Inspiration begins at home
Menlo Park textile designer explores lines and colors of local gardens
Although 30-year-old textile designer Yaling Hou has lived in Menlo Park for only a year, the city's natural beauty has become one of her greatest sources of artistic inspiration.
Ms. Hou, who was born in Taiwan, graduated in May from San Francisco's Academy of Art with a bachelor of fine arts in applied textiles. She recently won the grand prize in the Surtex 2007 International Student Design Competition, which was judged by top professionals in the design industry.
Ms. Hou's award-winning line — which includes gift boxes and bags, wrapping paper, photo albums, journals and note cards — was entitled, "Lovely Garden" and features simple yet elegant renderings of flowers and other striking foliage.
Ms. Hou's designs, she says, stemmed from what met her eyes when she stepped outside of her Menlo Park apartment on Roble Avenue.
Carefully landscaped gardens appeared at every turn. Having only lived in large city environments before, Ms. Hou was surprised and invigorated by the greenery that surrounded her.
"I walked around and took pictures of beautiful flowers," she says. "I drew from my pictures by hand, and then scanned my sketches into my computer to work on the layout and repeats of the patterns."
Ms. Hou notes that during a one-week internship in New York, which was part of her grand prize, many design companies encouraged her to market her products after seeing the Lovely Garden line.
"Her design was definitely on trend and had a very good commercial appeal," says Gina DeLuca, the show manager of Surtex. "Her designs speak for themselves."
Ms. Hou's designs quietly but powerfully tell a story through the interplay of lines and colors, the components of design that she says interest her most. As she reflects on her work, Ms. Hou remembers where this narrative first began.
Her first stitch
Yaling Hou's love for design sparked two decades ago when she was a 10-year-old girl growing up in Taiwan. Her grandmother had just passed down an old foot-pedal sewing machine, but her mother showed no interest in using it. Young Yaling, however, was intrigued.
Her aunt, who was skilled at sewing and knitting, taught her how to sew, and the child began to spend more and more time at the machine. Her mother approved of Yaling's somewhat surprising playmate.
"My mother didn't want me to play outside because she thought it was too dangerous then," Ms. Hou explains.
It was in these moments, she remembers — as her 10-year-old feet pressed down on the machine's pedal while she fashioned simple curtains and other basic projects with her small hands — that a love for design was being stitched into the fabric of her life.
Dreams put on hold
Ms. Hou's passion for design never waned as she grew older. She was forced to set that interest aside, however, as she went forth in higher education. She graduated from National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan with a B.A. in English in 1999.
She decided to officially pursue design; it had always been what she called her "side dream," but now she wanted to bring it to fruition. She came to the United States and enrolled in San Francisco's Academy of Art to study fashion design in the fall of 1999.
But after a semester, Ms. Hou decided that fashion wasn't the right fit for her at the time, so she switched to studying graphic design, another one of her blossoming interests. After she completed that semester, Ms. Hou left the Academy of Art altogether.
"Due to pressure from my family, I went to San Francisco State University to study for my master's degrees," she says.
She earned two master's degrees from SFSU — in English and in education — then returned to Taiwan, where she worked for a year. She married Masanori Suzuki, whom she had met while a student at SFSU, and they returned to California.
The couple eventually moved to Menlo Park.
"We both love living here and wonder why we didn't move here sooner," Ms. Hou says.
After moving back to California, Ms. Hou also decided to give design another try, enrolling at the Academy of Art once again.
"I learned to see things for what they are," she says. "I was older, calmer and not as affected by the fashion culture."
She chose to concentrate in applied textiles because it is the perfect marriage of her two interests: graphic design and fashion design.
This time around, Ms. Hou felt herself flourishing as a designer and hasn't turned back.
Designing her future
Since winning the Surtex award and graduating from the academy, Ms. Hou has been working toward developing a career as a textile designer. As of now, she is creating more pieces in order to expand her Lovely Garden collection into a complete, sellable line. She is calling her new company "Flowie" (pronounced flo-ee).
"It's a combination of flower and flow," she says. "I think it's interesting how these both come together."
Although flowers form the undercurrent of Ms. Hou's aesthetic, she says that she does not want to limit herself to one theme. Her portfolio spans a wide range of patterns, from the effortless floral prints of Lovely Garden to intricate, modern interpretations of Victorian designs.
Ms. Hou hopes to incorporate her various designs into an equally expansive range of products. She has designed everything from wedding invitations to children's bathing suits. Earlier this year, she collaborated on a clothing collection with Academy of Art fashion student Shannon Galati for their annual Spring Fashion Show. Ms. Galati designed the clothing, and Ms. Hou created the patterns for the fabric.
"The technical difficulty of some of her pieces was quite incredible," recalls Simon Ungless, the director of graduate fashion at the Academy of Art.
In addition, Ms. Hou was just chosen as a finalist in the SIMS Art & Exhibit Contest for an outfit she designed for her Maltese dog, Gucci.
For now, Ms. Hou says, she will focus on designing paper products — stationery, cards, journals and the like — as well as home and fashion accessories. At an interview with the Almanac, she was sporting one of her own creations: a white canvas bag printed with an understated yet eye-catching pattern of oversized, faded green flowers. And yes, it's washable.
"She's just one of those people who has the combination of all the things you need to succeed," says Rhona MacKenkie, the textile design coordinator at the Academy of Art. "She can adapt to anything."
As Ms. Hou works to adapt in the competitive world of design, there is no chance that she will forget her first significant muse.
"This is the best area I've lived in," Ms. Hou says. "Menlo Park will be my inspiration for more products to come."
For more information about Yaling Hou's designs, visit yalinghou.com.