"Everything in my world is densely packed with pattern and color," Ellen Van Dusen says, gesturing at the various corners of the 600-square-foot studio where she designs her fashion and homeware line, Dusen Dusen. She moved into the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, space about five years ago, trading her bed-to-couch commute for a little more interaction and creative inspiration from the outside world.
"I would feel really cooped up," she says about the downsides of working from home. "It's not like I could really go and work in a coffee shop — I needed all my tools. Eventually I got a dog because I was like, I need to go outside and this will force me to go out at least three times a day. ... But still, I was doing a lot of cutting and sewing and there'd be scraps everywhere and, like, pins on the floor. My boyfriend stepped on one once and it went all the way in. Like, ALL the way in. So getting out of the house was huge for me."
Everywhere you turn in Van Dusen's studio, there's a dizzying array of repetitious shapes, lines, arches and squiggles, made even more eye-catching thanks to her affinity for pairing primary colors with unexpected hues. Dozens of examples of her brightly colored graphic prints are on display in some form — a rack of silky dresses, linen jumpsuits, and color-blocked jackets from her spring collection greet guests as soon as they walk in; a stack of dog beds, usually occupied by her Boston terrier, Snips, is in one corner, across from a pile of patterned and embroidered throw pillows; shelves are stacked with graphic bath and beach towels, fruit-printed bed linens and cozy blankets; poster boards of some of her most loved prints are both hung and leaning against any available wall space.
While there is "a lot of stuff around," the busy, "cluttered" studio doesn't feel sloppy. It's like a very colorful bomb went off but everything landed in a perfectly logical place. There's a sense of organization amidst the madness. A collection of scissors hang from nails hammered into a shelf packed with books seemingly arranged in no particular order — that is, until Van Dusen hardly glances when she pulls one, The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Geometry, within seconds of referencing it.
"I just got this book on the principles of geometry," she says. "It's about, like, all these weird mathematical patterns. One thing that's really cool, there's a lot of stuff in there that looks like prints I've done, but I didn't know any of the math behind it. There's also just a lot of stuff about tessellations — one shape that repeats and is the same every time, but it all fits together, like a checkerboard."
The book may be a recent purchase, but Van Dusen's approach to fashion and design has always been analytical. Dusen Dusen's bright color combinations and graphic prints are born from the designer's fascination with the psychology of visual stimuli and mathematical repetitions. Van Dusen has no formal fashion or design training; instead, as a student at Tufts University in Boston, she created her own major called "Psychology of Design," studying various disciplines throughout art history through the lens of neuroscience. She was especially interested in how the brain perceives color, and wrote her senior thesis on how three artists — Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, and Ellsworth Kelly — used color as their primary medium.
"I've personally always been so drawn to color," Van Dusen says. "And I'm, like, why? Why am I just like obsessed with this thing? Why do we see color, like what is the point of it? Why is it so visually appealing to most people? Why do certain color combinations draw the eye? Why do certain artworks that are just about color become successful?"
Born and raised in Washington, DC, her interest in art was first stoked by regular trips to the capitol's free museums and at-home craft projects concocted by her creative parents, who are both architects.
"What I love about my parents is that they are interested in so many different things and are very active about pursuing those interests," Van Dusen says. "They instilled that in me and my brothers when we were young, so all of us have had diverse sets of interests we pursued. I think that defined my aesthetic, which is just pulling from a lot of different worlds."
Van Dusen began making her own clothing as a teenager after convincing her mom to buy a sewing machine she'd use to reconstruct her closet full of thrift store garments. Color was her primary muse, often favoring bright hues in unexpected combinations and graphic patterns. What she couldn't find, she created, albeit inefficiently — the only way she knew how — by assembling her own printed textiles, one element at a time.
"I would pick different colors of the same fabric and then sew a pattern. So I would get white fabric and sew on green dots, and then cut it into a garment." Van Dusen laughs at the memory. "I just didn't understand how else it was possible."
After moving to New York in her early twenties, Van Dusen got an unexpected big break when an East Village boutique asked to stock her designs, and she had to scramble to learn grading, pattern-making, and finishing. She hand-sewed the entire collection from the makeshift third story of her "super weird" bedroom, a defunct elevator shaft inside an old Bushwick loft space.
"That was insane," she says about launching Dusen Dusen in 2010. "I was losing my mind. But I was young and I was scrappy, so it turned out okay!"
In 2015, Van Dusen decided to expand her line to include home decor, specifically pillows, blankets, bed linens, towels and pet beds, utilizing many of the same prints as her clothing, albeit scaled differently.
"A cool thing about doing home is that scale is fixed and each piece is made individually, so you can just design the one object," Van Dusen explains. "Whereas with clothes, you design the fabric that the garments will be cut out of. ... It's more like placement. If each one is exactly the same, you have to think about the whole thing as one object. The first time that I started designing that way was doing sweaters, because they make each one individually. Now when I'm designing sweaters, I'm also thinking about pillows. I have a pillow in my next collection that's very similar to one of my dog's sweaters. It's just a really funny combination of items, but yet the print is good on both."
A few years ago, Van Dusen enlisted her brothers to help her figure out how to code patterns on the computer; each code was given a rule to follow so that every time the image was refreshed, a slightly different version of the pattern appeared.
"A cool thing about doing home is that scale is fixed and each piece is made individually, so you can just design the one object," Van Dusen explains. "Whereas with clothes, you design the fabric that the garments will be cut out of. ... It's more like placement..."
"It's fun for brainstorming because ... you get different variations on the same pattern, and can pull ideas from all of them," Van Dusen says. "This season actually I designed a lot of the prints with that mentality where I, like, make a rule and then follow that rule to design the pattern."
As helpful as technology has been to her design process, Van Dusen is emphatic about regularly taking time to unplug and design on paper. Her studio is divided into two sections, specifically for that reason.
"I wanted to have one side that was a work space, with computers and all my tools, and another side that's, like, the analog side of the studio," she laughs. "No computers allowed. I just find it so distracting to have the internet. In order to have true clarity ... when I'm building my ideas. I like to not be around a computer. If there's people working over there, I can just like be alone over here on the analog side, drawing or whatever. I also wanted it to be a space where I could change out the aesthetics based on where I am in the season, what I want to be looking at as I'm figuring out what's next."
As for what is next? Van Dusen is in the middle of renovations on her recently purchased home, which has got her thinking about designing on an even "bigger and grander" scale. Professionally, she's collaborating with a furniture designer and working to develop her own upholstery fabric.
"It's exciting because it can be drapery, or a couch, it can be a bunch of different stuff," she says. "But I'm also like, It's going to have to be a suit. I have to make pants and a blazer out of this, like, upholstery fabric. It's going to be insane."