by Lou Mancinelli
More than 20 years ago, a young University of Pennsylvania architecture graduate lived in a barn in Chestnut Hill without electricity struggling to make it as a painter. After a short time, he realized he would need more money than he had available to him in order to pursue life as an artist. It would take years, he thought, of diligent practice before he might be good enough to earn a living painting.
It came to pass that a friend suggested he paint a fabric design and try to sell the piece to an upscale New York City department store.
And so, Kevin O’Brien – now a reputable Old City fabric designer whose hand-made fabric Bette Midler wore on the Martha Stewart show in October – has been featured in magazines like Marie Claire, Home Accents Today and Town and Country. He sold his first fabric to Barneys New York in the early ’90s.
O’Brien, now in his early 50s, will open a temporary shop this Friday in Chestnut Hill, at 8428 Germantown Ave. featuring discounted scarves, bedding, pillows, robes and other items usually found at retail stores like Saks, Neiman Marcus, and ABC Carpet and Home.
The goods are surplus materials, according to O’Brien, who said his workers always make ten percent more product than an order requires in case something goes askew and thought Chestnut Hill, known for its upscale aesthetic, could be a good neighborhood to sell his fabrics. The store will be open through December.
“To me the goal is to make things that last forever,” said O’Brien last Friday in his two-floor Old City studio on Fabric Row where he’s been for 15 years.
From the outside, the studio is a bland city building on 3rd Street tucked just around the corner from the cafés and bars on Market Street. It’s a fine contrast to the inside where a team of skilled artisans – often art students who become longtime employees – work in a room toned with lush reds, greens, and bolts of silk. Sometimes they make pillows imbued with iridescent color schemes or designs that resemble patterns found on Persian rugs. At other times they create scarves and burnt-velvet shawls fit to don Lord Byron.
“It’s more valuable if you don’t have to replace it,” said O’Brien, who lives with his wife, Myoshin Thurman, and 2-year-old son in a secluded home in Woodstock, N.Y., and travels to Philadelphia twice a week to be at his studio.
“If you want to do that it has to be beautiful and good.”
If you can imagine a group of workers in Katmandu, an urban city in Nepal, sitting around a wooden rectangle maybe as big as a pool table, hand-weaving velvet (which only takes it purple hue after its dyed), you can visualize the beginning of the process of creating fabrics by O’Brien and his artisans.
About six years ago, O’Brien, the son of a naval officer who had seen many ports around the world, traveled to the Himalayas in search of fine materials for his fabrics. He wanted to find Pashima. After a series of unsuccessful meetings with sources who claimed they would produce for him the fine cashmere wool, O’Brien found a workplace he still works with today, where he employs 20 people.
The hand-wound velvet and silk travels halfway across the world from his workplace in the Himalayas to his studio in Philadelphia, where it’s hung across the length of a waterproof room and painted by a device he patented, equipped with such an assortment of hoses and gages that it might have come from Willie Wonka’s factory. Later, to the dyed fabrics, his artisans apply embroideries inspired by his sketches, often composed in the quiet woods outside his home in the Catskills.
O’Brien laughs when he reflects how long it might take one person to craft one of his pillows or rugs from start to finish. He said that after the delicate and laborious process, and despite the retail prices of his goods (pillows can range from $100 to $300, rugs from $700 to $1,000), when his employees are paid and costs accounted for, he is still an artist struggling to make money.
“If it was about making money I would have done something else,” he said. “The challenge is to make something relevant but not be cold. You can have fine workmanship but still be modern.”
The Kevin O’Brien Studio’s Chestnut Hill shop opens Friday, Nov.12. It is open Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. For more information call 215-923-6378 or visit www.kevinobrienstudio.com.