MonYay! Designing a more joyful Monday

19 March 2015 by Ingrid

Ideo MonYay Grid

For the last few weeks, a team of designers has been hard at work trying to find ways to bring more joy into the dreariest day of the week. And today, voila, we present you with MonYay! A series of ideas to bring more joy to your Mondays. With this trio of objects and apps, our goal was to change the mindset around Monday, create joyful new habits, and uncover moments of joy we might forget to notice otherwise. Our hope was that Monday might become something to look forward, or even celebrate!

The segment is live on Studio 360: you can listen there and hear more about our process and the three designs. And you can read on for more about each of the ideas. You can also click over to the project site for lots more detail about the concepts and our work in bringing them to life.

Before I dive into the ideas, though, I want to say a little bit about the team that worked on this, because I’m consistently in awe of the people I get to work with at IDEO. You know when you work with people who do amazing things you know you could never do? That’s what this was like for me. There were four us: Karin Soukup, Erika Lee, Top Tulyathorn, and me. Karin is a communications designer who has a deep background in designing for emotion (check out her 11:11 project); she led the project with an incredible fluidity, working between research, content, graphics, digital, film. Maybe there’s something she can’t do, but if so I haven’t seen it. Erika, also a communications designer, is a pint-sized ball of energy who really brought the joy into the day-to-day of this project and its aesthetic with her ingenuity and joie de vivre. Top is an environments designer, but for this project, he was a magician, creating the forms and physical prototypes for each of the designs. As many of you know, I’ve been working on Aesthetics of Joy a long time on my own, and it was a revelation to get to work with three people who brought new ideas and perspectives to the work, both challenging and inspiring me. It was beyond a joy to get to do this work with this team!

And now, for a new Monday…

Lolzzz: An alarm clock that opens your eyes to joy


When we landed on Monday as the thing we were going to redesign, we started to think about moments within Monday that needed redesigning. The alarm clock was a no-brainer. After a weekend of sleeping in, there’s nothing worse than the alarm clock’s blaring, beeping insistence that the week is beginning. Redesigning the alarm clock for us is a way to get your day (and week) off on the right foot.

Lolzzz wakes you up with a child’s giggle instead of an alarm. If that sounds weird, you should try it for yourself. You can download the laughter track here, and install it as an alarm for your iPhone or Android. Laughter is a truly contagious sound. We have a visceral reaction to laughter that primes us to be in a good mood. So we thought, what kind of day would you have if you started it with laughter?

Ideo Lolzzz 02 Clock Tickle

The team had the idea to make the clock really look like it was laughing, and worked hard on the form to get it to rock back when it goes off like a kid having a good belly laugh. This led to some fun interactions. Tickle the clock to make it laugh harder. Set the clock back upright to turn it off.

Ideo Lolzzz 03 LaughStory

One of our test giggles (yes, we had test giggles!) was of a kid being tickled. We found that it made people smile when they heard it, and then smile again when they heard the story behind the laughter. This gave us the idea to have a different laugh every week, changing on Monday, and to have the story of the laugh sent via email timed to the Monday morning commute. (If you commute by transit, you’ll have something to read on your ride. If you commute by car, you’ll have something to take the pain away when you arrive. And if you commute by bike, well, you’re probably pretty happy already ;) You could even imagine a website where you could even submit your laughter to be the Lolzzz wake up sound for the week.

Sincerely: A new ritual to transition into the week

Ideo Sincerely 04 Pair

From the beginning, Karin was really interested in the idea of anticipation — is Monday really that bad, or is it just that our dread of Monday makes it feel worse than it actually is? She challenged us to think about ways we could make something that you might look forward to on Monday.

This led us to Sincerely, a ritual that starts your week off with a dose of gratitude. The premise is simple: on Sunday night, record a Thank You message to someone and send it their way. They’ll start their week off with a burst of joy, and when they respond, you get a burst in return.

Ideo Sincerely 01 App Still

We were really interested in gratitude and creating an opportunity to connect people to each other. The idea of a virtuous circle seems really powerful. We know that social connection is one of the most potent sources of joy in people’s lives, and we wanted to explore ways to use the end of the week as a time to forge that connection. The other thing about gratitude, which we talk about in the piece, is that it focuses you on what you have, in a time when you tend to be thinking about what you don’t have. Sunday nights are all about scarcity—the weekend is literally running out, and it’s easy to fixate on that. But making time to share a thank you changes your focus onto something you do have, and it puts you in a mindset of abundance instead.

You can try out Sincerely by using our initial prototype to send your own message of gratitude.


The forms for Sincerely were inspired by the tin-can-and-string phones you may have used as a kid. Sure, we could’ve just made an app. But if we want this to become a ritual, then it makes sense to have an object devoted to it. You record your message into the can, and send through the Sincerely app (which also offers prompts on how to give a great thank you).

When you have a new thank you message, the tail on the can “wags.” We were inspired, no surprise here, by the joyful movement that is a dog’s tail wagging. It just never fails to make people smile!

PopUp and Notifly: A new kind of calendar to liberate your weekdays

Ideo Notifly 01 PopUpApp Still

This pair of ideas, PopUp and Notifly, is all about the calendar. We talked in one of the previous Studio 360 segments about the contrast between Sunday and Monday: how the weekend is all about freedom and then the week is all about the constraints of the calendar. We wanted to break up the rigidity of the calendar and see if we could look at that information in a new way.

PopUp is a calendar that surfaces hidden moments of joy in your day. It reads your calendar, and looks for possible opportunities for joy, such as a new person you might be meeting, a beautiful view near the restaurant where you’re eating dinner, or a joyful happening like a solar eclipse. Each event is a bubble, color-coded based on the kinds of joyful moments you might have at each meeting. You can tap each one to learn more about why that event might be joyful, and the science behind it. And at the end of the day, you get to pop all the bubbles!


PopUp comes with the object above, called Notifly. I know I’m not supposed to play favorites but I can’t lie—if I could have only one of these things in my Monday, it would be Notifly. It’s basically a calendar notification device that sits on your desk and lets you know when you have a meeting. And it does that by blowing a bubble.


This idea may sound silly. Bubbles don’t seem to have a place in a serious setting like an office. But we deal with so much visual and auditory junk in our lives, and especially at the office. We take for granted that something should beep at us when we have a meeting, but why shouldn’t it do something more joyful instead? Why do all the things in our lives have to shout at us to get our attention? Why can’t they do something playful instead?

Our hope with Notifly, as with many of these objects, is that by changing the way Monday looks and feels, we might be able to change how we feel about it. Please check out the site, as there’s much more about each of the ideas and our thinking behind them. We would love to hear your thoughts and comments!

I shared a bit about the team above, but I also wanted to say that we were helped, a lot, by the whole IDEO NY studio and some outside the NY studio, especially Annette Ferrara and Anna Moore Silverstein, who helped us figure out how to do a collaboration like this; Katy Newton, who helped with video and production; Ben Swire, who put the joy in our writing, and gave us our muse, his daughter Quinn, whose distinctive giggle makes our Lolzzz clock what it is; Dario Buzzini, Mel van Londen, and Joseph Lim, who created our microsite and Sincerely prototype and worked around all the technical hurdles to get these things to work; Chris Milne, who programmed the Arduino in the Sincerely prototype; John Robichau and Sam Haymon, who found us inspiring people to chat with to inform our work (and double thanks to Sam for production help!); Michael-John Pierce for helping us jump through assorted hoops to work with talented collaborators such as video production wizards One Thousand Percent, animators Sander van Dijk and Candice Aquino, and fabricator Yen Gary Hou; Ashlea Powell, Debbe Stern, Fred Dust, and Roshi Givechi for providing wise guidance along the way; Kiley Reid and Hadley Lord, models extraordinaire; Dan Wandrey, who with Chris Milne helped with emergency late-night bubble-blowing technology; Diana Rhoten, who shared with us her dog Phife and his wagging tail; Loren Flaherty for bringing us a giant sprinkle cookie right when we needed it; and the whole studio who helped with naming, ideas, and moral support. A lot of love from a lot of people went into this, so if your next Monday is a MonYay, you know who to send your Sincerely messages to!

A more joyful Monday arrives… on Thursday!

18 March 2015 by Ingrid


I think my brain must have two channels: design, and writing. I haven’t yet figured out how to bridge the two. When I’m deep in design, it’s hard to make space to write about it. It’s not that I don’t get ideas for things to write about — I do, many of them — but for some reason the synapses are all firing in a non-verbal direction, and I struggle to switch back into a narrative mode.

Perhaps one day I’ll learn. But for now, I’m getting reacquainted with the process of stringing words together in preparation for the reveal of our collaboration with Studio 360 to #bringjoy to Monday through design. There’s a lot on my mind, but I don’t want to accidentally drop spoilers in my exuberance so I’ll just say for now that it was an incredibly fun few weeks, and I found myself inspired daily by Karin, Top, Erika, and all the designers in the studio who offered their ideas, their hands, and their giant sprinkle cookies to our efforts.

The redesign will be featured on this week’s episode of Studio 360, and on their website. (And if you haven’t been following along, you can listen to part one and part two here.) Once the segment is up, I’ll share some peeks behind the scenes at our inspiration and process for the redesign. For now, please enjoy this image of Grumpy Rainbow Cat, my personal muse throughout this whole experience. You know when you throw a ray of sunshine and optimism on some crappy moment and you’re with someone who just won’t snap out of it? Grumpy Rainbow Cat reminds me of people who hate Mondays and just can’t imagine a world where Mondays don’t suck. I don’t know if we “fixed” Monday for you die-hard Monday-haters, but we sure tried to shine some rainbows in there for you :)

See you tomorrow!

{the joy of} celebrating your quirks

25 February 2015 by Ingrid


It’s not easy being green, Kermit the frog has said, and with that voiced the sentiments of many a small minority. It’s hard to live in a world that’s not designed for you. And this is especially true for lefties, who, at only 10% of the population, often find it awkward (at best) or dangerous (at worst) to live in a right-handers’ world.

Enter Arthur Foliard, who has designed a concept store for left-handed people, rather straightforwardly named Left Store. With a vibrant, candy-colored palette, Left creates a playful, welcoming space a group of people who may feel overlooked. It’s not 100% clear what you can buy at the Left Store, but it seems meant to highlight lefties’ fabled creative side, with books, music, and movies by left-handed cultural icons like Alfred Hitchcock and Sigmund Freud.

This is the second post in a week (the first is here) where I’ve highlighted design that calls attention to human differences in a positive way, rather than hides them. For a long time, left-handedness was considered a defect, and children were forced to use their right hands instead of their left in school. Historically, there has also been a language bias against lefties, with the Latin word sinister meaning both “left” and “unlucky,” and the French word gauche meaning both “left” and “awkward.” In English, this persists subtly with right being synonymous with “correct.” All of which is to say that lefties haven’t always been considered the intriguing creative types. More frequently, they’ve been seen as clumsy, weird, or even cursed.

It’s nice to see design that reclaims a deviation from the norm, and makes it something to celebrate. After all, it’s the intersections of these quirks that give rise to serendipity, and therefore joy. In a world where everyone is the same, or where we’re all trying to be the same, there are few opportunities to be surprised by one another. When we revel in our oddities, we’re free to tell much more interesting stories about ourselves, and hear these stories from others. What these designs make me think is that there’s a role for aesthetics in cultivating tolerance. If we misjudge based on what’s on the surface, let’s play around with the surface. Aesthetics give us great power here.

If you really look at it, the Left Store looks less like a retail concept, and more like a party. And that seems just about right.


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Images: courtesy of Arthur Foliard

Objects of affection: Aesthetic prosthetics

19 February 2015 by Ingrid

Aesthetic prosthetics NYT

Prosthetics are hard to design for many reasons. They’re technically complex, requiring intricate engineering to allow for comfortable and accurate movement. They’re inherently customized, requiring precise measurements (they’re almost never one-size-fits-all). And they’re expensive, using many high-tech materials that can be finicky and hard to work with. But perhaps the most important reason prosthetics are hard to design is emotional, not physical. Prosthetics are replacements. They are designed to fill a loss, or an absence, of something integral to a person’s body. And designing anything to fill a void must acknowledge the pain of that void.

For a long time, prosthetics design did this by mimicry. Creating ever more realistic body parts, with skin-like textures and subtle movements, was a way to comfort amputees and those with birth defects. They offered the promise of something resembling normal. But now we are seeing a new wave of prosthetic design that goes in an entirely different direction. Instead of trying to help people with missing limbs or extremities blend in, they’re making them stand out. The NYT describes these new prosthetics:

They are not designed to look like replacement parts. One popular model, the Cyborg Beast, looks like a limb from a Transformer. The Raptor Hand and Talon Hand 2.X do not suggest disability; they hint at comic-book superpowers. And they are not made to be hidden — indeed, they can be fabricated in a variety of eye-catching fluorescent colors, or even made to glow in the dark.

How liberating this must be, and not just physically. Instead of hiding a deficiency and hoping no one notices, a wearer of these new prosthetics declares their differences publicly and proudly. With bright colors and superhero-esque shapes, they look like high-tech pieces of athletic equipment or cool gadgets. And especially for kids, who may have been teased for their disability, it transforms stigma into something exciting and futuristic.

Prosthetics NYT

This story is all the more interesting because the shift in aesthetics was not intentional. It was a byproduct of a technological advance: the spread of 3D printing. Many children used to struggle without prosthetics because they were too small to manage the complex devices. They also grow too fast to be able to wear one for long, and the expense of constantly replacing and refitting was too much for many families. But as 3D printing technology has become cheaper and more widespread, designers have created prosthetic hands that can be printed out and assembled like a lego kit. The materials often cost less than $50, and designers share the files open source, so anyone can use them. It’s not easy to create hyper-realistic parts on a 3D printer, but it is easy to create ones in bright, fun colors, and so a new prosthetic aesthetic was born.

Joy has a strong relationship to feeling “whole.” Not being whole, but feeling it. These designs suggest that sometimes the best way to make people feel whole is not to try to fill a space with an approximation of what was lost, but to fill it with something totally different, and celebrate it. 

Source: NYT

Images: 1, Kevin Liles; 2, Leah Nash, NYT

Let’s dance

16 February 2015 by Ingrid

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A few weeks ago I read an op-ed in the NYT by ecologist George Monbiot describing our contradictory attitudes towards freedom. While we covet some freedoms (freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from excess government regulation), we can be awfully complacent about others. One passage keeps echoing in my head.

Even the freedoms we do possess we tend not to exercise. We spend hours every day watching other people doing what we might otherwise be doing: dancing, singing, playing sports, even cooking. We venture outdoors to seek marginally different varieties of stuff we already possess. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers/Little we see in Nature that is ours,” wrote William Wordsworth, and it is truer today than it was then.

As I read this, my mind started to fill in Monbiot’s list of things we watch rather than do with examples, and it started to sound awfully like primetime TV: singing (The Voice), dancing (with the Stars), cooking (Top Chef, Iron Chef, Master Chef). We even watch others play. The most popular clips from the Tonight Show are those that feature celebrities playing party games like Catchphrase, Password, and charades. Instead of having friends over, we watch Jimmy Fallon have friends over. Apparently, we don’t even play our own video games anymore. I learned recently about a site called Twitch, where people watch recordings of other people playing video games. In 2014, more than 16 billion minutes were spent watching each month.

Of course, some passive entertainment is a necessary part of a balanced life. We can’t be on all the time, and we all succumb to the soft embrace of the sofa sometimes after a long day or week. But what Monbiot’s words made me realize is that we work so hard, that work has become the locus of our doing. When we actually have leisure time, we are often too exhausted to use it in active way. And so we have become the wallflowers of our own lives.

And this is bad news for joy. Yes, there is pleasure in witnessing virtuosity, or in being captivated as a story unfolds. But our greatest joys tend to come when we’re absorbed in an experience: touching, moving, smelling, feeling it all around us. When we consign ourselves to a life of screen-based leisure, we lose a wealth of sensations. We give ourselves over to a pre-defined narrative, losing any opportunities for serendipity. We give away our precious attention, and miss opportunities to connect with the people who matter most.

All of this hit home for me recently when, inspired by the terror of having to take the floor for our first dance together at our wedding, Albert and I decided to take some dance lessons. I had been thinking of it as another item on the to-do list, a thing we had to do to make sure we didn’t embarrass ourselves in front of friends and family. But when we left the first class, we couldn’t stop talking about how much fun we’d had. In that first lesson, all we learned was how to count time, do some basic East Coast swing steps and a “lady’s spin,” but it was enough to spark joy. We got to move together. We felt the music much more deeply than if we’d just been listening to it. When we were in sync, it was thrilling. When we were out of sync, we laughed. When I spun around and he caught me, it felt like magic.

Now, we practice our moves in the kitchen while cooking dinner, stepping on each others’ feet while waiting for water to boil. It’s a small thing, but I’m grateful that we had a nudge to do it, because we’re so busy there’s no way we would’ve thought to go dancing otherwise, and now we’re talking about making it a regular thing.

What I take away from Monbiot’s piece is that the design of the world is increasingly insulating us from the kinds of amusements that stir our bodies and minds, and nudging us toward ones that subdue them. As designers, it’s worth reflecting on the unintended consequences of our work—a new app design might be very entertaining and sticky, but does it help people do things, or is it just a forum for more watching?

Not to mention we can all use a reminder that simply getting involved in something brings the greatest potential for joy. Dancing is now emblematic of this idea for me, and I love the print above as a reminder. If you really want to keep the idea top of mind, you can get even the print as a phone case, and it will be with you wherever you go.

Image: Ce Soir On Va Danser, by Galaxyeyes on Society 6


Collaboration: Redesign for Joy with Studio 360

13 February 2015 by Ingrid

Ideo joy sq

Hi friends,

I’m excited to share the beginning of a new collaboration with Studio 360, the radio show produced by PRI and hosted by Kurt Andersen. As part of their long running series of redesigns, I’ll be working with some of my IDEO colleagues to reimagine one of life’s more unpleasant experiences, and make it more joyful.

What do we mean by unpleasant experiences, you ask? Good question. We’re thinking about places you kind of dread going, like the DMV, or things you have to do but wish they weren’t so joyless, like doing your taxes, or cleaning the house. The kinds of things that don’t regularly feature on this blog, in other words. 

And the best part is, you get to decide what we design! All you have to do is tweet or instagram a place or experience that you think needs more joy to me, @ingridfetell@studio360show or @ideo with the hashtag #bringjoy. We’ll pick one, and then use the ideas from Aesthetics of Joy (and some designer’s ingenuity!) to transform it into something that makes you smile.

I chatted with Kurt about joy, design, and why this topic is so important to me on this week’s show. You can listen to the segment here

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that the whole reason I do keep writing this blog and keep researching this topic is to make joy tangible, to find ways to bring more of it into the objects and structures that surround us. I believe that the world was not “designed for joy,” and there are so many places that could benefit from a spark of warmth, light, and beauty. So for me this is a truly exciting opportunity to get to practice what I’ve been preaching over the past few years, and to do it with my brilliant IDEO colleagues, who care so deeply about putting truly human-centered design work out into the world. I’m so grateful to both IDEO and Studio 360 for making this happen!

So, please submit your ideas, and share with others. And stay tuned for more updates over the next month as we work to #bringjoy to one of life’s most trying experiences!


Object of affection: A giant hot air balloon swing

11 February 2015 by Ingrid

01  Balloon Swing  Lockhart Krause Architect

Do you remember the feeling of swinging as a child, pumping your feet to go so high you thought you’d either flip over the top, or even better, launch into flight? But of course growing up we never had a swing quite like this: the Cloud Hopper, attached to a hot air balloon, yet safely tethered to the ground in a public park. 

Before we all get too excited, I should caveat that this installation, by Australian architect Jessie Lockhart-Krause, is at this stage just a proposal. Lockhart-Krause has entered it into a sculpture competition called Folly 2015. The winner will have their installation built in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, and it will open to the public in May. 

But what a proposal! Bringing together two joyful objects (the playground swing and the balloon) in one design, the Cloud Hopper creates an oasis in the park, where it is possible to feel like you’re floating in the sky, even while still tied to earth. Though visually striking, the actual experience is quite subtle. The balloon lowers to let the rider on, then the air is heated to raise the swing slightly, so that the seat lifts up off the earth, and the rider has the sensation of taking off. 

Cloud Hopper may seem over the top, but in fact that’s exactly what a folly is meant to be. Follies originated in eighteenth century English gardens, where they were built for entertainment (there was no reality TV in those days). Many were “built ruins,” structures that were built already in shambles to resemble Roman temples or Gothic abbeys. But some were quirkier, including my favorite, a building in the shape of giant pineapple in Scotland. 

Follies seem foolish because they are costly structures that serve no purpose other than joy. And yet, why not build for joy? It seems far more beneficial than many other uses of building in cities: to show power, or display status, or to highlight things and increase our desire to buy them. We justify so many other structures because of their “usefulness,” but many hide an emotional agenda we don’t think about. Follies like Cloud Hopper are not useful by our traditional measures. They do not provide shelter nor do they increase our GDP. But they have other uses. They create smiles, and they spark conversations between strangers, and they inspire dreams. Which seems like a good kind of foolishness to me. 

03  Balloon Swing  Lockhart Krause Architect

02  Balloon Swing  Lockhart Krause Architect

05  Balloon Swing  Lockhart Krause Architect

Images courtesy of the architect, Jessie Lockhart-Krause
Via Inhabitat


Object of affection: Tipsy writer

2 February 2015 by Ingrid

Bower TipsyWriter 1

The tipsy writer is a weighted pen holder that wobbles without tipping over. Just the sort of silly object that makes sitting at a desk feel less like a chore, and more like sitting down to play. 

There’s a whole category of objects like this, starting with Weebles, the egg-shaped toy people who famously wobble but don’t fall down. Round-bottomed and weighted, they amaze us with their dogged commitment to their equilibrium. I even designed something similar once. These ceramic cups, below, will similarly bobble around without falling, and even more steadily when they are filled with liquid. 


Objects like this are joyful in their defiance of gravity; they seem governed by their own laws of physics that are different from ours. But I could also imagine it might be meditative, as much as joyful, to watch the tipsy writer right itself. Like a metronome but with its own inertia, feeling out its way to perfect balance.

Via Swissmiss

A joyful death?

28 January 2015 by Ingrid

The Euthanasia Coaster on display at the HUMAN+

We don’t usually think of death as joyful, but that’s the idea behind the Euthanasia Coaster, an extreme provocation that was part of the PhD thesis of Julijonas Urbonas, a designer at the Royal College of Art in London. The concept coaster offers a way for terminally ill people to end their lives through a death-inducing set of drops and loops, which are supposed to invoke a euphoria-like sensation with “surreal dreamlets” before the final loss of consciousness. 

The most interesting aspect of the concept (and let’s be clear this is just a concept, and has not been built anywhere but in the scale model you see above) is the idea that the coaster’s track is the “storyline” of the ride, and therefore of the death it creates. There is the long steep ascent, a moment’s pause at the top to reflect or wave goodbye, and then the near-vertical drop before the intense g-forces in the loop deprive the brain of oxygen and euthanize the rider. Urbonas envisions this as a new kind of death ritual, and even imagines caring spectators coming along to watch (and mourn) as their loved one takes their wild ride to the next world. 

By turns horrifying and thought-provoking, the coaster asks us to question what constitutes a good death, specifically in a situation where someone is experiencing such pain or chronic illness that the ability to choose death is a humane option. The traditional depiction is one that is peaceful, a quiet passing in bed with sufficient pain medications to kind of slowly drift away. The corresponding emotional experience would be something like contentment: calm, as comfortable as possible, and still. The Euthanasia Coaster, on the other hand, is intensely charged, like ecstasy. It involves extremes: speed, elevation, stimulation. And for those who find thrill-seeking makes them feel alive, perhaps this kind of death might allow them to go out at a moment where they feel their humanity acutely. 

I find it’s more frequent these days for people to interrogate the idea of “a happy life” and try to pin down what that means for them. Does it mean more moments of joy? Does it mean a few thrilling peak experiences of transcendence and elation? Does it mean a quiet unruffled state free of anxiety, but also free of excitement? Does it mean diving headlong into struggles, finding meaning and joy but also perhaps discomfort? Different lives, and perhaps different times of life, call for divergent emotional experiences. I’m not sure if there’s anyone who wants to die this way, but just as we find it useful to examine the range of emotions available to us in life, it’s also interesting to question the range possible in death. 

Via Oxy
H/T Alex Gallafent

Vibrant Vlisco

20 January 2015 by Ingrid

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This is about the part of winter where I’m just over it, and yet I realize that we’re still hardly even halfway through. Piled under all my layers (the down coat, the thick sweater, the scarf so big it’s like another sweater), I’m craving a totally different kind of aesthetic, a vibrant shock of color and pattern. Enter Vlisco.

I knew about wax prints from doing some work on a project for kids in Ghana a few years back, but I’d never heard of Vlisco until last night. I came across the Dutch textile manufacturer in a book called Color Hunting, which I’d bought over the holidays to find some new inspiration around what you may know is an evergreen topic for this blog. I was transfixed by the intensity of the colors and the boldness of the patterns. It’s like these images just radiate solar energy. I could sunbathe here all day!

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It’s no accident that the colors of these fabrics are so bright: they are designed this way because of the intensity of the African sun. As they describe in Color Hunting:

To begin with, the ever-present African sun fades virtually all colors; it shines 12 hours a day on every surface, including clothing. Because our original color chart—based on Indonesian batik colors—was unsuitable, we had to develop new colors that could withstand the West African sun. The new colors required a high concentration of dyestuff; as a result, Vlisco colors are highly saturated. The bright, full, warm colors became popular for their appearance and for their quality. Consumers say that even when a Vlisco fabric is totally worn out, the color is still intact—alive.

The reference to Indonesia is interesting, and it speaks to the fact that the wax prints we think of as African actually originated in Southeast Asia. Vlisco (then called P. Fentener van Vlissingen & Co.) figured out a way to mass produce the native Indonesian batik process, which traditionally used wax to mask the patterns before dyeing. But the Indonesian market didn’t like the too-perfect quality of the imitation textiles, and banned them, forcing Vlisco to find a new market for their goods. The Dutch already had been selling European luxury items in West Africa, so the trade lines were already established. The “Dutch wax” style of textiles became wildly successful, and adapted to the styles of the region, so it’s natural that we think of these fabrics as African now.

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Images: courtesy of Vlisco