Bold blocks of kaleidoscopic color dreamed up by the Gee’s Bend textile artists Loretta Pettway, Delia Bennett, Annie E. Pettway, Magdalene Wilson, and Mary Lee Bendolph are hopping from their renowned quilts to a vivacious new furniture collection by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Cloth & Company, a Chicago home furnishing company, this winter.
This isn’t the first—and surely won’t be the last—translation of the quilts by the celebrated female African American artists of the tiny hamlet of Gee’s Bend, in Wilcox County, Alabama. Puzzles, notecards, scarves, and more have all featured the quilters’ works, first made internationally famous by an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2002.
This new collection also grew out of a museum exhibition, Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South, which appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2019. Souls Grown Deep is the foundation long known for promoting the work of Black artists in the American South. “I had just started my tenure at the museum when this show launched, and admired the Gee’s Bend community, but had never had the chance to see the quilts in person,” says Christine Kostyrka, the director of retail at the Philadelphia museum. “They were so inspiring, and I immediately thought about the idea of reproducing them on furniture.”
Kostyrka had previously worked with Meganne Wecker, the founder of the Chicago-based upholstery outfit Cloth & Company, and reached out to her. “Wecker loved the idea, and we started talking with the artists and their estates, as well as collaborating with Dilys Blum, our senior curator of costume and textiles, to tell the quilters’ stories and honor their hand work.” The collection, which features sixteen upholstered furniture and décor pieces, including chairs, headboards, pillows, and ottomans, come emblazoned with reproductions of five quilts in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection.
“This project lends itself so well to furniture because of the nature of the material,” Kostyrka says. “It truly looks like they are upholstered with the original hand-stitched quilts, and every little wrinkle and patina of the fabric shines through.”
The designs are available exclusively at the retail store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where biographies of the artists and the histories of each quilt are documented. “We are thrilled to celebrate the work of these talented women and provide a way for people to enjoy these legacy designs in their own homes,” Kostyrka says. Each piece gets made to order by Cloth & Company in Chicago, and then arrives within three weeks of purchase, and every sale provides royalties to the artists.