Conversation with: Lynda O’Connor
Lynda O’Connor has been quietly ahead of the curve in the design industry. Known for her one-of-a-kind pillow designs and her expert ability to source the most unique and rare textiles all around the world, she is more than just a designer and a curator of fine materials, she is a story teller. Every fabric incorporated into her designs has an origin story, a life of its own that can date back generations.
While she intentionally sources her goods, many of her finds are through personal friends that will take her to hidden corners of the world that would never be discovered but for these connections. From a beautiful collection of antique lace from Budapest to a collection of French cuffs or an antique silk baby carrying sash from China, the designer brings something special and unique to each of her designs.
Each design element and brand partner has been carefully curated by the Wickwood’s new owner, to reflect their passion for excellence and elevating the ordinary into something more luxurious. Lynda O’Connor’s pillows are that perfect accent to the rooms at the Wickwood Inn, where every turn and every touch has been considered.
How did your career path lead you to designing pillows?
I have an art history degree, and I am a lifelong collector of textiles and other decorative materials. I had been a Chicago TV producer, then the director of tourism for Illinois for about a dozen years. I was Oprah’s director of communications, at Harpo Studio’s, when I left to accompany my husband to Budapest, Hungary for a few years. When we came back to Chicago, I wanted to do something creative on my own terms, so I pursued my interest in interiors by designing pillows and throws for the trade.
You’re known for your expert ability to find unique fabrics. Where do you source your materials from?
Anywhere and everywhere. I have dug through boxes of antique church vestments in Antwerp, state-owned pawn shops in Budapest, flea markets and antique stores in Amsterdam and Brussels, second-hand stores in Helsinki, a linen showroom in Moscow, artisan studios in Florence, you get the idea. I have also developed long-distance relationships with restorers and collectors in Italy, France, and Japan. My husband once brought me a big bag of pre-Revolution Shanghai cotton. Wherever I go, my eye is always looking, usually for small pieces, not bolts, wings or yard goods.
Could you share a favorite sourcing story?
We went to Antwerp, Belgium, to experience a place that inspired so much of modern fashion. We noticed a storefront in an area on the fringe of the center. We could see a great diversity of goods, buttons, trims, “smalls” and ephemera. After years of experience, I sensed that this was a place for me.
It was closed and locked, but we knocked on the door, and out from the back came an elderly woman with the serene face of a saint and an impish twinkle in her eye. A textile “soul sister”, and I have met many. She bought her collections from the convents that had done church needlework for hundreds of years, and were now themselves in need of money.
The more boxes she pulled out from the back room and her apartment upstairs, the more and louder we giggled, which turned to laughing in our shared delight, as my pile of purchases grew – ancient gold trims, remnant appliques, cards of unusual fasteners, watered silk vestments built on an inner framework of the oldest and finest imaginable linen. A real soul-nurturing delight. We went back every few years, until she no longer answered the knock on her door.
“I look for the unique; the ordinary doesn’t interest me.”
What is the most unique fabric you’ve come across?
There has never been just one. I look for the unique; the ordinary doesn’t interest me. And I love so many different textile pieces for so many different reasons. Each has its unique character, story or significance: how it was made, the source of its dyes, its provenance, the past lifestyle that it represents. A source who became a friend sent me a gift, a 9×4-foot renaissance religious tapestry that had been looted of its gold and silver threads, and much of its silk, so that few of its allegorical images were identifiable. The revealed surface shows bits of manuscripts and such that made up the undersurface. I had it restored and mounted by Frank Connet, and hung it across from our bed, where I continue to explore its wonders.
Do you solely work with antique and vintage materials?
With the exception of new backs and made-to-size fillers, mostly yes. New materials, even the most luxurious new weaves, are generally available, and I am interested in creating for my clients accent pieces they will see nowhere else. I will occasionally work with new materials on custom projects for long-time clients like Martin and Shea. But I do bring my older textiles back to life with thorough cleaning, restoration and backing for the more fragile materials. These older materials still have something important to say in contemporary interiors.
What is your design process?
The fabric generally tells me what to do, how it wants to be treated. If I am cutting it into pieces, then we play with it, trying different compositions, until we get it right. This is particularly true when combining different textiles, where the sense of harmony in color and texture is usually a more delicate balance to achieve. This is really fun and creatively satisfying work for us, as we sit on the floor moving materials around. The pillow’s shape and size also come out in this way. But I have a pretty good sense of what I want to do with a piece, when I find it.