Students Design Quilt Exhibit in Downtown Lancaster

  • Six students, led by Associate Professor of Art History Amelia Rauser, researched, designed and curated THE GRID at the Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum. (Photos courtesy of the Heritage Center of Lancaster County)

In a new exhibit at the Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum, several Franklin & Marshall students have patched together an eclectic blend of 1980s fashion and traditional Amish culture—with a healthy dose of the liberal arts.

A joint project between F&M and the museum has produced THE GRID: Amish Quilts, Esprit Clothing and Postmodern Design, which opened in downtown Lancaster on March 4. Six students, led by Associate Professor of Art History Amelia Rauser, researched, designed and curated the exhibit. In addition to artifacts from 1980s fashion and culture, the exhibit features the Esprit collection of Amish quilts, representing the influence of traditional Amish craft on Esprit design (Esprit is a global manufacturer of apparel, accessories and other items). The exhibit will run through December.

“The exhibition is an opportunity to see how quilts made here in Lancaster had a stylistic influence on a much broader swath of art and design in the 1980s,” Rauser says. “As we prepared for the exhibition, we also learned a lot about quilts and the role they have played in American life.”

The partnership between F&M and the museum began when Rauser met Wendy Nagle, director of the Heritage Center of Lancaster County, at a focus group on the F&M campus last year. Nagle suggested the idea of an exhibit, and Rauser designed a fall course around the subject titled Quilts as Fashion. Students in the course included Sabrina Brown ’13, Ferry Foster ’11, Jayati Khanna ’13, Brittany Pipa ’11, Chelsea Troppauer ’11, and Stephanie Tzarnas ’13.

Quilts in the exhibition were displayed in the Esprit headquarters in San Francisco during the 1980s. The Heritage Center, which owns and operates the museum, purchased the quilts from Esprit co-founder Doug Tompkins in 2000.

“When avant-garde art became much more geometric and abstract in the 1960s, many artists and art critics suddenly started to see Amish quilts as great examples of abstract art,” Rauser says. “Doug Tompkins viewed these quilts at a landmark 1971 Whitney Museum show, and began to collect them as great examples of American abstraction. They inspired some of the geometry and color relationships in Esprit design.”

During Rauser’s course in the fall, the students worked in pairs to plan various aspects of the exhibit. Two students—Foster and Pipa—continued the project this semester by fabricating and installing the exhibit during independent studies.

“From the beginning of last semester to now, it’s nothing like I imagined it would be,” Pipa says. “The best part has been building the exhibit week to week, and watching the walls come to life.”

Foster says it was a challenge to include so much information in one space; if a viewer missed one connection, Foster worried that the whole show might be a mystery.

“The biggest challenge was to communicate an idea that most people wouldn’t believe right away—that Amish quilts influenced fashion and postmodern design of the 1980s,” Foster says. “We had to present the history of quilts in the art world, their connection to the Esprit clothing company, and Esprit’s connection to postmodern design, along with proof of a visual connection.”

The students are pleased with the final result, and hope viewers leave the exhibit having learned something new about postmodern art and fashion.

“This was the first time quilts were viewed as pieces of art,” Pipa says. “It was a real turning point.”

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