On a sunny May afternoon in her midtown Manhattan studio, Elizabeth Whelan holds up two swatches of her light-reflective Bridge Reflection textiles for Nike jackets. “I made two patterns inspired by the nighttime reflection of the Manhattan Bridge on the water.” She then brings out a few energetic fabrics for Nike bags and gloves, which she developed based on the company’s Flywire textiles, modelling the zigzag weave structure on her drawings of another New York icon: the Brooklyn Bridge. The Bridge Reflection fabric glows in the dark, a property I could see in the daylight if she had her viewer handy. But she has packed it up, along with most of her studio, ahead of a big move to Portland, Maine, later in the month.
However, it is in this penthouse studio that her unique expertise has evolved over many years, from finding completely novel uses for sports fabrics – such as upholstery for Niels Diffrient’s first Humanscale task chair, in 1999 – to designing specialized textiles for activewear. Within her modest set-up, with a drafting table, a dye lab and a loom, Whelan has mocked up high-performance materials for chair meshes, wallcoverings, clothing and luggage. As she goes through samples, she tells the story behind each one, her irrepressible energy making you forget that she is in her early 50s and not a neophyte designer.
It all came together for her in 1997, when she established her own studio. She had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, had done a four-year stint at Designtex and was teaching at Parsons. She mentioned to a colleague that she wanted to explore sports fabrics for interior products, and he recommended that she meet Diffrient. At NeoCon that year, she went to Humanscale’s showroom, where Diffrient was showing a prototype of the Freedom chair.
“There was a line out the door for whoever Niels Diffrient was,” says Whelan. She laughs as she recalls how she had barely heard of the legendary designer and author of Humanscale 1/2/3, the bible of ergonomics, who would become her biggest mentor. When she told him of her interest in sports fabrics, he pulled out of his pocket several swatches of upholstery Humanscale was considering for his task chair: swimsuit knits. It was serendipity.
He eventually brought Whelan along on the project, and would frame its ultimate challenge by posing the question, What does the textile need to do? His standards and discipline, and his focus on performance and functionality, were values Whelan wanted to learn and incorporate into her own practice. “That took off the blinders,” she says, and irreversibly transformed her approach to textile design.
To cover Freedom’s moulded contours, Whelan needed stretch. She first looked for upholstery mills that could produce such fabrics; none did, so she hired an apparel mill. But the real test came when she started working on the Liberty chair, which would pare back the task chair even further, with fewer mechanisms and an integral mesh back and seat. At the time, Herman Miller’s Aeron, the paragon of stripped-down design, was all the rage. Yet Diffrient was hesitant about a mesh-backed chair, until Robert King, founder and CEO of Humanscale, pushed him on the idea. “It’s better environmentally, it’s visually minimal, and it’s cool,” King says.
Diffrient determined how to tailor the mesh, with a tri-panel construction, to provide rigid back support and a surface with form-sensing give. Now Whelan had to design the actual material. The only viable option on the market was the one used on the Aeron chair, which had too much stretch for Liberty. Most versions were leno weaves, with a loose grid that would look too open when wrapped across the chair’s frame and stitched to create its characteristic seam, reminiscent of men’s suiting.
On her loom, Whelan experimented with combining unusual materials, such as wire, elastic and leather, together with monofilament yarns, including fishing line. She came up with two new translucent textiles: the ultra-minimal Monofilament Stripe; and the dynamic checkerboard pattern Silver Check, which combines a thicker multi-filament polyester yarn, for a non-slip surface, with a silver-plated yarn, for a shifting tonality animated by the user moving around in the chair.
Liberty debuted to raves in 2004. Through this patented, award–winning work with Diffrient and Humanscale, Whelan honed her A‑to‑Z process, which brings an artisanal approach to futuristic textiles whose aesthetic beauty derives from their structure, material, pattern and colour.
She is hands on during production, challenging industrial mills to replicate her custom weaves and colourways. Going back and forth with the mills, she refines the fabrics during the vigorous pre-launch phase – including the Wyzenbeek method, under which her meshes have exceeded fivefold the industry standard of 30,000 double rubs – and works out post-production problems that surface through the end user. For Humanscale, she devised the reverse Wyzenbeek test, to develop meshes that are rugged yet kind to the sitter’s clothing. In this version, a pendulum wrapped in her mesh strikes repeatedly at a piece of standard wool suiting.
For each new client, she imagines a tapestry of possibilities. She helped Spinneybeck, a Knoll company, expand its collection of leather wall panels by designing woven versions, in intricate structures and colour combinations inspired by a beetle’s carapace. “Our weavers in Italy loved it,” says Roger Wall, Spinneybeck’s president. “No one had ever asked them to do this before.” (Innovation has its risks, though; Whelan’s wallcovering collection for KnollTextiles did not fare as well. Made in collaboration with a rural Mexican mill, the line failed to meet commercial specifications for lightfastness, which resulted in an alluring yet unsuccessful product better suited to the residential market.)
She also approached Nike with her envelope-pushing concepts. Ed Thomas, Nike’s director of material design, awarded her a master design contract so she could prototype her ideas for the company’s advanced materials research department. These include light-responsive jacket fabrics, still in development, to keep joggers safe at night. “It is a rare talent to move a material through the gauntlet of initial brief and ideation, prototyping and then the eventual layering-on of commercial sensibilities,” says Thomas. “You often find that those are three different skills and resources, but she seamlessly integrates these processes into her work.”
Whelan has found a kindred spirit in Tumi, a luggage company that seeks out novel materials and models. Denielle Wolfe, the company’s vice-president of design, was already contemplating a hybrid textile, one that merges its ballistic nylon with Tegris, a carbon fibre-like polypropylene tape manufactured by Milliken. To realize this material, which would become the DNA for a collection launching in 2015, Wolfe turned to Whelan. “She initially took on the challenge to colour the un-colourable,” Wolfe says, laughing. Though Tegris could not be dyed, Whelan demonstrated that the hybrid industrial-quality product could be visually enticing. “She managed to dial in to the iconic elements of our product and interpret them in a weave pattern that makes sense, one that has a story and is also beautiful,” adds Wolfe.
Whelan sees broader applications for this innovative material, and her excitement is palpable, but that might have to do with her new setting, too. From one room and a squeezed mezzanine in New York, she now has three spaces (plus two storage rooms) in Maine with views of the rooftops, the mountain peaks and the waterfront. One area is devoted to her loom, a dye lab and a sublimation press; and another to two drafting tables, so she can go back and forth between projects – just as Niels Diffrient used to do. Most of all, she has more mental and physical space to work on her ideas.
“I didn’t come here to retreat into the woods and eat granola,” she jokes. “I came here to continue to grow.” One day, as we spoke on the phone, she interrupted herself mid-sentence to marvel at a dragonfly flitting outside her window. For someone who takes inspiration from her surroundings – from cable suspension bridges to the backs of beetles – this might indicate the shape of a weave to come.