In One Fabric Designer’s Home, a Lesson on Layering Prints
By Nancy Hass
When Lisa Fine is about to move to a new home, she often entertains a fantasy that for her qualifies as wild: embracing the solid lacquered furniture, bold lines and sumptuous textures of Hollywood Regency. “I admire Dorothy Draper and Billy Haines just so much,” says the fabric designer, in a Mississippi drawl gooey as mud pie. “So I think to myself, O.K., this is the moment that I am going to do it, really do it.”
But being Fine, such thoughts never last long. Even Hollywood Regency — hardly a minimalist ideal — ultimately strikes her as too plain. “I just start seeing things that belong together, and I keep on layering,” she says, “Then you get — well, you get this.”
By “this” she means her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a warren of rooms as pattern-dense as Renzo Mongiardino’s designs at their most exotic, done up floor to ceiling in fabric from her 10-year-old line inspired by Indian and Middle Eastern textiles. It is replete with rococo furnishings amassed over a life in places that range from the civilized and chic to the obscure and war-torn.
Fine is not the sort of designer who finds ideas in illustrated volumes of historic motifs deep in the library. Instead, she embodies the peripatetic spirit of her work, in constant flux and always open to reinvention.
Raised in Hattiesburg, Miss., to a family that owned department stores, and schooled in Dallas (“I have the heart of a Texan no matter my travels,” she insists), Fine spent years as a magazine contributing editor in Manhattan. After taking a course at Le Cordon Bleu in 1996, she impulsively decided to stay in Paris, “despite my terrible French,” and spent a decade living in an early 19th-century flat behind the Musée d’Orsay. Much photographed, it was a fantasia of pink and orange, with a tented sitting room, an English Regency mirror and silk-covered lampshades.
But it was a maiden voyage to India in 1998 that changed her forever. Immediately entranced by the subcontinent’s shocking juxtaposition of color and its wanton mix of patterns, she joined forces with the New York-based fabric doyenne Carolina Irving to create Irving & Fine, producing diaphanous printed blouses and vibrant coats, delicately beaded with fine embroidery (pronounced, with Faulkneresque flair, as em-bro-dree).
In 2007, she started her own fabric line, which is heavily influenced by her extensive travels; in her hand-printed linens produced in Switzerland, the U.K., Los Angeles and the Midwest you can find the ancient Coptic patterns of Egypt, the block prints of Rajasthan or the street crafts of the Chinese Silk Road city of Kashgar, near the Kyrgyzstan border.
About five years ago, Fine moved her base back to New York, which, she calls, “forever the center of the universe.” Passionate wanderings and high-low eccentricities are writ large in her apartment, which, unexpectedly, is in an uninspired postwar co-op: amid shelves of well-thumbed vintage travel guides and exquisite miniature paintings, there is a profusion of cushions in fabrics that beg to be touched, two giant portraits she commissioned of beloved now-deceased mutts (one rescued from a construction site in China) and a twisted gilded mirror shipped home from Istanbul that broke into a thousand pieces en route and had to be meticulously restored. Her bed is crowned by a curvy pink embroidered headboard made in a Delhi workshop that is elaborate enough to qualify as artwork.
So inviting is the hive she calls home that guests who arrive intending to tour the sights are reluctant to go out the door. “My British friends, particularly, just nestle up with a cup of tea and never leave,” she says. Indeed, lying back on a bed covered with a patchwork quilt and overstuffed pillows in the guest room, with walls and ceiling covered in a paper-backed version of her linen Samode pattern, is an instant soporific.
Fine smiles knowingly when she sees my eyelids grow heavy, and offers me Darjeeling in a porcelain cup. Perhaps a shot of bourbon? It is, she assures me, the perfect cure for this bleak afternoon. Enveloped in her upholstered cocoon, it would be rude to refuse.