Permanent Collection, on Cultivating Beauty
Permanent Collection collaborates with artisans, designers and the estates of esteemed artists to reproduce time-tested, iconic pieces from design objects to jewellery and clothing. The founders, Mariah Nielson and Fanny Singer, are California natives but first met at the now cult East London café, Violet.
We met Fanny on a wet and windy Monday morning in London, back at the café where it all began, before she flew home to Berkeley after a two-month tour of Europe. A few weeks later, we caught up with Mariah over Skype from the estate of her late father, the artist JB Blunk, in Inverness, California, which she now calls home. Hearing Mariah’s voice travel from a place that continues to inform her both personally and professionally enriched the conversation with a sense of immediacy and intimacy, despite being a world away.
Catching the two women in this manner gives a window into their praxis: travelling and working on projects that draw on their expertise in art history, curating and writing, folding in new narratives to expand the universe of Permanent Collection. We discuss the significance of their backgrounds in establishing their brand ethos alongside the challenges of growing a flexible online company with the utmost respect for art and craftsmanship.
Advance Copy: Could you begin by telling us about your backgrounds?
Mariah Nielson: I was studying architecture at California College of the Arts, and then worked as an architect before setting up an artist residency here at our family home. That experience introduced me to working directly with artists and designers and curating their work. I did that for the years the residency ran and also applied for a job as a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design before going to London for graduate school at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art. After studying design history, I was again working as a freelance curator and writer in London, which is extremely exciting and inspiring, but I was making very little money. I was struggling and keeping an eye out for other types of projects that might be slightly more sustainable and financially consistent.
Fanny Singer: When we met I was working independently as a curator and writer, trying to figure out the next step. Then we met here in London, on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. For a while our friend, owner of Violet Café Claire Ptak had been saying that I should meet Mariah, we sat down across from each other and just immediately clicked. She was wearing this coat – which incidentally became the prototype of the Agnes – and I was just thinking ‘what is that most perfect blazer coat?’
It’s a funny thing because in California, Mariah and I live within 45 minutes of each other. Our parents weren’t friends themselves but have many in common, so there was a sort of community that we shared. The town where Mariah is from, Inverness, has it’s own culture and is very physically isolated.
When I met Mariah there was an aspirational quality to the relationship, where there is this older, chicer sister. But we also had so many core values in common. We grew up in these beautiful – but quite different – homes. My Mum’s (renowned chef Alice Waters) house, is a Victorian bungalow from 1910, all wood, with an arts and crafts kind of interior. Mariah’s house was built over many years by her father, in the most remote wilderness of California.
AC: What was it like growing up in these environments?
Mariah: The home is my father’s masterpiece, he made everything: the building itself, the furniture, ceramics, details like the door handles – he touched everything that we use and live with in this space. It’s a total creative environment, full of art made by my Father, Mother, brothers, or friends would loan or give to our family. It was a really dynamic place growing up and I’m trying to keep that energy here. So right now I’m here with my husband, who is a product and furniture designer, and our friends Martino Gamper and his wife, the artist Francis Upritchard. Martino and my husband are working in the studio, Francis is painting watercolours on the deck. That kind of energy is still so important and necessary to have in this place. This environment is deeply inspiring to me.
Fanny: My Mum was not hand-making ceramics but I’ve always thought of her as being, at core, an Aesthete being – she is governed by an intense consideration of how to cultivate as much beauty in your life as possible. So everything in the house was precious, collected over long periods of time: wooden spoons, French café au lait bowls, ceramics from around the world, cutting boards and pans. There are many beautiful culinary antiques that are still used all the time. These environments that Mariah and myself grew up in was something that became a kinship that we recognised, not even explicitly spoken about, but in the way that we thought about working on or writing about art.
“These environments that Mariah and myself grew up in was something that became a kinship.”
AC: How did the idea of starting Permanent Collection come about?
Mariah: We started talking about the shared struggle we have as freelance writers and curators in London, and casually started talking about this project, this idea, which would be based on reproducing the vintage coat.
Fanny: It started with “well, what if we re-made that coat?” At this point, Mariah had had her trusted tailor in Hackney re-sew the seams along the lapel of this vintage piece fifteen times. She said she would love to remake it and agreed that we should do a couple. Then several friends overheard this and said: “We want one too”. So we thought there was an idea there, but from the beginning, we knew it wasn’t just about clothing.
There is a theme that governs the entire project, which is to find things that we’d like to re-make. We are not designing anything from scratch. It’s not to say that we wouldn’t invite that, but it’s also about finding things that have been time-tested that we know have the ability to endure. The clothing too, all of the pieces are things we’ve had for years.
Mariah: And we are very transparent about that, we’re not calling ourselves designers, this is very much a curatorial project. And people respond to that, I think they like the idea that these pieces were consciously derived from and inspired by vintage garments. I think that’s refreshing. People can relate to that passion and love for a favourite garment that’s just falling apart but you don’t want to let go of, thinking about how to keep it around for a little longer.
“There is a theme that governs the entire project, which is to find things that we’d like to re-make.”
Mariah: I had done something similar with my father’s ceramics from the estate – I reproduced a set of white porcelain cups with Atelier Dion in Oakland. There is a really exciting transition that takes place when using a new material to make something that already exists. It becomes more contemporary and obviously, it changes, but there’s still that spirit in the form that comes through. That way of working is what we started to apply to all our different products, then we decided to commit to the project and see what would happen if we started a business and we really took it seriously from 2015.
Fanny: The Blunk Estate has been an important part of what we do, but there was also this idea to work with the historical estates of other artists, like the Calder Estate, whereas the clothing is mostly anonymous. Some of the clothing was handmade and some had labels that we couldn’t find any information on, things that are obsolete in a way. The clothing is meant to be very minimal, a kind of uniform. Pieces that don’t have that flare or cut or pattern which make them distinctive, but more that you feel they are comfortable, chic and well put together.
“The clothing is meant to be very minimal, a kind of uniform.”
AC: Coming from an background, how did it feel transitioning to working with clothing, and somewhat in fashion?
Fanny: Not coming from the fashion industry has been a great benefit and luxury for us because it’s meant that the expectation was not there. We’re free of those shackles, and yet it’s caught on so much. People love the things we’re making, it’s both an incredible surprise and pleasure. We recently shot our campaign with three pairs of mothers and daughters, because that’s exactly what we’ve found happening. Women who are about 25 to 35 and their mothers who might be 50 to 75 are wearing the clothes because they are quite ageless. That’s the kind of thing we discover when we have our pop-ups or do in-person sales. We’ll continue with fashion in this way, which is to say a couple of pieces per year, not collections.
“People love the things we’re making, it’s both an incredible surprise and pleasure.”
AC: How did you start adding products besides clothing?
Fanny: It was very organic and it’s exciting that we can continue to elaborate on our vision. We’ve always talked about the project as us having the flexibility to do what we wanted to do with it – whether that’s working on products or publishing books – and not feel beholden to clothing if clothing was not the thing that was working best. The precursor to that was our journal Works on Paper. I worked for a long time as an editor and writer, so I didn’t want to supplant these things that we’ve spent a long time cultivating through study and work, but integrating them all.
Mariah: This project is a way of bringing our interests together and that was something we both agreed would be very important. She has a life of writing and traveling, and I have a life of curating and traveling and managing my Father’s estate. There are all these other projects that feed into Permanent Collection and we respect that we need to focus on those as a way of leading this brand and bringing in more content. I feel like that’s also something interesting, a dynamic that perhaps other brands don’t have, that duality and pluralism in how we work, that we’re not always in the same place at the same time, constantly meeting different people and collaborating in new ways, bringing those voices in. Works on Paper or the new series In Their Permanent Collection are both really exciting opportunities for us to invite others to be part of this project.
AC: Could you tell us more about ‘In Their Permanent Collection’?
Mariah: This is a part of our website where we invite people – artists, designers, critics, chefs – that we’ve worked with and admire to submit a photograph of a piece that’s in their permanent collection. Something they live with that represents their interests and is the epitome of their aesthetic. It can be anything: a book, clothing, an object or a tool. Then we ask them a few questions about the piece and why they’ve selected it. Interestingly enough this is something that’s been a source of inspiration for us, in terms of future products. The contributors have shared all sorts of wonderful items and we’re always paying attention to how our customers, and people reading our blog online, respond to the objects. It’s like market research and simultaneously a way of sharing these intimate stories. Again, I think it touches on many themes that are important to Permanent Collection, especially sustainability and longevity because a lot of the pieces are heirlooms or have been around for decades. That kind of history and storytelling is really important to us.
“A lot of the pieces are heirlooms or have been around for decades.”
AC: The idea of looking outside as a business and bringing in different people into what you do is fantastic. Questioning how and why we connect to objects.
Mariah: Exactly, and why do we value things? How was something made, where was it made, why was it made? The history of a piece and what it says about a person and culture in general.
AC: From what you’ve explained collaborations seem to be at the core of Permanent Collection.
Fanny: For sure. Next year we have a project with Alexander Calder and then there will probably be two more collaborations with my Mum, Alice Waters. We’re working with Max Lamb, and his wife, Gemma Holt. She’s a jewellery designer and artist who designed our trademark blue gridded wrapping paper. Max is working with us on a product that will launch in 2019. He’s also from Cornwall with a connection to The Leach Pottery, so they are going to manufacture that product in England.
AC: How do you approach production generally? Do you aim to make most things in the USA?
Fanny: We always had this idea that we would produce wherever the best person is, which is something that we are doing. The majority of what we vend, we vend in the US, so we are trying to be a little more domestic about production. We have a ceramicist in the US to make JB Blunk cups, and our jewellery maker is based very close to us too. But we do have a beautiful scarf produced by London Cloth Company because they have these incredible vintage looms from the mid-19th century that make gorgeous textiles. The production of these objects is particularly gratifying because you’re only working with one or two artisans and have total control of what you make. Clothing has at least 40 different people that you’re interfacing with on a daily basis.
AC: Could you tell us a little bit more about your pop-up shops?
Mariah: Yes, we just had a month-long pop-up, the longest one we’ve had to date. Here we were able to bring all our pieces together in one room, really create a total environment with the furniture, art and products to communicate the values and aesthetic of the brand. We had my father’s artwork on the wall and furniture that’s made by my dear friend and neighbour, the artist Ido Yoshimoto; all this other material that helps to describe and illustrate the importance and uniqueness of the product. I feel like that was the most effective part of the pop-up, besides it being a fantastic opportunity to meet people and let the clients touch and interact with the pieces first hand, I feel people crave that.
AC: When you do so much research into a project or a product, how do you go about sharing the story, time and effort that went into it?
Fanny: Telling those stories is the challenge of my work. As someone who writes for a living, it’s not too foreign for me but at the same time, it’s hard to tell those stories, because they are authentic and genuine. We have the luxury of making things that have stories, we’ve selected them because they do. But telegraphing that to the customer is a challenge, especially in an online format.
“We have the luxury of making things that have stories, we’ve selected them because they do.”
Mariah: I think that circles back to the pop-up space, where that was readily and easily communicated because we could bring together all of the pieces and contextualise them. It’s a challenge it really is, unless you’re having a conversation like we are having right now. If you just quickly go to the website it might not come across.
Fanny: For example, the Agnes jacket is a simple cut and when people touch it they realise what a beautiful Italian crepe it is. I can’t tell you how often we get emails from people who are so happy that the item is much nicer than they thought. It’s very easy to look quality online and not be quality in reality, we are really fighting with that and how flat this environment is.
We always try to emphasise how much we want people not to treat things that they buy from Permanent Collection as precious. That’s why we wanted to be online, to preserve that margin for people so they don’t have to pay more. We don’t want to represent a false economy it feels out-dated and exploitative. I think people are exhausted by that and don’t want to be taken for fools.
AC: I think people are looking for new approaches and seeking authenticity in the whole purchasing process.
Fanny: I think you’re right. What happened in the first flush of this digital age, was such a change of culture into the digital sphere, initially, there was a kind of rapture – everything can be done online. I do feel we are seeing, especially with the craft revival, a backlash against that.
Mariah: I think we always knew that Permanent Collection was part of something, there is certainly a zeitgeist or a movement, a particular interest in the handcrafted; small production runs, and working directly with artisans. We are aware that many people are doing similar projects, but we were also aware and excited about what we have, these special backgrounds that make us unique. We knew we were going to be able to pull from this pool and also from a professional network that would help to stand us apart.
“There is certainly a zeitgeist or a movement, a particular interest in the handcrafted.”
Fanny: There are a lot of strands that come together in this narrative; from an intellectual place in art and art criticism, my Mum, JB Blunk, our friends. I feel like many narratives have made Mariah and I who we are, but they are still very much coming to fruition through this project. In a way, we want to make that word ‘beauty’ not cliché, not pretentious, but to encourage people to think about their whole environment, there being a holistic sense of beauty in their life. It’s a lofty goal, but we are trying!
Special thanks to Mairi Hare for proof reading & editing of this conversation.