Friday, July 31, 2015

Ernie Smith

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Ernie Smith founded his custom embroidery company, Penn & Fletcher (the name is made up) back in 1986 after deciding that his previous line of work as a costume, scenery and lighting designer was “killing” him. Although most of Penn & Fletcher’s work is commissioned by interior designers, the company also restores pieces from major museum collections, including objects from The Met. At the glamour end of the business, there is a call for embroidery work on costumes for shows such as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Hairspray" as well as movies like Bram Stoker’s "Dracula." And all of this found its way out of long, lonely Pennsylvania winters when, as a nine-year-old boy, Ernie’s mother taught him embroidery—he won the Blue Ribbon Prize at the county fair for “Dancing Vegetables” on tea towels!

I think we should maybe start with the switch you made from being a lighting and costume designer into this whole thing with the fabric. How did that happen?

I’d done a couple of Broadway shows and a lot of off-Broadway shows, operas, musicals, commercials … and what I found was that you really have to work very hard to make a living. In my last year I did 20 shows and I was 38 years old and I thought, I’m not going to last. This is killing me.
Ernie's Upper West Side apartment building, which was built in 1888, still retains its original Richardsonian Romanesque stairwell with ornate iron railings. Named "The Brockholst", the building was dubbed "The poor man's Dakota" by the New York Architectural Record.
Entering the apartment landing. Ernie found the front door, which matches the building's original architecture, on the street. Built-in bookcases from Gothic Cabinet Craft were a recent addition to the front entryway. The mirror once belonged to Giorgio Sant' Angelo.
A hall chest from the now defunct B. Altman furniture department displays a collection of owls and an Indian statue of Ardhanarishvara, (a composite of the Hindu god Shiva and his consort, Parvati).
Also on display are Ernie's college fraternity certificate and other favorite objects. The red mirror above the chest is from John Rosselli.
An English bulldog doorstop stands near a covered can of beans that helps level and lift the hall chest.
Why was it killing you?

Designing 20 shows in one year! I was mostly designing the scenery [not the costumes]. For each one you meet with the director, the choreographer and other artistic people to begin the collaboration. Then you start proposing the design ideas, get them approved, go back and start executing all of the draftings, the elevations and all of the other things that are necessary. And these were not small shows, [they were] things like Mame. The old adage of theater is, “You can make a killing, but you can’t make a living.”

In today’s terms what would you earn per show?

About six or seven thousand a show—a big regional show. And that was for months of work, a massive amount of work.
A view into the living room from the hall. The wood floors throughout the apartment are original. A Chippendale mirror bought from La Barge hangs above a small 18th century tea chest. The chest is flanked by a pair of blue-and-white, covered Chinese vases and a carved narwhal scrimshaw.
A comfy reading chair is surrounded by plants.
Looking across the sunny corner living room. The leather E-Z chair was purchased at Ethan Allen in Ernie's favorite color, red.
An 1804 engraving of actors in 'the green room' signed 'Gilroy' hangs above the living room fireplace mantel.
A vintage WWI poster hangs in a corner of the living room.
A group of blue and white Chinese vases are arranged next to a Victorian Black Forest hand-carved St. Bernard dog.
A pair of costume sketches by 'Motley' for the Broadway show Baker Street hang above a small table displaying more porcelain.
So what happened to change the situation?

I was designing a nightclub on the East Side and the interior was a French-inspired white velour with all of these criss-cross braids in a lattice pattern. I went to the store to by some braid and they had only 36 yards. I just happened to be driving through Long Island City and I saw National Braid. I stopped in and asked if they had [the braid] and I suddenly realized there was a massive amount of material that never makes it to the market. The clothes you’re wearing—these fabrics never appear on a store shelf as fabric. So I started a trim and lace business selling to other costume designers because I knew the difficulty of trying to find materials.

And how did the business turn into what have today?

I got real bored with just selling trim and lace so I bought a small children’s appliqué company that was going out of business. It had novelty sewing machines—I didn’t know how to run them but I knew they were magic. And suddenly I was in the embroidery business.
A living room sofa that Ernie inherited from his neighbors fits snugly into a mirrored living room niche.
A glass-top desk displays family photos.
Looking across the living room towards the bedroom.
Custom bookcases by Furniture New York surround the entrance to the bedroom.
In the bedroom Ernie came up with a clever solution to much needed storage space and a sleeping loft by designing a raised bed that is built on top of a hanging closet.
He was inspired by the compact design of ship staterooms.
Steps that lift up to provide additional storage lead up to the loft bed.
Another built-in closet surrounds the comfy raised bed.
A view down Amsterdam Avenue from the bedroom. Penn & Fletcher workroom embroidered the curtain edges.
What is a novelty sewing machine?

Okay. They’re hand-guided embroidery machines that emulate hand-stitching, all different kinds of braiding and cording and sequin work. You actually draw with the machine; you steer the machine from underneath.

What was your first job?

It was for Ivana Trump. Some friends of mine who worked for a costume company got the contract for doing 400 cocktail waitress uniforms with sequins, little Miss Kitty outfits and I did them right here in my kitchen. They were for the waitresses at Trump Castle [in Atlantic City]. We were going great guns and then Ivana said, “I will only hire women with B-cups.” Well of course the union got a hold of that one! We did 400 uniforms with B-cups … and of course there aren’t 400 cocktail waitresses with B-cups. So we made little red sequined additions so that the larger-breasted girls could actually fit into them.
Blue-and-white Transferware collected over the years fill the walls of Ernie's charming eat-in kitchen. Hitchcock chairs surround a butcher's block table from Pottery Barn. The Irish pine cabinet from Golden Oldies stores additional kitchenware.
A vintage WWI poster hangs above the kitchen table.
Looking across the sink and cooking area. A curtain serves as a door to the kitchen.
Grains, cereals, nuts and other snacks are neatly stored atop the original kitchen cabinetry.
That’s a riot! Can you tell us about some other costumes you’ve embroidered?

We did Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1992, directed by Francis Ford Coppola]. Do you remember his red cape with the griffins on it? And, Sadie Frost … her bridal outfit with the big lace collar and we did the snake dress and the burial robe as well the front of Gary Oldman’s vest.

Are you romantic about the days of hand embroidery versus the current use of computer programming the designs? I read that you have a program that can incorporate the irregularities of handwork.

It’s about money. We can do any embroidery you want to pay for. But it’s American labor. If we can use a tool to speed it all on, well … but when someone does something on a hand-guided machine, there’s a personality. We can tell who did what. I know the hand. Sometimes the computer is so sophisticated, it’s too perfect. So we put that [imperfection] back in. You make it a little off.
Sample curtains with various embroidery styles fill a wall of the front showroom entry of the Penn & Fletcher factory in Long Island City.
A view of the Manhattan skyline and the Queensborough Bridge from the Long Island City showroom and factory.
JoAnn, an employee who started with Penn & Fletcher back when it was only a lace trimmings company attends to orders from clients.
A bulletin board displays past projects for interiors and Broadway shows.
A view across the workroom.
Carmen Rodriguez works on a set of towels and bathmats for a Hamptons pool house.
Green and yellow thread spools are fed through a row of embroidery machines.
The finished bathmat.
A curtain border is being machine sewn for a project by Dallas designer Cathy Kincaid.
A printout for the design for the curtain border. The colors are deliberately chromatic to make it easier for the operator to know the color placement.
Alex Herrera, a master artist and computer person, takes hand drawn designs and converts them to computerized patterns.
Sue French, a former fashion illustrator often hand draws and transfers patterns to fabric. Here, she is working on placing ornaments on to a fishnet curtain for a Pierce-Allen project in the Hamptons.
A detail of the fishnet curtain.
Hmm … perhaps that sums up humanity … we’re all a little off. I read this on your website and it sounded like poetry: Embroidery is the art of embellishing
soft surfaces with sewn ideas”…

I may have said that at some point. I just love to do it and to talk about it.

This is an ignorant question but what is the difference between embroidery and tapestry?

They are related. In tapestry you’re actually making the fabric. You start out with just threads and you are individually weaving little sections of the piece … but you’re weaving with infinitesimal little threads. It’s mind-bogglingly slow. And needlepoint is the next step away from that. You actually have a grid. And then embroidery, you start with the finished fabric and embellish it on top.
Ernie, examining the embroidery pattern for a 1915 costume for Broadway's Dr. Zhivago.
More paper printouts of designs in progress.
Pattern weights and tracing paper pattern stencils.
Shamim Akhtar embroiders the first stage of a curtain project destined for a Sotheby's showhouse.
A leather prototype for a project by Katie Ridder. The embroidery is to be used on a set of eight leather chairs.
A portion prototype for the center 3-feet of an 18-foot valance for the recent renovation of Kings Theater in Brooklyn.
A view of the hand-guided machine area.
A copy Penn & Fletcher made of a 1920s flapper dress that has come back for repair.
Matilda Morillo does the second step for the Sotheby's curtain border using a moss stitch done on a sewing machine from 1915.
Sewing machines that date far back as the late 1870s fill a wall of the workroom.
Vintage machines are labeled with tags noting the current projects for which they are being used.
Most are still used for various projects.
The oldest machine, dating from 1878, with mother–of-pearl embedded in the steel base.
Workroom shelves store carefully labeled thread spools grouped by color.
I think I remember from some quiz show or something that the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t actually a tapestry and that it’s embroidery.

Yes, it’s embroidery.

Were you interested in doing crafty things when you were younger? Was it all-absorbing?

When I was nine years old, I lived in a little town in Pennsylvania called Cambridge Springs, in a very rural area. I had no playmates, no kids in the neighborhood because there was no neighborhood. To give me something to do one winter when I was nine, my mother took me to Woolworths and bought me a potholder loom. And I loved it! I was making potholders a mile a minute. I was just prodigious! She thought, I have to find something that isn’t so expensive and so we went back to Woolworths and in the next bin over was embroidery. So she taught me how to embroider. I actually won the Blue Ribbon Prize at the county fair for “Dancing Vegetables” on tea towels!
The conference room displays thread samples, embroidery samples and idea boards.
Dolly Parton posing in a dress embroidered by Penn & Fletcher for her recent tour.
Embroidered insects are prototypes for a Chicago client.
An 18th-century velvet coat with exquisitely embroidered borders by Penn & Fletcher was worn in Dangerous Liaisons.
Sample embroidered curtains and fabric from past projects on display in the conference room. The samples often facilitate choices when planning future projects with Ernie and Evelyn.
More samples are displayed in conference room walls.
Peeking out of the conference room into the front showroom.
Ernie showing us headboard embroidery prototype used for a residence in New Orleans.
Penny checking out towels embroidered with bunny friends.
Original 1880s fabric from Alva Vanderbilt's bedroom chair.
The fabric was reproduced in the 1990s by Penn & Fletcher.
A detail of the exquisite reproduction of the 1880s fabric.
A prototype from the Penn & Fletcher archives that was made by Maison Jansen for the coronation of the Shah of Iran.
A light blue fabric displays favorite embroideries used on curtains for two different Park Avenue projects.
A prototype of insects embroidered on a linen fabric for designer Charles Pavarini to match butterflies from an antique Chinese screen that belonged to a client.
Penn & Fletcher created copies of the eagle that adorns the valances of FDR's presidential library and are now hanging in the museum in Hyde Park.
Flat filing cabinets in the front showroom store embroidery archives that were inherited from a costume factory that preceded Penn and Fletcher.
A few of these vintage document prototypes form Penn & Fletcher's collection of over six thousand items.
Ernie designs holiday postcards each year to include the three shop cats.
Penny snuggling up in a blanket lined box.
What would you say is the distinction between art and craft?

An artisan is the violinist and the composer is the artist. Now the violinist may be so fabulous at interpreting that work but in the end the violinist is a technician, a really talented technician who brings a sense of artistry to it, but they didn’t invent the piece.

So do you consider yourself an artist?

Yes.