Denyse Schmidt




Denyse Schmidt


In this interview, recorded in front of an audience at the Quilt Alliance's annual fundraiser, Quilters Take Manhattan, journalist and Quilt Alliance president interviews quilt designer Denyse Schmidt about her background in graphic design and dance, her inspiration for her quilt design, her design process, and the role of quilts in American life.




Quilts in interior decoration
Quilted Goods


Denyse Schmidt


Meg Cox

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Meg Cox


New York City, New York


Meg Cox (MC): I'm Meg Cox, and I'm here for the second annual Quilters Take Manhattan benefit. I'm interviewing Denyse Schmidt for Quilters' Save Our Stories, the oral history project of the Quilt Alliance. We're sitting in front of a wonderful audience at the Fashion Institute of Technology on Saturday, September 15th,, and the time is now 1:45 pm. So thank you so much, Denyse, for coming to do this. Can you tell us about the quilt that's behind us, and why you brought this quilt today?

Denyse Schmidt (DS): Uhm, this quilt is called "One Big Square", and when you asked me to bring a touchstone quilt, it set off a whole flurry of, you know, "what does that mean?", and I don't always keep most of the quilts that I make, so I knew that it had to be a quilt that I had around too. But this is… this felt like a touchstone quilt to me mainly because it's made--the block is made in an improvisational way, which, to me, kind of represents what I do. The fact that I used one block, one big block in the quilt and set it off center said something about my approach to quilt-making, to sort of taking--working off the traditional methods--just thinking about it in a different way. And I made this quilt for an exhibition at a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I just realized I forgot exactly what year, but I think it was maybe 2003 or something.

MC: So it's typical of your process? What about your technique and your colors and all of that?

DS: Well, I have a lot of, you know, I guess it's… I do a lot of different kinds of things: I design fabric and I designed quilts that have been manufactured in India. I designed quilts that are specifically for gallery exhibitions that are, to me, more like making art. I make quilts that I sell to interior designers, so I kind of have a broad range of work that I do. I think my process might change slightly for each thing that I do but this quilt, for example, was made for an exhibition, and so the process always starts with drawing. And actually, I did three quilts along a similar line for this particular exhibition, and they were based on sketches that I'd been carrying around--I had probably had done at least 5 years before--and never had a chance to kind of… figure out the idea? "Oh, I want to do this really intensely pieced square, that just is sort of attached to the side and the rest of it is all white." So I knew that I had that certain idea, but the process of getting from that drawing, the pencil drawing to an actual finished quilt sometimes takes forever!

MC: Now it's… was it machine pieced or––

DS: Yeah, I pieced it by machine and it has a lot of fabric. There was a great old fabric store in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where my studio is and it was one of those places that had the wall of buttons in the old cardboard little boxes and everybody that worked in there was bent over [audience laughter]. And like so many of those places it was going out of business. So I went and bought as much of the deadstock. S lot of it was from the seventies––that really bold stripe is one of the fabrics. For the exhibition in New Mexico, from the people I was working with there, I had a sense of where they wanted me to go, the color, and I wanted to do really hot, kind of intense colors but in very small, little, focused areas, and that stripe was kind of a key fabric, and it's… I also put that fabric in the bags when I teach workshops and a lot of people pull it out and are like "ughhhh" [disgusted noise and audience laughter]. I happen to like it a lot, but it's not for everyone.

MC: Now the… it's hand quilted I see--

DS: It's hand quilted, but it's machine pieced. I pieced the square, I don't remember if I put the whole top together, and then the quilting also in this whole series was... You know, what I usually do in this kind of process for making one of a kind quilts, I'll photograph the pieced and finished top or even, just, you know, the fabric pinned up on the wall. I'll photograph it and then I print it out on an eight and a half by eleven. I kind of do everything to scale, and then I'll draw over it with pencil to figure out how I want it to be quilted. So this whole series--the lines too were kind of important in terms of, that they kind of continued the piecing but not exactly.

MC: So you say that your quilts are--you don't keep all of them. So where does this one live?

DS: It's folded up in my storage area, sadly.

MC: I want to talk a little bit about your background. What is the age you were when you started quilting and who got you started?

DS: Um… I came late to quilting. When I grew up, my sister who's 8 years older than I am went to art school and I remember going with her to drawing classes and stuff and sitting with my back turned to the life model [audience laughter]. "So embarrassed" [whispers]. But I think that real exposure to all the things that she was doing… I feel really fortunate that I had that exposure to art, artists, photography, sort of a different way of looking at the world, and I think that that was pretty important in terms of how I look at things, and I always made things when I was growing up.

I had a dollhouse and I made little needlepoint rugs, I might have made a quilt for the dollhouse, I made curtains and all kinds of things but I don't remember, it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I made my first quilt, and actually it was before I went to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design.] I started messing around, I got really interested in crazy quilts. And the whole embellishment thing, and I was taking a drawing class and incorporating that feeling of using pieces of fabric and stitchery to add to the drawings. And then it was when I was at Rhode Island School of Design, I started looking at historical quilts more and then after I graduated and had moved to Connecticut and I was… I didn't have a network of friends there yet and I was working as a graphic designer and it was kind of a very mass-market mind-numbing job [laughter.] I became an expert in Barbie Pink and I was making a quilt for a friend and it was simple nine-patch. I got really interested in the whole, all the stories of quiltmakers and how--whether and how accurate it is or not--those stories of women coming together in a community and the whole barn-raising idea. I was longing for my own community and all my friends were kind of far away and I think I kind of latched onto that idea of quiltmaking, plus, at the time I got really interested in old-timey music, like, Appalachian string-band music and to me it kind of had the same resonance of people coming together, rolling it up, and you didn't have to be great at it. And I think the quilts I kind of fell in love with, they weren't about matching corners and being precise. There was a beautiful kind of happenstance and accidental quality in some cases to them. And so making--so I kind of fell in love with all of that and then I was making a quilt as a gift for a friend. I think having a tangible record of the amount of time I spent hand-quilting––you know, "here's 3 hours" as opposed to my graphic design work, which is in many cases, very ephemeral: it's printed matter, I'm spending hours kerning space between letters, no one ever notices. It's on a piece of paper that gets crumpled up and thrown away, versus this very tangible record of time that I had spent and then that it was also a lasting object that was useful and beautiful. So it had this graphic quality and a tactile and textural quality plus, you know, the bits of fabric my mother––I'm youngest of four kids and both my parents had careers but they were very handy makers of things and my mother sewed all her clothes and I grew up in central Massachusetts and we used to go to all the mill stores and stuff, so to me the whole collecting fabric thing was very connected to my mom and being with her. And so to make a quilt that sort of combined all of these things, to me it seemed really magical. So… that was a long-winded answer!

MC: No, that's a great answer! It's so interesting, all these different elements that would exert this pull on you. But I think a lot of people who know you as an iconic designer and a wonderful designer and kind of a modernist would be interested to know some of your background: who you thought you were going to be, say, in your twenties. I know you were a theater major, right, and then you were kind of a downtown art chick. I think not everybody knows that whole part of your life where you… Now, if Mark Lipinski were here he would say––

DS: I was afraid of this--

MC: [laughs] "Denyse, tell the nice people about when you were photographed by Andy Warhol for Paris Vogue wearing very little". So, I'm just inserting that for Mark, since he's not here.

DS: Um… Well, I think like any… I had, I did a lot of different things through my twenties and thirties even and I was just kind of figuring it out. I did study… I danced my whole life, that was always a part of my growing up. When I went to college I started working with this one choreographer, Carmen Beuchat, who was part of the whole, she worked with the Judson Church dance movement, so she was very connected with Twyla Tharp and Trisha Brown and all those people and when I danced with her we used to rehearse at Bob [modern artist Robert] Rauschenberg's house. And, so I had a kind of––not really intense, but peripheral––sort of association with a lot of those people. And through… I got involved in performance art and met these really cool people and did these strange performance things that had to do with costume and sometimes… no costume. [laughs] And it was these two people, Corey Tippin and Delia Doherty, and they would make these fantastical things and they were both––or Corey was––part of the factory, or Andy Warhol's Factory. So that's how that, you know… And I was just this twenty year old kid like "hmmm… is that a guy? Or a girl? I don't know." [laughs] So just one thing led to another, what can I say?

MC: Well I think one of the things that interests me about your background, as I said, pulling from so many different things and I know as far as the dance thing you even at one point––another sewing part of your life––at one point you were sewing tutus for the Boston Ballet.

DS: yeah.

MC: I think a lot people also don't know that for a while you considered that you might become… make your life designing fonts, doing typography and probably not a lot of people know that she did create a font. It's called "Scamp" and it's still––people still use it? And you get the occasional royalty check?

MC: I do, 30 dollars or something like that occasionally. But, I think I just, and maybe what I can say now is "well now I can say I have this patchwork past". All my experiences are--even designing a typeface is--very detail--I'm all about the details and fine motor skills and designing a typeface, you know, there's the gestural, visual part but then there's the technical aspect where you have to create all the… Especially digitally, you have to create all the kerning pairs. Somebody's determining every time you type a capital A and a lowercase e or whatever the letter combination is--the thousands and thousands of combinations--somebody, the designer usually, is deciding how much space is between the letters so it's very tedious, but it answers a part of who I am. Both my parents are engineers so I think I have both right brain and left brain and certainly the quilting answers both aspects of that, the overall design and concept of it but then there's executing and there's a lot of math involved and it kind of satisfies both aspects. You said some other things I was going to talk about--

MC: The tutus?

DS: Oh, the tutus. So then I had, so I lived in New York for a while and did all this dance and performance things and then I moved back to Massachusetts for a while and I had a series of sewing jobs. I worked for a clothing designer in Worcester, MA, I did a season at the Boston ballet and sewed tutus which is quite an experience. I worked--and during this whole time, it all sounds really interesting but I was also trying to figure out what did I want to do with my life, like I had gone off to college, I'd wasted my parents' money, what was it I was really trying to do. And it just took me a long--a while to figure it out. I worked at a monastery making ecclesiastical vesture which was really fascinating and had a lot of interesting experiences and then I went back to school and studied graphic design which I think was a really good decision and gave me a lot of confidence in my own skills. I actually, when I graduated from RISD I designed the typeface but I also took a class about cutting letters in stone. I got really interested in that and it also had this sort of this sort of old-timey feeling to it. And I was going to set up shop and carve headstones [laughs]. But then I got carpal tunnel so…

MC: Wow. So what was it--what event or series of events moved quilting to the center and what did it take for you to say "this is my destiny, this is what I'm going to be doing"?

DS: Well, you know I don't know that I knew that at the time. I think it was, that all those things that I talked about before, kind of working at this graphic design job that I could make a good living with but it wasn't that interesting. It wasn't sort of who--it wasn't ever really an expression of my ideas and I think falling in love with the historical quilts and everything about that… I knew some people who were designed furniture for contemporary home furnishings and they exhibited at this trade show called the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and I went to that and there were all these cool people and so I started to have this idea that I wanted to make quilts that… What I wanted to do--and I loved these historical quilts--but what I wanted to do at the time when I looked around in the quilting world or in department stores or in quilt shows, nobody was referencing those quilts more, kind of, accurately or in the simplest, simple spirit that I saw. I felt that as a designer, if I was interested in those quilts, and to me they were, they had everything--they had pieces of fabric that reminded you of a dress you had when you were a kid, they had design that looked like a modern painting. And they were… It was sewing, it had the sort of idea of people coming together in a quilting bee. It had all those things and it was very appealing to me and I just thought if I could tell that story to this design community who maybe doesn't think about quilts, or they have a misperception of it. So my goal was to kind of pitch it out to the design world. So I started exhibiting at this trade show and doing quilts--it took a long time and all these other things happened along the way. Like doing stationery and books and the weird thing is that I've sort of come full circle. I'm designing fabric for the quilting industry, where I really didn't start out there. Again, I had a point I was going to make, but I forgot what it was…

MC: Well, it's interesting, you put this energy out and you had these different strands of skills and it seems like a lot of things came to you and I'm just wondering, for example, Takishimaya, the Japanese department store used to give you antique kimonos and you would cut those apart and make quilts. Now, how does something like that happen to you. It seems to fit so perfectly with the kind of impulse you're talking about; the thing that made you want to create.

DS: Yeah, well it was from doing this one trade show so when I started exhibiting there, what was interesting to me was it was… everybody had cool shoes, number one. It was a crowd I wanted to hang out with. There were some really interesting things happening in furniture and floor coverings but nobody was doing anything in bedding. And if you walk that show now, there are a lot of companies that have come along--Dwell bedding and all these other companies but at the time that I started nobody was even thinking about bedding. So, you know, how clearly was I thinking about it, or not, I don't know. To me it seemed like it really fit in, but I also really stood out because nobody else was doing anything like that. The quilts were very colorful so they made a big impact. And the show was one that was got a lot of press coverage in the design press, so like shelter magazines and design magazines. And that got me out in front of people very slowly but, I think the first year that I exhibited there I had the New York Times shot a story called "Household Names" and it ran in their design supplement the following October and I had a full page. That doesn't really happen--and it's not like it makes you wealthy overnight, but it sort of accumulates and builds over time. The show led to just about everything that I ever did. The stationery show happened at the same time so I had--Chronicle Books asked me to do stationary and then a book and Takashimaya was one of the first customers that I had. I didn't even know anything about the story at the time and they gave me these vintage kimonos. It was terrifying to have to cut them up and then… I was like "what do you want me to do" and they were like "anything you want" which is very scary. The good thing is, I didn't have a lot of time and they were all hand quilted. I would get the kimono in July and they would want it in the store for the holidays, which is not a lot of time to second guess, which I'm very good at. And there were strong parameters which I like as a designer, I like solving problems. The fabric made for kimonos is only this wide and it had to be foundation pieced so there were clear parameters that I had to kind of design within and I liked that challenge a lot. They're mostly monochromatic and it's a huge body of work that most people have never seen that I do. I think I made at least 50 quilts for them over the years.

MC: Would you talk a little bit about your studio setup? What you're set up to do, what your studio looks like? I've been to it and it's a wonderful work space but it's very interesting to see the mix of technology. You have all your computers and everything, and you have a 20 year old Brother sewing machine that just goes back and forth. So just talk a little about the setup and how you work there.

DS: I think having grown up in central Massachusetts, which is an old--there was a lot of textile manufacturing and manufacturing in general and like so many of those cities, where I am now, Bridgeport, Connecticut, was an old manufacturing city that kind of fell on hard times so I've always been drawn to these places that have these empty buildings--it feels like there's so much possibility there, whether it's true or not. So my studio is in this old factory building and they used to make lace trims there. It was called American Fabrics, so it seems appropriate that our space is there. It's great light, really high ceilings, and there's a great group of other artists and designers in the building which makes it really nice. Having been a graphic designer, I learned graphic design at the time when the Apple Computer was becoming was becoming integral to that. So I was very well-versed in the software, the graphics--Illustrator, and stuff. So I still use that for designing my quilts and drawing my fabric, so of course I have computers. But other than that, I have a really old Brother industrial. I like things to be simple. Especially as quilter, it's embarrassing that I never really… I'm pretty much self-taught. I might have had some books that I looked at the pictures but I never really read and--I shouldn't admit that out loud but it's true--so I'm sure that I don't… In my own books I sometimes tell how to do things in the most roundabout or laborious way. But that's how I do it or how I learned, and from whatever angle I'm coming at it.

MC: So you do teach a lot of improvisational workshops with the improvisational quilting, but you're talking about these designs that you do on your computer and that's improvisational, that's coming up a design and then how do you, where does your inspiration come from? How does that process and, what--I guess I'm also interested in the mix. You're doing things that are for exhibition, you're doing things that are for, for a while you're doing things for Pottery Barn so you were doing things to be reproduced. Where do these designs influences come and how does the process go?

DS: I think I look at a lot of different things. I look at painting and I look at fashion. I look at design magazines or books or just about anything but always the historical quilts are also a huge part of the influence on what I do and whether it's… it always starts with an idea and a sketch, and the fabric, obviously is coming from feedsack types of prints, so I'm always looking at historical stuff as a starting place and then hopefully bringing my own imprint to it. What was the question?

MC: Sort of about the process, but one of your fabrics, Flea Market Fancy, which was very popular--

DS: I saw somebody wearing a skirt--

MC: Are you still a flea market girl? Are flea markets still a source? Do you go buy quilts or do you look for fabric?

DS: Usually quilts or it could be anything. It could be printed ephemera, it can be clothing or… But often, quilts. I just love going to the flea markets or just, I guess it's always that feeling of "ohhh". You've discovered something, even though you obviously haven't; it's there for everybody to see. And I love this nostalgia of a lot of that stuff from another era. Which the flea market has a lot of. I've always been interested in mixing things. All one note isn't that interesting to me but the right mixture; it's a very particular balance of things. Everybody has their own unique expression and it's just a matter of finding it. I tried to find the right balance that's right for me. And fortunately, people respond to that. But I think we all have our own voice that we can figure out how to express that, whatever it is that we're interested in.

MC: One of the things that was interesting to me and I had interviewed before for the Wall Street Journal is this: I thought you would be very modern, like I said, with your technology, and interestingly to me is that you do these great designs and a lot of your pieces you do machine piece them, but then you send them out to be hand quilted That really surprised me, number one, and number two, they're very simple patterns. A lot of quilts today, it's elaborate. It's machine quilting and the more stitches, the better. It's like, how many miles of stitches and thread are in YOUR quilt? Tell me a little about that. Does that surprise people? Is that part of the homemade-ness?

DS: Yeah. It's also an aesthetic that, to me, especially with the machine-quilted stuff, I've stuck with this figure eight because it's even, and an even texture. It's not hard angles. I work with somebody who does my long arm quilting and I'm not interested in patterns that are telling a different story other than one the quilt is, like kitties and moons and stars. It's just not my thing. Doesn't mean it's right or wrong, it's just not my aesthetic. I think because I started out not in the quilt world because I was making quilts for a different audience, I didn't have--I didn't feel like I had to behave.

MC: No quilt police!

DS: I did things a certain way. And thank God for that, because however many years later, it's what I do and I feel like I've gotten this far already, made my living doing it, so it must be okay.

MC: With all the business side of things that you're doing, do you ever have a chance to just say "I'm going to make this quilt for the pure pleasure of it, or for another person" or is it just so much now your business that you're--

DS: I don't that much free time and it's like anybody who does a particular thing. Like, the carpenter has all the unfinished construction jobs at home. I think the last thing I want to do is get behind a sewing machine when I have free time. One of the last projects that I made start-to-finish was one of the quilts in my book--and of course making a book is very labor-intensive.

MC: And let's give the title of your current book?

DS: Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspirations. In this book--and all the quilts that are on display here are from the book--and it was my chance to pay homage to all those historical quilts that inspired me in the first place. But one of the quilts in a book is a little doll quilt and I hand-pieced it and hand-quilted it. I got to watch movies while I did it and I enjoyed every second of it. It was really nice. And I knit, occasionally. But lately I'm just trying to do less. I'm trying to do less. It's really easy, in today's world, everybody's on devices and communicating all the time. I'm finding it exhausting these days. So I'm just trying to learn how to get back to something that feels simpler.

MC: I just want to talk to you a little about aesthetics and all that. What do you think--impossible question alert!--makes a great quilt?

DS: Oh. Wow. Well, if something that… everybody's going to respond to different things and have different ideas about what a great quilt is. For me, it's one that makes me kind of stop and pay attention. It can be… I love everything from a quilt at the flea market that's just got 800 million prints in it and tiny little patches to something that's really simple, or a whole cloth quilt. So it really… Those kinds of absolute questions are kind of hard for me, but something that feels, that is authentic in and of itself, that has an honesty. Whether it's a quilt or anything else, if something has a quality to it, it's not trying to be anything bigger or less, it just has this particular quality that, to me, feels like it's authentic in itself. That's something that I respond to.

MC: As far as things, other kinds of artworks, are there particular artists who work in textiles or in any medium that you feel have influenced you, that you really respond to? And, or, they influenced you?

DS: There are a lot of artists that I look at. I love Louise Bourgeois and Agnes Martin and painters like that. There are--oh, I'm having… I knew this was going to happen [laughs.] I was gonna make a cheat sheet. There are people here in this audience. Like Heather and Luke Haynes, whose work I think is really amazing. And again, true. They're doing work that's true to themselves, which is always beautiful, no matter what form it takes.

MC: Now you have been called sort of a 'godmother of modern quilting' and you are looked upon as somebody who has helped birth this movement, and in a sense helped build the aesthetic in this movement. And you are the keynote speaker for the Modern Quilt Guild's first quilt convention, QuiltCon, which is going to be in Austin, Texas, in February. How do you feel about that? Modern quilting, what does that mean? Do you feel like you are, that this movement sprang from you in some way? How does that feel?

DS: No, I think like anything else, everybody in retrospect always tries to explain it. It's funny, these days it happens so fast that we're kind of finding the origins of things, which is kind of odd. I think, while it's flattering, I try not to take it too seriously because I think, I think I was in a place and a time and I was always presenting my work. It's great--on one hand I think, I kind of got my message out there. It look a long time but people noticed and that's really gratifying. And on the other hand, nothing is ever one person. It's a kind of confluence of events and things that happen. When I started out, I used the word 'modern' because I was talking to an audience that didn't have any other reference point and in some ways, was that the right word? I'm not really sure. I've never been very good at absolutes. I kind of recoil from them because to me, nothing is all one thing or another. However it gets defined, I'll leave that to someone else, to do the defining.

MC: Just a couple things here. Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

DS: I think for me, it gave me an opportunity to build a life and earn a living doing something that was uniquely my own. I was able to do work that is my designs and that's an amazing opportunity, to be able to have spent the last sixteen years doing my own work. And where it will go, I don't really know, but...

MC: What do you think is the importance of quilts in American life?

DS: Um… [Reaches for water.]

MC: Today. You're allowed to have some water.

DS: Thank you. I think it was always [laughs.]… I think what's great about quilts is that they're a beautiful design object but they're also a useful object. All the things that they represent--warmth and family and sharing and community. To have that embedded in a functional object is pretty spectacular. The love that is the quilting community, and how generous and responsive everybody is. I'm sure you all have friends that you quilt with or sew with, and today, online, that there's another kind of community I think is really amazing. And I'm just grateful to be part of it.

MC: Looking ahead, you said "who knows where it will lead" but do you have some next challenges in mind? Some next things that you'd like to accomplish?

DS: Well I'd like to start… get back to making quilts. I'm going to have a show at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah in October, 2013. They want 16 pieces, so I'll be working some quilts this year, which is really great.

MC: That's wonderful. And you'll continue to design fabric?

DS: And I'm going to continue to design fabric.

MC: In your simpler life--

DS: In my simpler life.

MC: That you have in mind here. Is there anything that I didn't ask that you would like the world to know, that you would like to have in the Library of Congress about you?

DS: No? [DS and audience laughs.]

MC: I want to thank you so much, Denyse Schmidt, for doing this and for being willing to do it publicly, because usually that's not how we do these. We're ending up this QSOS interview at FIT at the Quilters Take Manhattan event at 2:22 PM. I have no idea if that's correct.

Interview Keyword

Quilters Take Manhattan
quilt design
fabric design
graphic design



“Denyse Schmidt,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024,