Jhane Barnes at IIDEX 1997

by Norman Jennings

One of the featured speakers at the 1997 IIDEX show was Jhane Barnes. She is a designer of menswear, carpets, textiles and furniture. Jhane uses fractal geometry, mathematics and computers (Macintosh) to create her designs.

First a little history. In the 1970's when Jhane was in high school in rural Maryland she started making clothes for herself. Despite a talent for design she dreamt of studying Astrophysics and was very adept at mathematics. She moved to New York to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) and was still a student when she started her own company with a $5000 loan. The company is now celebrating 20 years in business. Jhane has won numerous prestigious menswear design awards through the 80's and 90's and many other awards for her textile designs, including fabrics for Knoll. This led to furniture design for Bernhardt and now carpet design for Collins & Aikmen who, along with Knoll, sponsored her visit to Toronto. A full history can be found on the www.jhanebarnes.com web site.

Moriyama & Teshima has some very interesting similarities in it's computer history to Jhane's. She started on a Macintosh in 1988, the same year we bought our first Mac. Her company launched their web site in 1995, the same year as us. If you browse through their site it has that personal touch that our web site has also been complemented on. Jhane uses up to 20 different software packages to take her ideas from concept to reality. She is always willing to experiment and try new approaches, often not knowing what the end result will be.

A stage was set up at one side of the IIDEX exhibition floor. There was a large projection screen, and a Macintosh on a table adjacent to the podium. The crowd was smaller than I had expected. I know there were some people in attendance from the fashion world where she is perhaps better known.

Once the lecture had started and Jhane was talking about mathematics, fractal geometry and computers it became clear that many in the interiors world would not appreciate these topics to their fullest. But those who attended would. She has often lectured to mathematicians in the past. Her speaking style is casual and comfortable. She had many interesting anecdotes and stories to share.

Jhane began by showing some of her work in fashion. This is her original calling and as she said, this is still where the money is made. She then explained the theory of fractal geometry as the mathematical basis for organic growth. During her talk she was accessing a multi-media presentation with clicks of the mouse on a Macintosh called 'Jhane's 9500'. Using the pull down menus she could easily tailor the presentation for her audience but also change direction at any time or elaborate on a specific point. Very good use of multi-media.

At one point Jhane said she can't understand designers that don't want to use the computer. She is a big booster of the Macintosh platform and her whole office is based on it. Two mathematicians were hired to work with her writing custom programs that she uses to create the unique geometry of her work.

Jhane also pointed out that although she uses high levels of technology, she drives it, it does not drive her. It is her ideas that the software is based on that create the patterns. Jhane stated that you constantly need to change how you design, to look at design from new perspectives, to have new inspirations.

Jhane showed how her designs evolve. Many different examples were shown. One time she zoomed in on a tiny portion of a fractal something like 10,000 times, picked up a piece of the pattern and then generated a new pattern by repeating and rotating the base module. Sometimes one pattern was overlayed over another. Then it was demonstrated how you take the pattern into weaving software that calculates how to make the actual cloth. When we all could see the final fabric pattern it was always very different from the base pattern that it evolved from.

She demonstrated the CD-ROM her company has designed to lay out carpet tile. You input the size of the room and you can generate literally millions of combinations with one or more different tiles by rotating or repeating them. It may not sound interesting in this description, but believe me it is.

A few years ago, Jhane had been asked to design some furniture for Bernhardt. At first she felt she was not quite ready for this so she took some courses and learned a simple CAD program called Design Workshop. Later Jhane learned MiniCad. When she designed a chair in 3-D and wanted to modem the to design to the manufacturer to create a prototype they wanted a fax as they could not handle the digital file. Needless to say, what they produced from the wire frame model on the fax did not resemble her original design at all. These digital communication problems have since been ironed out.

It was a truly fascinating hour. You have to love someone who can make carpet tile interesting! Afterwards, I had a chance to meet Jhane and speak with her for a few minutes. We talked about how our offices are similar in our use of computer technology and the Macintosh. She had mentioned that she does not want to use software with a long learning curve and can't understand why people would want to learn AutoCad because for this reason. She wants to master a new program in a day or a week, not much more.

We talked a bit about work method. I explained how our designers use Architrion and do all their own modeling. I mentioned that the new version of the program came out with too many new features so there was resistance to switching over. We agreed, you want to get your design ideas down quickly and easily.

I told Jhane that if she had time she should try to get to the Bata Shoe Museum. She was interested but not sure if she would have time on this trip. She would check out our web site as well. I mentioned that I had originally found her via the article in Wired Magazine about a year ago and that there was a link to her web site from ours. When her partner Howard Feinberg came over and joined the conversation it turned out he checks to see who has links pointing at them and he had found ours.

Jhane Barnes next stop was Los Angles for the opening of her first free-standing retail store. It sells her menswear designs, and is fitted-up with her furniture, textiles and with her carpet on the floors. Maybe one day we will get one in Toronto.