Skip to content

Interview with Designer Natalie Chanin

/ Interviews - Programs

Natalie Chanin (photo by Peter Stanglmayr)
Natalie Chanin (photo by Peter Stanglmayr)

As part of Design Week Birmingham 2015, the Museum is excited to welcome Natalie Chanin for our annual Hiden Lecture on Wednesday, October 21 at 6PM. Chanin, of Alabama Chanin, strives to achieve complete sustainability at every stage of the manufacturing process – from materials and processes, to cultural sustainability in the form of preserving hand-sewing skills. In her lecture at the Museum, she will discuss mid-century modern design in a talk entitled Mathematics, Magic, and Mid-Century. To learn more about Chanin’s background and the talk, click here.

Before Chanin comes to Birmingham, the Museum had a few questions about her work, the mid-century aesthetic, and the design community in Alabama. Read along in our interview below.

Birmingham Museum of Art: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started in the design world?

Natalie Chanin: I’m a native of The Shoals community in northern Alabama. In the mid-1980s, I pursued a degree in Environmental Design at North Carolina State University. The philosophy of my learning program — in the vein of the Bauhaus movement — was to teach design theory alongside manufacturing methods. I learned to ask why things are made in one specific way. Are there alternatives? And what are the consequences and results of changing manufacturing systems? This was the beginning of my understanding of sustainability and the role it could potentially play in my designs.

The greatest education – on life and design – I could have hoped for, I found as a stylist in Europe. That taught me almost everything I know about fabric, shape, and fit. It allowed me room to experiment I might not have otherwise had.

BMA: What inspires your work?

NC: I’ve just received a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts to explore inspiration over the next year. Inspiration is a fleeting concept, and it can be completely different from one person to another. I’m in the process of exploring if there are similarities and absolute differences among and across disciplines. My friend Rosanne Cash recently wrote to me: “85% of my success is because I’m tenacious and I show up for work.” I love that. Inspiration can be as simple as just getting up every day and showing up.

BMA: In a feature by NPR last year, you described the “ugly history” of cotton and how your work is part of “making a new story for cotton.” Does creating this “new story” extend to the South as a whole, and how has your design work accomplished this?

NC: To better articulate that sentiment, I think it’s important to say the ugliness isn’t with the cotton itself. People were not enslaved by cotton; they were enslaved by other people. Cotton is just a commodity – but this commodity created a system where society benefitted from the free, absolutely dehumanizing labor of other human beings.

That being said, I wouldn’t say that our work has accomplished this, but I hope that we are part of a growing story that looks to the past and writes a new future. And our story is one of community, both local and global. Though we are located in the South, I see us living in global times, and we have a responsibility to the global village. Purchasing a cotton t-shirt in America today can have either positive or very negative outcomes on the other side of the globe. As consumers, we become part of the story whether we want to or not. As producers, we have some choice as to what role we want to play in that story.

BMA: For your talk at the BMA, you’ll discuss the mathematics and magic behind mid-century design. Why do you think the mid-century modern aesthetic has been particularly popular in design, from architectural to graphic, today?

NC: I think that it is part excellent design and part nostalgia. Design and manufacturing processes found a time of great synergy during this period. Designers were digging deep into research, looking for how to make something brand new – innovative, but lasting. Great products were made that stood the test of family homes and resisted decay. Much of what is made today, whether you are talking about a garment or a chair or even a home, is made with the idea of the item being eventually disposable. This was not the case with great mid-century designs.

BMA: Your talk in Birmingham is part of this year’s Design Week Birmingham. What does it mean to you to see the excitement and innovation of the design community in Alabama?

NC: It is wonderful to have so many talented designers in our community, and I feel lucky to be a part of this beautiful and growing conversation. We have an opportunity to inspire and promote our rising talent and also show other communities what Alabama has to offer. Smart design can promote better, longer lasting products and, at the same time, work towards social change and economic empowerment. On a smaller scale, Birmingham (and Alabama at-large) has a lot of hidden talent to be shared. This is a wonderful chance to look around and appreciate our amazing designers.