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Friday, March 23 Living

Designer Kate Spain has a passion for pattern and color

Kate Spain runs an international design studio from her home in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport.

Spain does not design products that need to be manufactured, even though they may be found on the shelves of stores like Crate & Barrel and Target. Nor do her products have any practical purpose, even though many are in constant use.

Spain is a designer of designs. Components of a home’s visual landscape, they appear on pillows and rugs, on napkins and towels, on paper plates and Melamine plates, on quilts and curtains. One local client is Bigelow Tea, for which she’s done gift tins.

“I’m a surface pattern designer — like for any surface you can put a pattern on,” she says, defining her peculiar niche at the intersection of art and commerce.

In her own house, she can’t help pointing out the living room rug, the coffee mugs, the apron, the framed paintings that are all her designs. “It gets kind of boring after a while,” she says with an apologetic sigh.

Hers would be a one-woman company, except for her husband Pete Spain, a recently elected city councilman, who left a career as a medical writer and epidemiologist to become her chief operating officer. A wall separates his office and her studio in converted upstairs bedrooms, where they can call to each other.

“Kate is the talent that moves everything along,” Pete Spain says, emerging from his office. He provides some numbers measuring her success: 20,500 Instagram followers, half added in the last year; more than two million yards of cotton fabric bearing her designs sold worldwide; a wool rug sold exclusively at KDSpain.com that has been featured on the Houzz website and added to 180,000 idea books.

“This is kind of a monumental year for us, because this is our 10th year in business,” Kate says. Looking back, she is now able to laugh that they started the business in one room of a small Cape in Fairfield, just as the financial crisis was erupting.

But this year also will see the beginning of a new international venture that promises to expand Spain’s design network. Already trademarked as “eye heart hand,” it is informed by the farm-to-table ethic and the general concern with a product’s pedigree. From Bridgeport, the Spains will oversee making rugs of her design in India with wool from New Zealand sheep. Trademark aside, they refer to it alternatively as field- or farm-to-floor.

“It’s really exciting,” she says. “It’s our response to consumerism, to outsourcing, to who’s making the product, to how the workers are being treated. … We’ve partnered with a family farm in New Zealand and we’re importing the wool to an Indian company we already work with. They are good-weaver certified,” a guarantee of proper working conditions.

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So far all negotiations have been done via the internet. She says Pete discovered the farm, High Peak Station on New Zealand’s South Island, serendipitously. Its sheep are pure Perendale stock. Thus, the wool for her new rugs can be traced to a single source, she says, a rarity because most sheep farmers sell their wool to collectives that bundle it for resale.

Eventually, they hope the same meadow-to-loom paradigm can be extended to artisanal weavers in other countries. As it is, one of the items Spain has in her studio is an expensive-looking leather case of the sort that might be carried by a sales rep. In fact, it is a sample case from their rug partner in India.

Opening the lid, she draws out tray after tray of woolen “poms,” each looking like an oversized makeup brush. Altogether, there are 1,200 poms and they show the spectrum of hues available to her when she designs rugs for her Indian manufacturer.

Spain already works with other textile companies, including a cotton quilting fabric company in Texas and a maker of indoor-outdoor rugs in Georgia. The range of her design deals is hard to categorize partly because they are so varied and also because of a branding conflict over the use of her own name. Kate Spain sounds too much like Kate Spade, that other designer.

“We’re not supposed to talk about it,” Spain says of the now-resolved dispute. But the upshot, according to the language they are allowed to use, is that: “Kate created a new primary branding identity — kd spain — after reaching a confidentiality agreement with Kate Spade LLC.”

Spain grew up in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Her mother was a painter and her father was a filmmaker and voice-over actor. After college she had a succession of jobs in New York, first with Simon & Schuster doing children’s books layouts, then with a company licensed to make Hello Kitty accessories.

“I got so bored, I started to make my own patterns and they responded to them and I thought this is really great. Some backpacks I designed ended up at Target stores and then I felt all I want to do was make patterns,” she says.

Encouraged, she set up a small booth at the giant Surtex trade show at New York’s Javits Center. In her booth all she had was a book of sample designs. She got noticed. She remembers getting her first license in 2008 with a company that sold a line of paper plates in Target. “It was just amazing,” she says.

Now years later there is a profusion of designs and products. She still keeps sketchbooks filled with all manner of design ideas. For a new job, she may start by making an etching (like a linoleum block cut, but using a rubbery material) of the basic design image. Then she presses the image onto fabric or paper and photographs it for transfer to a computer. There she tries out colors and various patterns.

Joel Lang is an award-winning Connecticut journalist and frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.