Textile Intelligence: Richard Saja of Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Richard Saja's Historically Inaccurate hand-embroidered toile

I found Richard Saja and his work through an editorial piece in Elle Décor last year. His hand-embroidered toiles just jumped off the page, and I knew I had to get in touch. I’ve always been a fan of French Toile de Jouy prints, and I loved the way that Mr. Saja was able to play off of them in a humorous, clever and skillful way. He’s partnered with brands like Opening Ceremony and Hello Kitty, and has new large-scale tapestry and apparel projects on the horizon. In addition to his more commercial work, Mr. Saja’s pieces have been acquired by museums like the Shelburne in Vermont and restaurants such Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. The name of his company, Historically Inaccurate, really captures both the reverence and irreverence that goes into his art. A few months ago, I traveled out to Queens to Mr. Saja’s studio to meet the artist and check out his inspiring, beautiful work and the techniques that go into producing it.

TP: Can you tell me about this amazing home?

RS: In Sicily, two brothers married two sisters, and came to America. Because of the double connection, they raised their families together. Three of the adults went to work and one mother took care of all of the children from both of the families. My Aunt Mary, whom I live with, is 99 and her mother used to sew costumes for the Metropolitan Opera. Mary always wanted to be a nurse, but somehow she followed in her mother’s footsteps and she became a designer’s assistant. Her first job was working for Elsa Schiaparelli. So for her entire life, she was a designer’s assistant. People loved her, and she worked until she was 83. She was so good at what she did that people didn’t want her to retire! I think I take after that side of the family. Her father was a woodworker who did all the furniture in the house; that part of the family was very creative.

Richard Saja pillow

TP: How did you come to start Historically Inaccurate?

RS: After high school, I studied surface design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I didn’t matriculate; I just took a couple classes because I was really interested in fabric, pattern and texture. My friend and I started a very small, limited edition line back then called Three Laughing Hermaphrodites. We went our separate ways and I started getting into ceramics and moved to Santa Fe. While I was there, a friend at St. John’s suggested I sit in on some on of his classes. I did, and I was just completely blown away by their approach to education. All of the classes are discussion format, taught around a round table. So I applied and went there for four years, and loved it.

I ended up moving back to the East Coast, taught myself Photoshop and Illustrator, and got a job as an assistant art director at an advertising agency, where I worked for two years. One day shortly after, while I was walking along North Beach in San Francisco with a really good friend, discussing how we both loved textiles so much, she suggested we start something. We founded a cushion company and gave ourselves a year to do it; she was the business end, and I was the creative end. The initial concept was to do ten different styles where it looked like different people had created each of them, even though I was the designer.

We launched the line at the International Gift Fair, and right out of the gates, the hand-embroidered toile got a lot of attention. It seems like such an easy, simple, basic idea and yet, no one had really done it. So my friend and I ran the cushion business for a few years and then she moved to Vermont and I just decided to take our company tagline and make it my own company’s name: Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts. I decided when we split ways that my work was just going to be about handmade. Up until really recently, I stuck to that. I’ve begun to explore the machine weaving process because there are incredible possibilities that I can see in the technology.

One of the next things for me is to do massive tapestries. The Philadelphia Museum of Art just acquired a three-yard piece of my Sideshow Toile to bring into their permanent collection. My friend did all of the drawings, and I pieced them all together and turned them into a toile print. What I’m going to do is go through their collection of toiles and really start collaging the prints together and making my own prints or tapestries based on historic toiles.

TP: What drew you to toile?

RS: Toile was first created in Jouy, France. It was the first mechanically replicated textile print. What we call toile now actually means two different things. There’s a representational pattern I usually use that’s referred to as The Pleasure of the Four Seasons print. Traditionally, people on these prints are depicted dancing around a maypole, being pulled on a horse-drawn carriage, rowing a boat, just enjoying a land and life. That being said, that print has gone through hundreds of iterations and permutations since the 18th Century. Basically, what people do is draw their own versions of the same print. The other toile is a strange, abstract floral print.

Toiles have become less available, even in the last ten years that I’ve been working with them. There are only a few fabric houses that still produce them. Unfortunately, quality is just not there a lot of the time. It’s not a pleasure for me to spend all this time stitching something on an inferior fabric; it just doesn’t make sense.

The simplicity of the toile concept appeals to many different worlds from high design to mass market to indie companies like Opening Ceremony, whom I partnered with last year on some limited edition sneakers. That collaboration was great because it opened my work up to a whole different crowd of people. All of a sudden, high design apparel people were into the stuff.

Saja's hand-embroidered sneakers for Opening Ceremony

TP: What’s the underlying emotion behind your embroidery on the toile?

RS: People really seem to like the humor. There have been times when people have requested that I go in a more vulgar direction and I’m just not interested in that. Part of my work is irreverence, so there’s cheekiness, but I don’t ever think it’s disrespectful.

TP: Do you have any dream projects?

RS: I just spent a day as a guest at the Hillwood Museum in Washington D.C. It was Marjorie Merriwether Post’s house. She was the heiress to the General Foods empire. She had an incredible collection of Cartier jewelry, Fabergé pieces, a lot of Russian Imperial art, things just encrusted with of diamonds. At the end of my tour, the COO of the museum said she’d really like to work with me on something. I think I’d like to just take something from their collection and respond to it in my own way and maybe do an installation piece in a building on the grounds there. I think the next year will be about the large-scale tapestries, additional production work, and taking a more installation-based approach to textile art. There are also some fashion projects coming up too, which I’d like to put under the name Hysterically Inadequate.

Embroidery Thread

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