woods line. “We later had that painting framed and put in our studio,” she says. “You’re working with a piece of history, which is quite incredible.” For Nike’s women’s line, Kaufman often uses pieces from the library to inspire layering ideas. “It creates great dimension, for instance, to use a French tapestry as an embossing, then layer a print on top that has more of an Eastern influence, something more graphic and hard-edged,” she says.
With new offices in London and a satellite post at the Donegar Group in Manhattan, The Design Library now serves a client base of some 500 companies that run the gamut from high-end designers to mass market retailers. Ninety percent of its resources are available for purchase — $75 for yarn dyes, $600-plus for embroideries and upwards of $1,500 for museum-quality pieces, such as a 19th-century French studio painting — while more precious items are available only for rent. Koepke, an admitted textile junkie, travels constantly to acquire new pieces. “I work closely with a network of about 30 international dealers who serve as my liaisons for some of the most exclusive private sales all around the globe,” he says, adding that he avoids flea markets and auctions altogether in an attempt to keep his selections uberexclusive.
The library’s catalogue system, which has been in constant development for the past 20 years, includes 900 categories; 121 of them are devoted to yarn dyes alone. “Five million pieces that are unorganized are worthless,” says Weissman. “Organized, they’re priceless.” The most exclusive area in the library is what Koepke calls “the mine,” and is home to some of fashion designers’ favorite pieces. Take, for instance, a floral paper impression created in the late 1700s by Christophe Philippe Oberkampf, a French fine artist. “That’s tasty, isn’t it?” asks Koepke.
Although not yet set up yet for e-commerce, the company’s Web site, design-library.com, offers a peek into what’s offered, as well as a “Design of the Month.” For February, that’s a floral paper impression created for French silk house Bianchini Férier by French painter Raoul Dufy, a close friend and colleague of Henri Matisse. “Right now, the site is there to serve as an informational and inspirational tool,” Weissman says.
For Richard Ostell, vice president of design and creative director of the Liz Claiborne line, inspiration is what The Design Library is all about. “You get a chance to really immerse yourself in the world of textiles there,” he says. “You can really see that the library was put together by someone with a lot of passion.”