For most designers, modern window coverings mean a solar shade, natural woven wood or grommetted side panels. There is so much more to explore when it comes to this category. Someone on the cutting edge of modern is Erik Bruce. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Erik a self described “ a modern curtaineer”. Erik was one of the keynotes at Vision12 and also took part in a panel discussion about the creative process. Oh Boy! If you ever thought contemporary window coverings were boring or unnecessary you need to get to know Erik. Here‘s part of my recent interview:
How did you get started in interior design?
I attended a high school as an exchange student in Copenhagen, Denmark in the 80’s. That was my introduction to a sector of the population that is collectively more conscious of clean, functional modern design. Later, I was working with designers and costume shops sewing and sourcing for theatrical productions on Broadway in New York. A friend of mine introduced me to Mary Bright in 1998, who was truly the first innovator of her kind in the field of curtain design.
At the time I was doing the millinery for the Lion King. She hired me to sew leather wind block panels for the entry of the Mercer Hotel in NYC. We coined the term ‘Curtaineer’ and I still remember we used a herd of cattle in each panel! (Sorry vegetarians)
I managed her studio for 5 years and was the principal designer of the firm for 8 years after her death. Our business model was similar to fashion houses- Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel or Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen- a principal designer carrying on the founder’s vision.
I recently left Mary Bright to start my own studio. It was time, as work slowed a bit; it was the incentive to try something else. I have four full time and four part time employees. Most of my work is architectural based, but I do work for interior designers. I am hands on and still do some sewing; I am especially involved in the sampling. But most of my time is working with our clients. I am big on the interactive aspects of the process. Coming from a theatrical background I am very collaborative by nature.
If you could do anything else; what would it be?
An artist. If I could do anything without worrying about supporting myself, I would create art in whatever media inspired me. It would be even better if it took me to locations and museums all over the world to feed my addiction for travel at the same time.
How do you get your creative juices going?
Music. I am very inspired by it. All types from classical to jazz to alternative indie rock and electronica.
Please describe your sense of style? What words or phrases sum up your design aesthetic?
Functional, textural, and modern. I am most interested in how both natural and artificial light affects textiles and materials. One of my favorite phrases is ‘Don’t hide it – feature it.’ The aspects of stage design – draping, costuming and lighting- are the same as in designing windows. The magic happens between the lighting and the material being lit.
In another project for the Mercer we did draperies that have a series of vertical and horizontal seams using several different sheers. The seams and materials created lines, shadows and set the mood in the room. Something that we would normally hide became the design element.
Do you identify yourself more as a designer, architect, collaborator? Strategist/problem solver?
I was trained as a designer of scenery and costumes. That field also taught me to solve problems quickly and efficiently. My emphasis has always been fine arts. I earned my MFA at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. I also studied art history, which gave me a strong sense of context both in the art world as well as in fashion. I consider myself a designer, but inspired by the process of making things.
You are known for developing new inventive solutions for windows. Can you give me one or 2 examples of your out of the box thinking?
I think modern glass buildings are the perfect example. When you walk into a space with all glass elevations, the light and exposure can be overwhelming. I try to create a program or strategy for revealing the views and light. When faced with an entire wall of glass, roman shades, swags, and valances are pretty much irrelevant.
I once designed a window treatment for someone that claimed to hate window treatments. The treatment folded and dropped below the window when they weren’t using it.
How do you market expensive custom window design to a market who, I’m guessing, often agree with the one client that “hates window treatments”?
Yes, it is an antithesis in a way. I am desired for the fact that what they see in the marketplace for window coverings they don’t want; so they come to me for something else. Right now, the designer reigns supreme. Building a successful relationship with them and having lots of back and forth to what will work better is key. It can be a double edged sword- you sometimes have the desire to contribute when it isn’t wanted and on the other hand sometimes you are asked to do more that your “role” to make sure all bases are covered.
How does your approach to window treatments differ from most interior designers?
There is so much emphasis in our industry on surface design and not the overall concept, by the time the designer gets to the window they continue that thinking – matching the sofa, coordinating patterns- they consider the window just another piece and don’t consider the window interactively in the whole room.
I think I am more conscious of what happens to the textile with light behind it as well as in front of it. Designers are focused on the surface details and finishes. I am more concerned with controlling light and how it is filtered into the room through the textile.
Clients come to me for ideas, they want me to tell them there is an idea and define it because most can’t tell you what they want.
The industry model is that designers specify materials and different headers and maybe the hardware to hang it on. There isn’t as much interaction. How those things are executed can be hugely different and greatly affect the results. You have to be good at the craft. That is the most valuable commodity, plus it’s not easy to shop.
I have built relationships with architects and designers. I act as the mediator between them and the client when we put forth new ideas. A big part of my relationship and job is educating the client; when you do they will pay more and you can charge more. If you can’t get past the first hurdle- how do you put a price on it?
What are some of the common mistakes you see designers make in the selection and creation of window fashion designs as it pertains to the entire room design?
The most common mistake I think is selecting a textile or treatment before deciding what purpose it serves. I think it’s important to solve the functional aspects first and then get into aesthetics and coordinating with other elements in the room. I also prefer to have some specific requirements to work within rather than a wide open canvas. I find unlimited options overwhelming.
What do you find most challenging when it comes to designing and creating window fashions?
I think the most challenging aspect is the installation. That’s when everything is revealed; just like the grand proscenium curtain in a theatre. That’s when you find out if you used the correct measurements, chose the right fabric, let it hang long enough before cutting, etc. You also have a limited amount of time at that point so the pressure is on.
Are there any special projects/commissions that you have done that really highlight the window?
I worked on a project with Mary Bright for a residence on Central Park West. The views of the park were incredible. The client was obsessed with using a grey silk taffeta for the window treatment but she didn’t want to block the incredible views. The silk was not sheer enough to see through and we were concerned about the longevity of the silk directly in the window with so much sun exposure. We decided to create a ripplefold curtain that draped across the ceiling on top of the picture window and formed a knot at one corner of the room. There was also a second layer of thin white silk voile over the taffeta. The two fabrics twisted and draped down the side of the window and pooled all over the sill. I loved that it was elegant, dramatic and humorous all at the same time. It did everything except cover the window.
Best window fashion advice?
Less is more. My interest in Mid Century Modern inspired by what I saw and learned in Denmark, spurs me to the idea to look for function, keep it simple and focus on materials. Modern architecture relies too much on the simplicity of roller solar shades then needed or is appropriate. It’s a lot more interesting to focus on the harmony of materials through the craft. I compare it to applying hand finished Venetian plaster vs. applying a Ben Moore paint color. There is a different level of finish and execution.
What is one of your secret sources?
WDavis, LLC. But now it’s not a secret source anymore, is it? It’s the company that makes the metal mesh for Whiting and Davis handbags and jewelry that became very popular in the early 80’s. I once used their stainless steel chain mail for a curtain on the outside of a cast concrete house in California. The client referred to the curtain as her ‘architectural bling’. It glistened in the sunlight. It is also resistant to corrosion from the salty air next to the ocean. The material is used for shark diving suits.
Having a modernist point of view- and not to put words into your mouth do you think window coverings and innovation are mutually exclusive?
No. On the contrary, modern architecture is begging the window treatment industry to be innovative. As we strive to bring more natural light into the spaces we inhabit, it also becomes necessary to control the light and create privacy when we want it. I think many architects are not interested in anything other than roller shades simply because most workrooms don’t use anything other than header tapes in their curtains with way too much fullness. There aren’t enough options on the market for soft treatments.
Speaking of materials and innovation- do you see any new materials, products or technology that customers will start to insist on?
I think there will continue to be a demand for smarter textiles in the window treatment industry. Fabrics with aluminum or steel backing to reflect the sun and reduce heat gain. I also see a trend toward clear acrylic poles and hardware. I love it because it works well in almost any context. It’s so neutral; almost invisible.
1) Good lighting
2) My label maker
3) My walking foot machine
What is your most favorite / exciting recent discovery?
iCloud. The same data on all my devices! And Time Capsule. Apple’s solution for automatic back ups that you never have to think about!
The Cobblers shoes scenario- what is one thing YOUR house needs right now?
How did you know??? Ok, I have to admit I have paper redi shades on my windows right now. I recently moved my business out of my apartment, which left it very empty so my home could be described as incredibly minimalist at the moment. Seriously though, redi shades are a great temporary solution for clients while they are waiting for you to finish their treatments. The white are translucent and the black are blackout. They come with a self adhesive strip at the top. One last tip… Mount them directly to clean glass or the frame of the window. That way they won’t damage the wall finish or fall off after a couple of days.
Sneak Peek at what Erik’s doing now… He’ s working on a project for the United Nations with the Dutch government and Knoll textiles.