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Life Why British designer Faye Toogood is more beloved abroad than at home

Faye Toogood easily moves between the worlds of industrial design and fashion, a skill that's highlighted at a new show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, opening Nov. 19.

Faye Toogood easily moves between the worlds of industrial design and fashion, a skill that's highlighted at a new show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, opening Nov. 19.

Photos courtesy of Studio Toogood and Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Artist without borders

British fashion and decor designer Faye Toogood receives her first comprehensive exhibition this fall at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ellen Himelfarb speaks with the interdisciplinarian about why foreign audiences fawn over her work while those at home seem puzzled by it

To create a range of door handles for the British hardware brand Izé, Faye Toogood scavenged animal bones from the banks of the Thames and cast them in silver. She coated her Armour bench in patinated verdigris studs from a local upholsterer. She used traditional weavers and dyers to make her tapestries and rugs.

A rosy-cheeked child of the countryside, whose mother and sister collaborate on her eponymous clothing line, Toogood is deeply committed to bringing the principles of rural England to her work. And yet the first comprehensive survey of Toogood's design will open not at an august London gallery but rather the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Her home pieces include Sticks and Stones and Broken Bones hardware for Izé.

Her home pieces include Sticks and Stones and Broken Bones hardware for Izé.

Toogood's idyllic narratives, spun in clay and worsted wool, have enchanted Americans in a way they haven't back home. In February, the New York gallery Friedman Benda will launch a complementary exhibition, featuring Toogood's latest furniture in rammed earth, cast glass and silvered bronze. Toogood says that's the sort of product she ships directly to clients stateside. The New York location of Dover Street Market, for example, can't keep her utilitarian canvas outerwear in stock.

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Business isn't quite so robust at the retailer's original London location, even though Toogood had a hand in designing the store interior – and was lauded for it by the press. The press may follow her every move in London, but shoppers leave her be.

America's affection for Toogood is not all about satisfying a Wuthering Heights fix. A multi-hyphenate who defies categorization, Toogood is the first to admit that her tendency to flirt with art, design and fashion has confounded her home base. To Americans, used to seeing designers cross over from design and interiors into fashion, it seems to make perfect sense.

The fibreglass Roly Poly dining chair.

The fibreglass Roly Poly dining chair.

"In London I'm not part of any design scene," says Toogood, surrounded by raw-silk coats and volcanic-tile tables in her London studio. "In the U.S., people are more open to the concept that one studio can do multiple disciplines."

After years styling for World of Interiors and then her own practice, Toogood showed her first product "assemblage" in London six years ago. A line of furniture made from wood, stone and brass, it referenced the art of scavenging – indeed she exhibited it alongside a display of foraged mushrooms. Her audience was nonplussed.

"She felt the immediate need from viewers to lump her in with designers doing similar things with wood and salvage. They needed to categorize it in order to understand it," says Colin Fanning, co-curator of Design Currents, opening in Philadelphia on Nov. 19. "Much of her approach since then has been to intentionally resist that easy categorization, and move in a different direction materially from that first collection."

The Archetypes loose fabric fireplace surround.

The Archetypes loose fabric fireplace surround.

The elements of Assemblage 1 that appear in Design Currents share little DNA with the follow-up collections on show. Though some of the same forms recur – like the anthropomorphic Spade and Roly Poly chairs, the Laurel and Hardy of seating – "there's always a new twist," Fanning says.

Her Cage for Birds, from Assemblage 3, is a boudoir vanity constructed from steel mesh, a crude material for a traditionally intimate, refined object. "I love the embedded tension – the narrative associations embedded in the piece," says Fanning. "To have that feminine association with a rough material breaks up the gender conventions of those two worlds."

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The Cage table.

The Cage table.

By linking unsophisticated materials and heritage skills with contemporary production techniques, Toogood brings novelty to the common trope of past vs. present. "In the U.K. there's a constant tension between mass production and the idea of quality – what's good or proper design," says Fanning. "She follows the classic designer model but at the same time does fascinating things with industrial tools and fabricators." The dialogue comes from the process of making and the strength and limitations of the material. "It makes for a wonderful ambiguity."

Perhaps there would be no dialogue if Toogood were formally trained like her peers. Much of her work springs from experimentation. "Not having a fine-art background keeps her from falling into certain ways of working," says Fanning, "blowing the doors off and opening up a process of discovery."

Her clothing aesthetic mixes contemporary shapes with well-worn fabrications.

Her clothing aesthetic mixes contemporary shapes with well-worn fabrications.

That's precisely the kind of rough-and-ready approach Americans buy into.

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