By Graziella DiNuzzo
Hand-painting designs on textiles is a craft that dates back thousands of years to Asia and parts of Europe and this highly specialized technique continues to thrive in Philadelphia at Kevin O’Brien Studio (KOB).
Artist and painter, Kevin O’Brien, began his career as a painter with the goal to “add beauty to the world.”
When O’Brien had an idea for a design, he went directly to an old fashioned sketch book to hand draw his idea – not a computer. That was over 20 years ago and its still where KOB designs begin.
O’Brien opened his first studio in old city Philadelphia in 1997. Angela Romano-Vosburgh, a graduate of Moore College of Art and Design, joined O’Brien that year as an intern – today she is Studio Manager and Lead Designer. “The way I remember it, there was this huge loft in the oldest part of Philadelphia. It was filled with the most splendid shimmering fabrics hanging everywhere . . . from the ceiling drying, against the walls being painted, even from the fire escape.”
A few years ago, O’Brien custom renovated an old movie theater on Broad Street to house his new studio. O’Brien and his team design, print, paint and dye all of their fabrics to produce pillows, quilts, duvets, rugs, and a variety of other items for the home furnishings market – “all under one roof and in Philadelphia.”
Angela leads a tour through the modern, bright studio.
The first-floor area is set-up for their annual end of year Sample Sale, “We used to primarily make fabrics for designers and one-of-a kind scarves that were sold in museum shops and upscale retailers like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman,” says Angela as she holds a silk-velvet infinity scarf.
In addition to scarves, the floor is also filled with beautifully appointed upholstered chairs and ottomans (upon which your dog should never sit), beds, rugs, pillows, and stuffed animals.
Stuffed animals? In order to reduce fabric waste, KOB decided to commission craft artist Carolyn Cook to create adorable plush “art,” pieced together from various fabrics. “Meant as a display piece.”
The display beds are dressed in KOB duvets and heaps of down and feather stuffed pillows. The pillows are encased in a variety of designs, which include silk, velvet, and cotton.
Some pillows are crafted with hand-embroidery and velvet mixed with cashmere.
The detailed embroidery is hand stitched in Kathmandu, Nepal. “After visiting Kathmandu, and seeing how artists continue the ancient practice of fine embroidery, Kevin decided to open a studio,” says Angela. “Nepal has embroidery skills we don’t have and Kevin was also able to teach them how to paint on fabric and burning out techniques. We have a fair trade relationship and love that we provide jobs for such beautiful people,” says Angela. “They can hand weave a single blanket if we need it.”
How long does it take to make one pillow? Sometimes a few days.
“We start with white fabric and only use natural fibers,” says Angela as we walk toward the room where the painting takes place.
We watch as the artist handpaints the white fabric with natural dyes. With a steady hand and laser focus, the artist applies just the right amount of paint – a technique taught by O’Brien, “its very labor intensive.”
John Loughney, Dye Specialist, has been working with KOB since 2003, “Once the painting is complete, the fabric is steamed for about an hour and a half in a “steam room.” O’Brien and Loghney built the steam room, “its large enough to steam about 32 yards at a time.”
“The fabric leaves the steamer and then needs to go a washing machine to be washed with fabric softener, and then goes to the dryer,” explains Loughney.
Back in the production room, the fabric is then ironed to enhance the color.
“We would love to bring our fabrics and products to other parts of the world especially those countries that have a culture of appreciating fabrics and handmade things. Japan comes to mind, so does Italy and England. But really there are people everywhere who appreciate fine and beautiful things and my goal is to get to these people so they are not without KOB products,” says O’Brien.
The wheels are in motion. O’Brien has attended the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia Bringing the World To PA events in 2018 and 2019 and met with several Authorized Trade Representatives who are researching for buyers in Germany, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Clearly, hand-made fabric production and the products made with such rich coverings take talent and time.
Angela laughs, “No one is as crazy to produce the way we do, that’s what makes us different.”