Designing A Dream

Designing A Dream

Designing a Dream

Textile designer Olivia Massie ‘13 launches her own company


On January 19, at the Paris Norde Villepoint Exhibition Park just northwest of the City of Lights, tens of thousands of people gathered to celebrate their art at the Maison & Objet trade show. Weavers, printers, and textile designers mingled with buyers from some of the most successful interior design companies on the planet. And tucked in among the artists showcasing their wares was Olivia Massie ’13.

The trade fair served as the official launch for Olivia’s brand of home textiles, Maison Venu. Her first collection includes intricately-detailed, colorful printed napkins, table linens, throw pillows, and bedding. The rich, botanically-inspired designs call up images of faraway lands, tropical vacations, and a respite from the grind of everyday life.

It turns out, that’s the point. At the core of Maison Venu is Olivia’s carefully curated mission: “We believe fabric and design has the power to transcend memory, be a conversation starter, and offer sanctuary in the home.”

It’s this idea of transcending memory that perhaps has influenced Olivia’s journey as an artist and maker the most. In 2020, Olivia’s grandmother passed away, and her home was slated to be torn down. Olivia and family members went there to pack up her grandmother’s belongings. Olivia’s sharp eye for design and passion for beautiful things may have been genetic.

“We sorted through all of her artwork —original pieces she painted and various others she collected over the years among other curated collections of items like tiny spoons from her travels, cook books and hand painted plates,” Olivia says. But Olivia was drawn to one part of her grandmother’s collection—various wallpapers and fabrics that had adorned her grandmother’s walls.

“They were the backdrops of my earliest childhood memories,” she says. Olivia ended up taking several pieces of the wall coverings,“in remembrance of my grandmother. But also preserve my memories of growing up in this home with the most important people in my life.”

Olivia says when she remembers her grandmother, those patterns and fabrics are deeply intertwined in her memories. And that’s a feeling she hopes to incite in her customers.

“I hope to create designs and pieces for the home that hold this kind of sentimental value,” she says. “Designs that create the environment where your memories are created with friends, family and anyone that steps foot into your home.”

“My grandmother’s love for art and fabric, as she loved to knit, sew and crochet, was something we shared,” Olivia explains. “The relevance and importance of the designs found throughout her home serve as a tiny nod to my career in textiles and fibers.”

Olivia’s grandmother is but one piece of the vast puzzle that has led Olivia to where she is now. It took the dedication of a teacher at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes, a life-changing trip to India, and, yes, a global pandemic to truly shape the arc of Olivia’s career as a burgeoning designer.

“I fell in love” 

Terry deBardelaben is an accomplished ceramicist whose extensive CV details dozens of exhibitions and awards. Her sculptures are often made with both clay and other materials, and her intent as an artist is to “create objects that intersect: converge, merge, bridge, relate,” according to her website.

Beyond her career as an award-winning artist, deBardelaben is also an educator—one that had a significant impact on Olivia and her art. In 2004, deBardelaben joined the faculty at SSSAS as a ceramics teacher. “She was my mentor for all four years,” Olivia explains. During her junior year, Olivia was able to take a one-on-one class with deBardelaben, which sparked Olivia’s creativity even more.

 “It gave me time to explore mediums that we didn’t have at SSSAS at the time,” she says.

Each year, Olivia took ceramics throughout the entire SSSAS school year. This medium became her emphasis, but she would soon branch out to other art forms. During her junior year independent study with deBardelaben, she was able to sit in on an AP three-dimensional art class and complete the projects that the class was assigned. One of them involved cutting shapes out of paper and fabric and installing them near the lights of the school’s atrium, so that shapes would be projected onto the floor. Despite it being, as Olivia laughs, “low budget,” the project marked a turning point for Olivia. She’d never taken a sewing class. She’d had no previous exposure to fabric or printmaking. But the project gave her the idea that fabric might be the medium for her. “This was the first thing I created that played with how art can affect an environment,” she explains, “and it made me think that design, or interiors, could be the right fit for me. Ms. deBardelaben let me work through my creative process, instead of being regimented and having the same assignments as everyone else. She saw that I would benefit from a different structure and environment as a student.”

And benefit, Olivia did. It was deBardelaben’s guidance, and also the experiences that Olivia had in the art history department, that shaped her perspectives on what would be her life’s work. In her senior year, Olivia took an art history class with Jean Hunt.

“I fell in love,” Olivia remembers. “The way she taught the class, and presented the information, it spoke to the adventurous part of me.” In that class, she was again exposed to the world of fabric-making. “I was specifically fascinated with the ancient techniques and mediums that different cultures were known for, such as European tapestries and Indonesian batik’s,” Olivia says. “These moments of exposure to the world of textiles were interesting to me early on and reaffirmed my plan to study interior design and art history.”

It was also during her time with Hunt that Olivia made a big decision—not to attend college right away after graduating.

“That idea of taking a gap semester was something I started talking about from the beginning of senior year,” Olivia says. It wasn’t until Olivia was admitted off the waitlist to her first choice school for the Spring semester that she started to seriously consider this option. “It was not my original plan, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed. It was the perfect opportunity to explore the world and feed the curiosity I had developed through art history and my interest in different perspectives [and] different cultures.”

This “brought all of that together for me, and is what pushed me to not follow the typical path to start college in the fall, and be confident in that decision,” Olivia says. “I knew I was going to learn something different by exposing myself to experiences I’d never have otherwise, and that’s sort of how I’ve approached my entire career.”

Olivia may have been confident in her decision to delay the traditional first semester of college, but that didn’t mean the decision was easy. After graduation in 2013, her friends and classmates went off on their own adventures. “The first two weeks of September were really tough,” Olivia remembers. “My friends had left to start college, and I was home with my two sisters who were both attending SSSAS. I remember asking myself, am I going to regret this decision?”

A finger on the pulse

As it happened, regret was the farthest thing from Olivia’s mind when she landed in Jaipur, India through a gap semester program.

“The moment I arrived and saw the new, warm, and joyful faces of the people I would be spending my time with, I had this feeling that despite all the uncertainty I was in the right place. Sometimes you realize that however unplanned, you end up with the people you need to meet. I couldn’t have had a more formative ‘fall semester,’” she says.

Some of those people, it turned out, were the weavers who served as Olivia’s host family. Jaipur is known as one of the textile capitals of the world, so it’s fitting that Olivia says it’s where she “completely fell in love with fabric.”

It was that love affair—plus previous years spent honing her artistic style and appreciation for art history—that pushed her to major in textiles at the University of Georgia. She started classes in January of 2014, and graduated in the spring of 2017.

It was then she felt pulled back to India. “I left India the first time with the intention to find my way back,” she says. She moved back to Jaipur and spent a little over a year working with Anoothi, part of the non-profit Vatsalya. Anoothi’s vision is to “create a better socio-economic world for poor and marginalized women,” and the company does that by training women in skills like embroidery, woodblock printing, natural dying, and stitching. They also provide shelter and schooling for over 50 kids in the foster care system, who live on the property, about 30 minutes outside of Jaipur. Olivia was in charge of training around 35 women in printing, color mixing, and stitching. Besides teaching the participants the art of printing and color theory, Olivia worked behind the scenes to wrangle a fast-growing customer base by sourcing materials and designing products to sell. She also served as a sort of curator, lending her perspective as a designer. “They were making products for the Indian and Western markets. They needed someone to come in and help make adjustments to sell their products across all markets. I reviewed everything from materials to stitching and embroidery styles, color, design, and finished products, ” Olivia says. “I tried to look at it from their perspective as well—learning about their Indian buyers and trying to figure out what we were missing?’ And then would help fill the gaps.”

Olivia says in the last six months of her time in India, Anoothi “sort of let me run wild. They encouraged me to design whatever I was drawn to, which allowed me to explore and helped me consider how we could differentiate ourselves from other brands and products already in the marketplace.”

Jaipur’s reputation for churning out incredible textiles only deepened Olivia’s exploration. “When you walk around the town, it’s sort of like a museum of the home decor industry,” she says. “You can spot Anthropologie’s warehouse in the middle of a bustling alleyway in the Old City, you see Pottery Barn’s team in the markets and what they’re buying. Everyone’s product is just out for display.” That meant Olivia could have her finger on the pulse of what others in the industry were doing, what trends were emerging. “This is a huge part of my story for starting Maison Venu,” she says. “I was able to study and see what other people were doing, and then find a way to do it differently.”

“Where can I buy it?”

While in Jaipur, Olivia accepted a job offer to stay on with a different design house based in India. But issues with her visa landed her back in New York, where she took a job at Swavelle as a textile designer. At their mill just outside the city in New Jersey, Swavelle creates fabrics for a wide swath of clients, from Restoration Hardware to Williams Sonoma to Fabricut. And some of those fabrics are custom-designed by Olivia.

“I create the artwork and then consider the different kinds of yarns and weaves to use to bring that design to life,” she says.

While Olivia thrived at the mill, she began to get the itch, as many budding entrepreneurs do, to work for herself. When she left Anoothi in 2018 and came back to the states, she’d brought with her several products she’d designed and made there. Friends and family clamored to buy them—and you can probably tell what happened next. “Over the years, people still had that product,” Olivia says. “And every time they would use it, someone would say, where can I buy it?” Without having designed a curated collection of her own, Olivia already had clients willing to buy her products.

Then, of course—the pandemic hit. Olivia moved back home to Alexandria, where she worked remotely until she began a six-week furlough. By the time she resumed work part-time at the mill after her furlough, she had another part-time gig—helping a local Alexandria designer create custom patterns for clients.

The work continued to boost her confidence. “That furlough time helped me realize that I could take on clients of my own,” she says. “I just needed the time to network and find the right partnerships. And that window of working part-time for a couple of months was my opportunity.”

By the fall of 2020, Olivia was back in New York and back at the mill full time, but still working with the Alexandria designer on the side. She says people in the industry started passing her name around, and she began working on her own with clients, creating prints and designing products for events. “I did a custom tablecloth, napkin, and runner collection for a friend’s wedding,” she says. She did the same for another friend’s wedding—also an SSSAS alum—in January of this year.

While she was working independently by late 2020, it wasn’t until early 2022 that she began “taking baby steps” to build her own business—working on her own designs, networking with people she’d met in India, finding manufacturers, and honing her story as a designer.

In January, Maison Venu officially launched at the Maison & Objet trade show, held during Paris Design Week.

Olivia’s journey as a business owner is just beginning. But in some ways, she’s been on this path for a long time—from a childhood spent reveling in her grandmother’s unique design collections, to coming of age in classrooms helmed by Terry deBardelaben and Jean Hunt. What took her across the world to India while most of her peers were settling into dorm rooms—her intuition—has undoubtedly served her in her work as a designer.

“If you follow your gut,” Olivia says, “it puts you in the room you need to be in.” And that room is, without a doubt, exquisitely decorated.