Finding an Intersection Between Art and Business

Colorful scarves mark the way for an art-school grad

The question is: Does Michele Oberdieck make scarves or art?

Her work is finding its way into stores as well as art galleries. Some people drape it round their necks. Others hang it on their walls.

In London's Harvey Nicholls department store, her first batch of more than 30 swishy scarves in rich strong colors and bold "devore" technique designs sold very well at 125 ($193) apiece in just a few pre-Christmas weeks. In Glasgow's Compass Gallery, Oberdieck's scarves, dropped into a basket near the reception desk, have been going not unlike hot cakes, given their 99 price tag ($153).

Oberdieck finished her degree in printed textiles at Glasgow School of Art about a year and half ago. Talking to her, it soon becomes clear that she is first an artist and second someone now having to face the often harsh realities of the commercial world. Her hope, like that of many an art-school graduate, is to be able to remain an artist while still earning her bread - not always an easy trick.

Since each scarf is individually made, her painting and drawing have taken something of a back seat. "Because I do everything myself," she says, "I have to keep on producing them." Only with the rushed order for Harvey Nicholls did she have some help with sewing. "I had to do 34 scarves in 2-1/2 weeks!"

"Devore," she explains, is a substance that she silkscreen-prints onto the velvet fabric (a silk-viscose mix) and that "burns out the pile of the velvet. The pile falls out, leaving the silk behind." So her designs have two distinct layers; they are "embossed, slightly sculptured." The pile is washed and rubbed out - an exhausting process.

At this stage the material is still white. "Then," she says, "you dye it.... This one's been cross-dyed. Two different types of dye, one reacting to the silk and one to the viscose. The simplest way is by one straight dyeing." Even then the two materials react differently, becoming subtle variations of color, as well as distinct textures.

As her scarves move, light ripples over their surfaces in unpredictable ways. Their sand-washed silk backing is less shiny and often yet another color. As the scarf is worn, small glimpses of this backing may show. Parts of some of her scarves have also printed with "discharge" - a substance that bleaches out the dye, leaving it with strangely subdued color.

The strength of her designs comes from the fact that she thinks first in black and white, not color. Some designs are based on ironwork - a photograph of a gate in Rome was one source. Another came from a feather she photocopied several times, enlarged, copied onto acetate, and then exposed onto the silkscreen for printing.

Although companies have shown interest in her work, being an unknown means an uphill struggle. One major store forced her price down vigorously to the point where they were making 125 ($193) per scarf, while she was making less than 50 ($77) - out of which came all her costs. The buyer at this store simply told her: "You're new."

Oberdieck is philosophical. "It's a foot in the door," she says.

Meanwhile, she is sizing up "the competition" and noting how another designer has found ways to cut costs. "She uses chiffon instead of silk for the backing, for example ..."

But the intuitive individuality of Oberdieck's design suggests a determination not to merely copy trends. And she certainly does not employ a color-prediction company. She arrives at her own colors according to her own preferences. She is still an artist.

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