Samuel Tannenbaum: Modernity with a Shaker Sensibility

In a post-post-modern era of computer-aided design and retro-ornate popularity, what is old can be startlingly and gorgeously new. Samuel Tannenbaum, a 2019 Textile Surface Design grad, draws on his small town roots and his aptitude for textile design and crafting, to create original fabric designs and fabric-based artwork.  His work has a distinctive, elegantly spare, Shaker sensibility.

A quilt by Tannenbaum reminiscent of his mother’s quilting style that also references Shaker design. “They often used fabric from discarded clothing and home textiles,” says Tannenbaum

He discussed with us how it all came together and where he plans to go next.

Q: You reference your mother’s quilting style and family historic home. Was there an appreciation for folk art early on?

A: Oh, yes. My mother’s needlework and quilts are on display throughout our house, as well as her collection of angels. She owned a quilting fabric store and taught me how to sew at a young age. We made a quilt together while I was in elementary school.

An “in-process” style digital print on linen showcasing colored pencil drawings of furniture found in Tannenbaum’s childhood home paired with Shaker sayings relating to keeping a tidy home

cont. I was home-schooled. My sister and I would pick out a craft book from our library every week and make as many items as we could before having to return them for the next. My parents encouraged my projects and inspired me to go into textiles professionally. I have that first quilt I made with my mom displayed on a quilt rack in my bedroom.

A textural piece that highlights the way fabric is made. When producing warp for weaving, one often “chains off” to allow the yarn to stay in order. Tannenbaum took these groups of chained warp that would normally go onto the loom and sewed them down a backing fabric, highlighting a step of the hand making process

Q: The Shakers were an Early American sect known for their devotional lifestyle, craftsmanship and design skills. How does being influenced by Shaker design blend with your intuition and creativity? 

A:  The Shakers were making things to be simple, functional, and long-lasting but never gave up the aspect of coziness that made each piece feel homey. I am always looking to create work that references history but doing my own take, incorporating my style.  Like the Shakers, my upbringing gave me an appreciation for making things by hand. No matter the outcome, it was special because someone made it with their own hands.

A digital print inspired by American folk artist Charles Wysocki

“The relationship between fibers and abstraction, if often overlooked or ignored, has been present from the beginning of Modernism. Sonia Delauney and Anni Albers come to mind as talented artists who took advantage of fabric’s inherent geometry and chroma. I am reminded of both artists in looking at Samuel Tannenbaum’s work. Here is an artist who is curious and interested in exploring different traditions and histories—who successfully and literally weaves these disparate influences together in a compelling and unique way.”

– Troy Richards, Dean, School of Art and Design

A more artistic piece of Tannenbaum’s made from the scraps of another quilt in a more modern layout

Q: You grew up in Oneonta, a small college town. What was its artistic influence on you?

A: It is far from any larger city. I turned to activities that I could practice at home. I’ve always sought to create a space to live that feels entirely comfortable. I often turn to making things to fill my space with — quilts, pillows, scarves, wall art. My mom filled our house with an abundance of quilts and makes needlepoint and slipcovers. She showed me that textiles can be used to change the way you feel in a space. The right pattern can brighten your spirits, especially when your couch has stars all over it!

Working on the finishing touch of the quilt, knotting the top, batting, and backing together. Photo: Keira Wiggins

Q: Can you describe the skills you’re employing?

A: They include the worlds of fine arts and textiles. I incorporate aspects of fine art, such as collage and pencil drawing, into my print work. My main love is weaving. I enjoy taking a simple construction and making it look complex, or vice versa. I also use embroidery, knitting and crochet in exploratory ways that are not so traditional. My intention is to dive deeper into fiber art and to combine what I have learned in all of these disciplines to create experimental works of art, whether they be functional or decorative.

A close up of the quilt knotting process. Photo: Keira Wiggins

Q:  How has studying at FIT helped you develop your vision?

A: I gained an understanding of how the industry works and to prepare assignments to a certain standard. I would not have grown as much as I have as a designer and artist had I not pursued textiles academically. I gradually developed my personal style, which took a lot of trial-and-error throughout my coursework.

A decorative pillow made using the Bargello technique, a type of counted thread embroidery. It was used by Tannenbaum “to mimic simple color by number embroidery kits for children, an activity I  partook in when I was younger.” The design focuses on a variety of different traditional quilt square patterns, deconstructed and randomly placed into a composition together.

“FIT also gave me the opportunity to study abroad at the Chelsea College of Arts in London for a semester, which aided me greatly in discovering my artistic voice. This paired nicely with the traditional industry preparation. It allowed me to put my own twist on textiles and to provide something different for the industry.” 

Q:  You seem well versed in the origins of Early American design.

A: Yes, I minored in Art History and took as many classes as I could on a variety of subjects. I tried to base my textile work on a topic that I was learning about in whichever art history class I was taking. My interest in Folk Art and the early American style stemmed from my History of American Art class, and developed in other courses. This style I feel most connected to, even though I am influenced by a range of references, including the Ulm School of Design, Bauhaus, the Zero Movement, Agnes Martin, and Hieronymus Bosch.

A collection of Tannenbaum’s pique and matelassé handwoven samples inspired by vintage attic-found quilts and the menswear company Bode

Q: Tell us a little bit about your plans, and what you’re working on now.

A: Currently, I am working as a studio-retail assistant for the home textile brand MINNA in the Hudson Valley. I am also an in-house weaver for the fashion designer Gary Graham in Franklin, NY. I weave in the store as a form of performance art, and then my fabrics are used to create home decorative objects.

I am considering a Masters program exploring sustainable practices relating to textiles before I embark on my own business endeavor. I hope to eventually have a business selling limited-run home textiles and one-of-a-kind textile art pieces.

A grouping of samples from Tannenbaum’s thesis collection. There is a hand crafted map of his neighborhood with his home, elementary school, and local park.

Samuel Tannenbaum’s “Hands to Work” collection incorporates representations of significant objects from the artist’s childhood historic home with an idealized simple lifestyle. The collection references the Shakers’ simple, functional design. Daily tasks for the Shakers were preformed as a devotion to God. They are remembered for the phrase “Hands to work, hearts to God.” The references to childhood ways of making, colored pencil drawings and simple embroidery techniques reflect inspiration drawn from the devotional drawings, neighborhood maps, furniture and pantry boxes of the Shakers.

To see more of his work go to: SamuelTannenbaum. Follow him on Instagram at: @stannenbaum.

All images used with permission.

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