[Pamela Williams] In her atalier/shop in a historic flatiron in the North Beach section of San Francisco, Denise Fiedler sits at her worktable patiently tracing, cutting, trimming, finessing, positioning, placing, jogging, reviewing, and then—finally—pasting. With at least four pairs of scissors at her side, just in case one goes missing, this collage artist transforms vintage flashcards, well-worn paperbacks and other vintage paper ephemera into one of a kind Bertoia chairs, bicycles and birdhouses…and most every girl’s true love—shoes.
Ironically, that’s how I first discovered Fiedler, via her paper shoes. Working on an identity for an upscale consignment shop (my own) Fiedler’s fashionable clutch, buckled belt and stylish mules made it to my inspiration board. A year or two later, a West Coast friend called to report, “I am on Kearney in San Francisco, and I have just walked by a storefront with the most splendid collages,” she said. “I know who it is!” For both of us, Denise’s collages were true (paper) love at first site.
First, tell me about your path into collage. I recall you started in fashion and home accessories?
Yes, that’s right. Before Paste, I had a fashion and home accessories business called Bravura that was textile based. Towards the end of that experience, I was exploring wool and starched felt. I would cut the felt into shapes and appliqué it to aprons and tote bags. The last thing I did was to silkscreen drawings of dogs, reindeers, etc., onto starched felt that had been die cut into shapes. Those tree ornaments, I now see, were the transition to Paste. I closed my business and after a few years wanted a new project. Instinctively I knew I wanted to work with paper and collage somehow.
Retro flash cards served as a source of inspiration, is that right?
Yes! I had a stack of vintage math flash cards and suddenly saw noses from ones, eyes from zeros and mouths from nines. I did a series of 4 x 5 faces and showed them to a designer friend of mine, Christina Weber of Studiopatró. She said “add print.” And so I did.
Could you tour me through your studio? Help me visualize your space.
I work in a room on the fifth floor of a historic 1907 flatiron building in San Francisco’s North Beach. It has wood floors, high ceilings and a bay window from which I can see layers of Chinatown, Columbus Avenue (especially the beautiful doors of Tosca Cafe) and even Mt. Tam!
And the interior design?
The decor is a quirky ensemble: I have a 7-ft. bookcase two vintage thonet stools live on top of, upside down; an 8-ft. fig tree; a tufted (color) upholstered chair near the bookcase; and an iron-legged antique table whose top is covered with Bell’ochio’s black chalkboard oilcloth. On this table, supplies co-mingle with objects of inspiration. I try to hide things like plastic punches in vintage baskets or painted wood boxes.
Your work area?
My worktable is a 6 x 3-ft. old, heavy, heavy metal table with a dark green laminated top and a beautiful ¼-in. brass border around the curved surface. It was made in the 1920s by Art Metal from Jamestown, N.Y., a company that specialized in metal furniture for libraries. I found it at an antique store in Napa. My chair is a black vintage Bertoia, and my guest chair is an antique Shaker. On top of the table sits a wood tray with my essentials…pens, pencils, scissors, glue sticks and eraser.
I remember hearing about a chalkboard, a vintage chalkboard?
Yes, it’s a 36 x 36-in. wood-framed blackboard from the turn of the century. I found it at Nest in San Francisco. I use it as my inspiration board more than a chalkboard. Among other things, it has taped to it the first thing I ever bought.
What was that?
The silhouette of a boy with a beret! I found it at a Paris Flea Market in 1986. On the chalk ledge, there is a crepe paper surprise ball of a narcissus from Tail of the Yak in Berkeley, Cal., along with vintage and antique marble fruit.
What’s your process, Denise? And how much time is invested in each?
I make the first collage by sketching the idea. After a bit of refining, I trace it onto tracing paper then cut out the shapes that compose the image. Next I select which papers I want to use, making sure there’s enough contrast between the bordering shapes. Then I cut, then I paste. It can take from 15 minutes for a very small piece to a few hours, depending on the size and detail.
If we look closely at the artwork, will we see a connection between the words on the papers and the final images?
Yes! Not always, but sometimes by design and sometimes by accident. I believe in synchronicity. Once I did a portrait of a dog with vintage Japanese pages and later found out the dog was part Japanese. At first I had no idea that people actually were “reading” the collages!! Now I’m careful of which books I’m using.
If we open your “collage toolkit,” what would we find inside?
First and most importantly, about four pair of Japanese paper scissors from PaperSource. They are really sharp and wonderful to use. I like to have a supply in case a pair or two go m.i.a. in the middle of production.
I actually use glue sticks, not paste. I cannot imagine a business called Glue! And my secret is Scotch—purple—so I can see where I’ve applied. For the boards, I order 100% cotton four-ply archival from Archival Methods in 8 x 10, 11 x1 4 and 16 x 20 in.. I use a vintage paper cutter because it’s wood—and I like the way it looks—to cut the boards into pieces. I also have a collection of circle punches from 1/8 to 1-1/2 in. A ruler, an eraser, pencils and Sharpies—that about sums it up.
What are you going to do when you run out of vintage books?
Run to the nearest fleamarket or used bookstore! It’s hard to buy online, because you really don’t get to see the color of the pages. Dark crafty brown is my favorite and hard to come by. It’s usually the paperbacks that have that tone.
You recently started using 18th-century French marbled papers in your work.
Yes. And those papers definitely want to be birds! The organic quality of the marbled designs lend themselves so well to nature.
The pasted papers you use are vintage…are the glues archival?
Yes, Scotch glue sticks are acid-free and archival! I have tried paste, and it’s not as smooth. The boards are four-ply, 100% cotton archival.
What’s your connection to Marimekko? Does that influence the work you do today?
Yes, the Marimmeko section of Crate and Barrel in Chicago and Boston! I’m still a big fan. I think it’s about how effective simplicity can be. I love love love the “Finn Farmer” shirts—hand drawn stripes in amazing color combinations.
And, I still love this quote from Armi Ratia, the founder:
“There is only one duty—beauty. There is only one reality—dream. There is only one power—love.”
In your collection, is there a signature piece to represent “Denise Fiedler?”
At this moment, I think it’s the Bird in Cage. It has both an old and modern feeling at the same time, in the way silhouettes sometimes do. Also it marries book pages with the marbled paper.
You also do custom work. Any memorable stories?
Yes, the first one ever! I was in Rhinebeck, N.Y., at Paper Trail and was discussing custom pieces with Maureen and Serine, the owners. In walks a guy with his wife, takes a look at my dog collages, which are in the store, and says he wants a custom piece of his beloved departed terrier.
Talk about timing! The wife just shrugged her shoulders and said, “He’d rather look at the dog than me.” He agreed, and it was clear they’d had this conversation before.
Last, but not least, tell us about your awesome business cards. They look good enough to sell.
The originals, back when I started, were designed by Christina Weber of Studiopatró.com. Go to her website and you will want to buy every single thing! Now, we’ve evolved to Luxe cards from moo.com. They come packaged in this gorgeous box wrapped in a purple ribbon with a purple seal. There are 50 different images, so people have a hard time choosing what card they want—it’s like a mini portfolio. Plus the detail of the thickness, the color stripe inside, makes them extra noticeable.
Denise says sorry, her cards are not for sale, but (!) you can get your hands on her prints at her online shop, PasteSF.com. And, if you’ll be at the New York International Gift Fair this weekend to see the astounding array of the world’s best home, gift and lifestyle resources, say hello to Paste, Booth 8321 in Personal Accessories, downstairs at the Javits Center.
Studio shots by Mallory Sampson Photography.
All other images courtesy of Paste, special thanks to Gretchen Worthington.