One of fashion’s best-kept secrets is revealed to a wider audience this month, via a new book from Phaidon. The Design Library has been in existence since 1972, and is used by major names across fashion, high and low, from Oscar De La Renta and Calvin Klein to Nike and Target. Yet the chances are you will never have heard of it.
“It is a fairly well-kept secret, it’s true,” says Peter Koepke, who has been at the Design Library since 1990 and acquired the company in 2002. “I think part of that is because we’re not open to the public, which is kind of a shame, but we can’t be because we’re business-to-business, we work just with professional designers.
“That’s one of the reasons. Probably the other reason is that a lot of the professionals who use us are quite happy to keep us to themselves,” Koepke continues.
It’s easy to see why: the Design Library is a real treasure trove. Its US collection is vast, held across a 12,000 square foot loft in a converted fabric mill in New York’s Hudson Valley, where over 7 million examples of textiles, wallpapers, pattern books and embroideries are stored. In London, its building is more modest, situated just off Oxford Street, but its collection is still eye-popping, including samples of designs stretching back to the 18th century and from all over the world.
The Design Library is used primarily by designers from the worlds of fashion and home interiors and also paper firms, but it’s easy to see how its offerings could be hugely interesting to those in the wider creative industries too, particularly graphic design. It differs from a museum in a number of ways but most significantly because the majority of the designs it holds are for sale, with the rest offered on a rental basis. This means that, despite the size of the archive now, many more designs have passed through it over the decades on their way to new homes.
“When you look back over the years, since the 70s, if you think what has gone through the archive,” muses Kate Denham, who heads up the London side of the company. “But that’s what people did then, you didn’t necessarily hold onto things.
“The other side is if they don’t ever get used, they’re in dusty old books and never get seen. At least now they have another lease of life, in a slightly different context or format. Something that might have been a home furnishing or a book cover is now a dress in Topshop, it’s quite interesting.”
Clients usually visit with a specific brief or idea in mind, though sometimes may just come in the hope that the collection will spark ideas. As the Design Library doesn’t own the copyright on the items it holds – because the historical designs have no copyright – the team suggests that clients make adaptations to the patterns in reusing them. “A lot of people will take an element from a design and then recreate it and do something with that,” says Denham.
“We can be the initiation of a collection, so they just want to come and be inspired,” she explains of how clients use the archive. “A lot of the more established, high street brands come in with an idea, so they have their colour boards, they know what they need to fill. But then they might see something completely different here and say ‘gosh, we hadn’t thought of that’; because there are so many different design styles, it can take them off in a different direction.
“Sometimes we just get words,” she continues. “We get a brief that’s just words, and the same word can mean a lot of different things to different people, so it is interpreting that … but that’s also partly the fun of it.”
Another distinction from a museum is that visitors can get hands-on with items, and examine them without the fuss of gloves. It is a pragmatic experience, with the emphasis not on preserving an item for posterity but instead to encourage the designs back into the world via new interpretations.
We don’t have the most exceptional, perfect condition examples. The idea contained in the piece is what matters to us
“We don’t have the most exceptional, perfect condition examples,” says Koepke. “The idea contained in the piece is what matters to us. Is it a good idea? I think we buy with very good taste and we have huge respect for the designs but we can’t handle them like a museum would.
“The library is very well organised, it has 7 million designs, it is certainly the largest collection in the world. They’re classified 1,200 ways…. The design has to be appropriate and useful to the world today, or sometime in the future. There are lots of old designs around but they don’t necessarily move easily through time, and others do, others move beautifully through time and they’re constantly modified and adapted,” Koepke says.
The Design Library also has an online offering, Kosmos, where customers who can’t get to the physical library can source images, on an annual subscription basis. But the real joy of course is in the actual, physical objects, and the surprises to be discovered – super contemporary looking print pieces that turn out to be from the late 18th century, or beautiful textiles that have been perfectly stored to retain their original colour and feel.
Koepke sources new items for the collection from all over the world, though is very careful in his choices. “I don’t buy anything in flea markets or those vintage places because it doesn’t seem worth my time, and they don’t feel unique enough,” he says. “There are so many ways to buy, but I look at things almost every day, people send photographs. Certainly I’m looking at a collection in person several times a month – if it looks interesting in photographs, I’ll be on the next plane to wherever.
“Archives of old companies that have long closed are one of the things I like the best…. They don’t have to be on-trend – they have to be something that is a good representation of what it is. When I first started here, nobody cared about Art Deco, you couldn’t show it to anybody, they would just look down their nose…. I was able to buy the most brilliant collections of Art Deco in the 1990s and now we’re so happy to have them because everybody wants them. So things move around.”
With its regular contact with some of the top names in fashion, you would think that the Design Library would also be in the lucrative business of predicting trends, though this, Koepke insists, is something he leaves to others to do, preferring instead to concentrate on providing a discreet, personalised service to his clients.
There are lots of old designs around but they don’t necessarily move easily through time, and others do, others move beautifully
“We certainly see trend,” he admits. “For example, some of our clients, let’s say our high street clients, might come to us and ask for a look – and the way they convey that to us is they show us pictures of things from the catwalk. And it’s very possible we might have sold a design on the catwalk to the company who did it….
“We don’t necessarily tell that to people because we’re discreet,” he continues. “We know the trends but we’re not going to tell people because it’s not our business. It’s really the right of our clients to do what they do.”