Tift Merritt doesn’t fit in at ICFF, but here she is at New York City’s Jacob Javitz Convention Center alongside thousands of interior designers, as well as retailers, representatives, and distributors from the furniture industry. A fresh-faced folk singer from North Carolina with a low-key smile, she moves at a casual pace compared to those at the frenzied fair. She’s sitting cross-legged in a dusty floral print dress, no makeup, and low-heeled leather boots, exuding a youthful excitement that belies her 42 years.
Merritt isn’t a hustler. Before she even mentions her first-ever collection of design wares—a debut line of original fabrics for Bernhardt Textiles—she leans closer to share Instagram pictures of her 1-year old daughter, Jean, and her time on the high plains desert, “where there’s nothin’ but sky and you can see headlights for miles …”
She’s referring to the firebrand hotelier Liz Lambert’s family ranch in Marfa, Texas, where she and Lambert struck up a friendship and explored a mutual affinity for design. “In the summer of 2012, on the cusp of releasing a new record, I bought a couple of beautiful old guitars, including a 1964 Hummingbird that deserved a very special strap. One lovely evening, Liz was making guitar straps, and it occurred to me that I should make one, too,” she says.
What started as a hobby eventually became a full-blown production when Jerry Helling, president and creative director of Bernhardt Design—who has a passion for music and is a friend of Merritt’s—took notice of the folk singer’s newfound talent. “When she showed me some of her recent work, I realized she could design an incredible array of striped textiles,” he says of the partnership.
This week, with Helling’s support and an international design brand behind her, Merritt unveiled six designs in 51 colorways, ranging from vibrant stripes to slow-burning solids. Each pattern appears to have its own musicality. Merritt’s process of selecting just the right colors and tones was meticulous, and she gave significant thought to the names of the fabrics, too, calling up music terms such as Cadence, Reverb, Swing, and Verse. “Swing is my favorite palette. It’s beautiful and complicated, and has layers to it,” she says. “It’s made with intricate antique lace, and makes reference to when a jazz band plays. The rhythm feels effortless.”
Merritt looks green in the context of ICFF, amid slick industry veterans. But it doesn’t faze her. In fact, she makes a solid case for artists of any kind to experiment with other forms of expression without fear: “It’s really important to venture into other mediums with a lot of innocence … There’s no moment of arrogance. There’s no ‘Oh, I got this.’ I’m just excited to be here.”
Her collection doesn’t really fit into the fabric of New York. But she’s here taking a genuine, heartfelt shot. And that’s precisely what makes it sing.