Iris Wang’s career has been an exemplified history of philosophy,
humility and a Zen-like approach to finding peace with art within the constraints of commercialized Western culture.
She has been an artist her entire life and a fabric designer for over 20 years. But only now does she say she is finally ready to design.
“I was always adamant to become a fine artist. I had a lot of questions about life and found all the answers in art and thinking about the art,” she says. “But when I got out of art school, there was no way to make a living, so I started to do
different kinds of jobs.”
Among them was a stint running a small flower shop, and another assisting an interior designer. Those odd jobs turned out to be vocational training for running
Brentano Fabrics, a business Wang founded in 1990. The company, headquartered in Chicago, has been growing steadily ever since.
“When I decided to do fabrics, I went to the Art Institute [in Chicago] and took a hand-weaving course,” she recalls. “I was very bold. I didn’t work for a fabric company first. I just went ahead and started a company.”
Born in South Korea in 1954 to parents who had fled Communist China, Wang’s journey began with an early fascination with her Chinese heritage. At 21 she enrolled in Taiwan’s premier art school, National Taiwan Normal University, where she studied everything from traditional Eastern calligraphy to Western oil painting. She taught art in rural Taiwan until 1978, when she came to the United States to get her MFA at Kent State University.
By the time Wang had completed her master’s program, she was itching for a new artistic outlet.
That’s when she met Homer Tremulis, an interior designer who is still practicing today in Northbrook, Ill. Wang began helping him on interior design projects, focusing predominantly on hospitality spaces. She immediately connected with the fabric work, a more familiar medium than the three-dimensional nature of furniture and architectural planning. She used the time to reflect on the lessons she learned in her graduate art program that went beyond the classroom and the easel.
Wang recalls discussions about Jackson Pollock’s Drip Period—referring to his novel technique of pouring and dripping paints onto the canvas from above—and how galleries pressured him to keep producing the drip paintings to satisfy customer demand, long after his painting style had changed.
“I realized that unless you’re an extremely lucky artist, you might have to live not honestly to your own art,” Wang says. “Rather than do that—rather than be a dishonest artist—I thought I could be an honest business person. I could do commercial art.”
By 1990, she was launching her first collection for Brentano, and soon found herself grappling with the realities of the business.
“The fine art is what the artist wants to say. The commercial art is the reaction of the designer toward the public,” she says. “It requires an interpretation of the public, to do something to make them say, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s beautifully done. I want it.’”
The success of Brentano is a testament to Wang’s ability to do just that. In the course of 23 years, the business has grown to international proportions, with showrooms and sales offices spanning North America, Europe and Asia. The company now manufactures and sells hundreds of patterns in more than 20 collections, three of which have taken home IIDA/HD Product Awards for Innovative Hospitality Textile.
Wang works with versatility in mind, creating
patterns she says range from “serene” to “crazy.” By using Crypton, Nano-Tex™ and GreenShield performance fabrics and applying category-specific aesthetics, her collections can fit in everywhere, from evergreen homes to soothing healthcare spaces and bold guest rooms.
But the path was not always easy. For Wang, understanding her customers also meant bridging the gap between Eastern and Western cultural aesthetics. “Everything about me, compared to America, the way we did things, was different,” she says of her earliest attempts at designing commercial fabrics. “People said that I was eccentric.”
Over the years, she immersed herself in Western design and trained her eye to understand her customers’ perspectives on shape and color—a style she describes as “somber.”
“My color sense was originally more European. Then I slowly learned the American way of looking at color,” she says. “Now I am starting to re-adopt the European way. I can do it with a little more control.”
To stay in tune with Western trends, Wang looks at movements happening everywhere, from fashion to the automobile industry. She also spends a lot of her time with two things you might expect an artist to avoid like the plague: Excel sheets and sales reports.
“I use hard facts to focus and to actually understand what our customers are looking for. It’s not enough to just talk to one or two clients,” she says.
Through methodical, detailed analysis, Wang has come to understand not only what is unique about her customers, but also what is unique about Brentano.
“There’s a Brentano Red, a Brentano Yellow, Brentano Blue. It might not sell in someone else’s line, but it sells for us.”
Coincidentally, Wang’s process of aligning herself with Western culture sounds a lot like Eastern philosophy, focused on acceptance, harmony and balance. “The interesting thing is that as I slowly tried to adopt what the public wants, I started to get acclimated with it. Then it becomes what I want also. Otherwise life would be too painful. So I start to learn how the Western eye sees things. That became mine and now I have a good harmony. For 20 years, that was my homework.”
With the assignment complete, Wang says she is finally ready to design.
The watershed has been marked by a new collection, Gallery, which pays homage to the art that has inspired Wang throughout her life. It includes 14 patterns and textures, each a unique reinterpretation of a notable artwork. Among the most recognizable are Arles, a textural chenille upholstery inspired by Van Gogh’s work while living in the city of Arles, France; and Acanthi, a botanical pattern inspired by Matisse’s distinctive “cut-out” style.
In addition to Gallery, Wang stays connected with her fine art roots through a signature collection of portfolio work, to which she adds one new design each year. Among them is Lushan, a toile resembling traditional Chinese watercolor painting, and Homecoming, a large-scale repeat of a poem translated into Chinese calligraphy. Each piece has a unique story to tell about Wang’s history. Combined, they form a conceptual retrospective of an artist’s life-long journey to find balance in her art.