Tennessee Alumnus

Home is Where the Art Is

Home is Where the Art Is

Anna Maria Horner is a homemaker in the oldest, and newest, ­sense of the word. She spends her days sewing, folding socks, and devising activities to occupy her brood of five children. But unlike homemakers of the past, she doesn’t hang over the fence sharing recipes and mending tips. Instead she invites friends in for a virtual cup of coffee and a chat through her blog, “Anna Maria.”

Along with homey tales of her kids’ encounters with baby bunnies, Horner’s blog reveals something more–the integration of her home life and artistic aesthetic with a thriving business. In the past 5 years, she’s licensed her artwork to more than two dozen manufacturers of stationery, table linens, and dishes. Her product and craft designs have appeared in a number of home and lifestyle magazines, and last November Horner shared her painted fabric silhouettes with the queen of craft, Martha Stewart, on Stewart’s television show.

Horner’s designs grow out of her background as an artist (she earned a BFA in drawing from UT Knoxville in 1995) and from a childhood surrounded by her father’s paintings and her mother’s and grandmothers’ hand-stitched textiles. Her love of home and all things handmade came full circle two years ago, when she was asked to design fabric for Westminster/Free Spirit Fabrics, a North Carolina company known for its fresh contemporary look. Since then her “Chocolate Lollipop,” “Bohemian,” “Drawing Room,” and “Garden Party” lines of fabric have appeared in quilting and home-decorating shops around the country.

“I now wonder why I didn’t immediately think of designing fabric; it had always been so much a part of my life,” she says. “But in the last few years companies are selling more fabric and seeking out new designers.”

Indeed, interest in sewing is expanding. The quilting industry alone is a $3.3-billion-a-year business, and there are more than 27 million quilters in the United States. While many are “traditional” quilters, drawn to somber tones and subdued patterns reminiscent of antique quilts, a new generation of quilters is on the rise.

“It used to be that you sewed to save money, but that’s not true anymore,” Horner says. “Instead, I think people are looking to take a break from their lives and the fast pace. They’re rediscovering the satisfaction that comes from making things for one’s home. Making something from beginning to end is so different from the immediate gratification we’re all confronted with today. There’s reward and self-reliance that come from a little bit of toil–it’s very healthy.”

That nod toward traditional values is as much a part of Horner as her contemporary design style and online business savvy. Her mother taught her to sew when she was 7, and she grew up surrounded by items her grandmothers made by hand. She also grew up in the tradition of Greek Orthodoxy.

“We spent a lot of time in church, but I was never bored,” she says. “It was colorful and beautiful, and it helped shape me in terms of my visual decadence, in the way I paint layer upon layer. That cultural richness influenced the way I use color and pattern.”

While these early influences shape much of Horner’s aesthetic, she says her experience at UT prepared her for the work she does today.

“I was a drawing major but took advantage of the textile courses,” she says. She credits Professor Richard Daehnart with letting her take every fiber class available. Drawing professors Marcia Goldenstein, David Wilson, and Tom Riesing and painting professor Michael Brakke also helped her hone skills that led to her current success.

“The fine art program let you go and work and then come back and account for it,” she says. “It forced me to be self-directed, to learn to develop an idea, and to edit it–it was very beneficial.”

She says learning to focus on a theme and develop a collection of related patterns, prints, and projects is important to what she does today when designing a line of fabrics. Each line contains 12 to 15 fabrics that share a design sensibility but also contrast with one another in pattern and scale. Each line is often available in three or more color combinations.

“I’m very particular when combining colors in a collection; the palette is first and the form of the prints is much less important,” she says. “My training helps me come to the task with the mind of a fine artist.”

Horner’s color and pattern choices are inspired by fashion; contemporary art; her love of Henri Matisse, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keefe; and by scenes of nature in her own backyard.

That backyard and her Nashville home serve as something of a design laboratory for Horner. Clear saturated color brightens her home’s walls, furniture, table linens, and curtains. Fabrics old and new fill the rooms. Her 500-square-foot studio includes areas for painting, sewing, and computer work and is just steps from the rest of the household activity. Her children, ranging in age from 4-1/2 to 16, roam in and out.

“I do kid stuff during work time and work stuff during kid time–I fit it in like any other mom,” she says of the challenge of balancing family and career. “Fortunately a lot of the work I do can be mingled with family life. I looked over proofs while my four youngest were at swimming practice this morning, for example, and when we’re in the family room watching a movie together, I’ve always got a sewing project in my lap.”

Having a child underfoot comes naturally to Horner, who had her first daughter when she and husband Jeff Horner (Knoxville ’97) were 19 and still students. After graduation, Horner and her mother opened Handmaiden, a shop near the UT campus that featured their custom-designed handmade clothing. When marketing, retailing, and production threatened to overwhelm their creativity three years later, they closed the store but continued to produce goods.

Horner’s items sold as quickly as she could make them. It was Jeff who helped her research the possibilities for licensing her designs. When she hesitated, still enamored with what she calls “the romantic idea of being a fine artist and making everything myself,” Jeff reminded her that she could still make fine art, as time permitted.

Today Horner embraces the opportunities brought about by licensing her work. She enjoys sharing her life as a mother and artist in her blog and selling fabric, paintings, and handsewn aprons through her website, www.annamariahorner.com. She says the quilting industry embodies the traits she most enjoys about sewing–comfort, caretaking, and self-reliance–making it a positive environment in which to work. The legal aspects of her work also bring satisfaction. Rather than hire an agent or studio manager, Horner develops relationships with manufacturers and negotiates contracts herself.

Next up is the publication in October of her book, Seams to Me: 24 New Reasons to Love Sewing, published by Wiley. It’s a book that brings Horner’s focus back home and includes patterns and instructions for decorating projects, as well as clothing. While the book is instructional, keeping the tone friendly and casual was important to Horner. She wants others to share her contemporary take on the tradition of creating warmth and satisfaction.

“Sewing is something I love so much and find so much joy in,” she says. “I want others to get as much from it as I do. I’m happy to do anything I can to further the tradition.”