Elizabeth Whelan weaves innovation into the textiles she designs for industry.
Coupling a refined aesthetic sense with a sophisticated proficiency in textile manufacturing processes, Whelan applies a futurist’s sensibility to fabrics that function as integral and beautiful elements of consumer products that are sold worldwide.
Melding three elements — function, performance and beauty —successfully requires a set of skills spanning art and technology. “I work where visual, structural and functional design meets technical materials,” says Whelan. “For a long time, I didn’t want to be described as a technical textile designer because my background is in fine arts, but there are so many technical advances in what fabric can do, and I work where those advances meet design.”
It was the mesh textiles for Diffrient’s Liberty Chair that launched Whelan’s reputation as a fabric futurist, capable of seeing possibilities and applications beyond a client’s original notion of a textile’s role in product design. Other projects have included creating light-responsive fabrics for Nike, to keep runners safe before dawn and after dusk. Using Whelan’s textiles, entire garments, not just sewn-on stripes, could glow in the dark and reflect headlights. Tumi tasked her with designing a new fabric using Tegris, a light thermoplastic composite for luggage. The result—a fabric Whelan dubbed Zipperweave and called Tegris-Light by Tumi—makes for lighter, stronger hard and soft luggage. For KnollTextiles, she designed a wallcovering using paper yarns that a remote Mexican mill with vintage looms fabricated into a textile far more refined than the mill’s customary end products — laundry hampers and cowboy hats. For Spinneybeck, Whelan created a woven leather collection inspired by the exoskeletons of ladybugs that is produced in Italy.
Leading cultural institutions have recognized her work, which is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The international textile industry has recognized her work with numerous awards. Most recently, her design for Tumi was awarded Launch of the Year for the 2017 Future Textile Awards.