Inspirations from India: Ancient techniques spark Betsy Burnham’s newest design ideas

Designer Betsy Burnham, principal of LA-based Burnham Design, knows inspiration can come from anywhere. And she travels the world to find it. A January trip to India gave her the chance to view the ancient technique of block printing, and it sparked a wealth of eclectic, boho chic design ideas.

This was my first trip to India, and it was an extraordinary experience. One of my fellow travelers wrote in his blog, “India is not a place you visit or see. India is a place you feel.” Heavy, esoteric stuff, but I have to agree with him.

India overwhelms your senses and heightens your awareness of your own inescapable Western-ness. It challenges you at the same time that it welcomes you with open arms and seduces you with its natural beauty.

I swam in the Arabian Sea and rode on a houseboat through the backwaters of Kerala. I experienced the celebration of life in Varanasi as well as the holy ritual of cremation, and I had a mini breakdown because it was all just so much to deal with. The Taj Mahal left me speechless. I saw monkeys the size of Labradors and bugs the size of Chihuahuas.

One of my favorite stops of the entire trip was the northwest city of Jaipur, known as the Pink City, because most of the buildings are painted the same shade of sandy, orangey pink. Jaipur is also known for two things I’m obsessed with: fine jewelry and block-printed textiles.

I’ll leave the jewels for another day (and wow, were they good) because I want to focus on the fabrics. While I loved the outrageous silks we’d seen in Delhi, I’m really more of a cotton girl, and in Jaipur I was in bohemian heaven.

We visited a textile merchant who has all his block printing done on site. It’s a labor-intensive process; several carved blocks are used for each design. One after another is dipped in dye and pressed onto the selected ground fabric until the desired mix of color and pattern is achieved.

Block printing seems like a primitive method, but it’s surprisingly complex once intricate detail and color matching are brought into play. Artisans train for years and have long apprenticeships; more often than not, block printing is a skill passed from generation to generation in a family.

The finished textiles are colorful, cheerful and wonderfully imperfect. There’s been a major focus on all things handmade in design these past couple of years, and these fabrics provide just the right organic vibe. I’d use them for drapery, pillows and even upholstery.

I’ve always been a mixer of prints in my work, from florals to stripes, dots to medallions, and especially paisleys. The prints look freshest when different scales are mixed together, and/or neutral color is used as a grounding element.

I brought this textile inspiration home with me and have been throwing printed cottons and linens at my clients like crazy. My only regret is the one I have after every long distance trip: why didn’t I buy more?!?

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