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Treasured Weavings at NYDC

“I’m in awe of the human investment in such handwork,” Festa confesses.
“I’m in awe of the human investment in such handwork,” Festa confesses.

Mae Festa is a visionary,” says Peter Pap, the owner of Peter Pap Oriental Rugs Inc., which has outposts in San Francisco, New York City and Dublin, New Hampshire. Describing the longtime collector of antique textiles, Pap says: “She has an encyclopedic interest in a wide range of textile arts, whether it’s a rug from Turkmenistan or an Iroquois beaded belt from America. She always wants the best, whether it’s French, Asian or South American.”

A friend of Festa’s for 25 years, Pap has organized a capsule collection on 1stdibs, “Treasured Weaving: The Mae Festa Textile Collection” (from November 8 through December 18), and a concurrent show at 1stdibs’ gallery on the 10th floor of the New York Design Center at 200 Lexington Avenue. (To preview the collection now, click here.) Among the items on sale — representing the lion’s share of Festa’s collection — will be 17th-century Persian velvets, Indonesian ikats, raffia pieces from the Congo and ancient tunics from Peru. (A few other pieces have already been donated to the Textile Museum in Washington, DC.)

Living in a handsome modernist house in New Haven, Connecticut, that was designed by her architect husband, Gene, Mae Festa lines her walls with framed fragments of gold silk brocade used in Japanese tea ceremonies; silk embroidered antique yurt hangings from Uzbekistan; wool-knotted pile saddle bags from Kurdistan; 18th-century crewelwork from England; and ceremonial men’s robes from Nigeria. She can explain every weaving technique, embroidery style, type of stitching and appliqué work.

An 18th-century kinran gold-wrapped brocade fragment from Japan is part of Festa’s remarkable collection.
An 18th-century kinran gold-wrapped brocade fragment from Japan is part of Festa’s remarkable collection.

“Most collectors focus on one area; Mae’s collection is one of the most eclectic I know,” says Wendell Swan, a Washington, DC, collector who serves on the board of the Textile Museum. “She collects from everywhere and always buys things that are both interesting and attractive.”

Adds Pap: “Mae is excited by a wide range of textile arts. She studies the workmanship that goes into creating textiles, and she understands how the art of making these things affects the lives of the people who use them in ceremonial and cultural ways.”

What unites the textiles in Festa’s eclectic collection is her unerring eye for pattern, color and technique — whatever the origin of the example.

“Look at the pattern in this,” she says, pointing to a highly refined Japanese 18th-century napkin fragment of silk brocade, or kinran (gold-wrapped silk thread). Against a black background, linked rondels in shimmering gold thread depict two writhing dragons surrounding a flaming pearl. “The pearl symbolizes purity and perfection and has the power to protect against fire,” she writes in the 400-page catalog of her collection, self-published in 2010. “The dragon is the spirit of life itself, representing strength and goodness.”

Mae Festa grew up in a Greek family in the Inwood section of northern Manhattan. In the late 1940s, she got a job in the Knoll showroom in New York, working under Florence Knoll, the Mies van der Rohe–trained Modernist who ran Knoll’s Corporate Planning Unit. In 1956, after Gene Festa graduated with an architecture degree from Columbia University, they married and moved to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he took a job with the renowned architect Eero Saarinen, for whom he toiled “fifteen hours a day,” he recalls. When Hans Knoll learned that Mae Festa was in Michigan, he hired her to work at the Knoll showroom in Bloomfield Hills. Her husband was so busy she was thrilled to have the job.

Among the variety of textiles that have caught Festa’s eye over the years are, clockwise from left: a 19th-century indigo wool and silk chest protector, Japan; an 18th-century silk brocade fan fragment, Japan; a 19th-century bamboo jacket, China.

From left: a mid-19th-century decorative silk-on-wool yurt hanging, Uzbekistan; an early-19th-centtury Ainu bark fiber bag, Japan.

From left: a 20th-century silk and cotton Hausa man’s ceremonial robe fragment, Nigeria; an 18th-century silk ritual cloth, Tibet.

A 18th-century gold-paint-on-cotton sutra (prayer book) cover, India. Inset: Festa overseeing an installation at the U.N. Plaza Hotel in the early 1970s.

A ca. 500 AD Nazca wool tapestry fragment hails from Peru.

A 19th-century Kurdish wool piled bag face, Iran

After Saarinen died in 1961, Gene was sent to Athens for three years to supervise the completion of a building Saarinen had designed at the Athens airport. In Greece (and during later travels to Africa, Turkey and the Caucasus), Mae visited ancient souks and bought antique textiles. She proudly shows one of her earliest purchases from Greece, a 19th-century fragment of a wedding garment, with irregular red squares picked out in careful gold embroidery.

I’m in awe of the human investment in such handwork,” she says. On her travels she also watched contemporary craftsmen at work. “The makers are so proud of what they do and teach it to their children,” she explains. “They are keeping the old methods alive.”

The Festas returned to the US in 1964 and settled in New Haven. By then, Saarinen’s former partners, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, had moved the firm to nearby Hamden, Connecticut. Until his recent retirement, Gene practiced architecture with them in Hamden. He supervised many of the firm’s additions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other projects.

From 1971 until 2006, Mae did interior design for Roche Dinkeloo. “This gave me the rare opportunity to use textiles as part of permanent art collections in many of the large corporate projects we did,” she writes in her catalog. “It also gave me access to some of the world’s very best sources.”

A sixth-century wool and linen Coptic costume insert panel from Egypt was among Festa’s early acquisitions.
A sixth-century wool and linen Coptic costume insert panel from Egypt was among Festa’s early acquisitions.

The U.N. Plaza Hotel in Manhattan (now, One U.N. New York) is a perfect example. Roche Dinkeloo completed the tower, sheathed in green reflective glass, in 1971; Festa then supplied textile art for its 400 rooms.

One of her main sources was the New York textile dealer Gail Martin. “She would buy major pieces for Kevin Roche projects and a handful of things for herself,” Martin says. “She knows more than most about technique, but that’s not what drives her. It’s the aesthetic. Though she has a large collection, Mae is not an accumulator. Every single thing she buys, even the most esoteric piece, has a point. She has an eye to its unique refinement.”

Martin recalls her first sale to Festa in 1972. “It was a sixth-century Coptic interlocking tapestry weave showing a central square surrounded by diamonds and trees extending outwards from the corners,” she says. “Mae still talks about it. It was the beginning of our forty-year friendship.”

Although she is holding on to a few key pieces, Festa, now in her 80s, “feels it is time for other people to take stewardship of the collection,” Pap says. “And since it is unlikely that one person will do that, it is time to begin the process of finding new homes for her pieces. It is of great concern to her that they find their way to people who care about them.”