Two decades ago, Laurie Jacobi was a young graphic designer who had grown weary of her career. So she left it behind and moved up north to a cabin in the woods. "Everybody thought I was crazy," she recalled.
She spent seven years there, bonding with nature, soaking up American Indian lore and culture and making jewelry out of "roadkill" (porcupine quills). Then Faribault Woolen Mills asked her to design some Indian-themed blankets, launching Jacobi on a new career as a textile designer. She creates woolen blankets (now produced by Pendleton), rugs and clothing that evoke pine needles, birch bark and ginkgo leaves, among other things. Her birch-bark blanket was featured this year in the New York Times, and her pieces are sold via her website (www.lauriejacobi.com), at trunk shows and at Nordic Home Interiors in Minneapolis.
We caught up with Jacobi in the Minneapolis home she shares with her husband, Realtor Cotty Lowry, and their 12-year-old son, Anders.
Q You call yourself a storyteller in wool -- why?
A All my designs are based on stories and legends, particularly about nature, from Native American to Scandinavian to Japanese.
Q What prompted your interest in Japan?
A I studied Japanese flower arranging in college. It had a huge impact on my life and my work. The instructor told us, "When you cut a flower to arrange it, you cut its life short. It's your job to make it as beautiful as you can." We need to do that with our lives, as well. It inspired me to follow my heart, my passion, to do what I love. And aesthetically, I appreciate Japanese design because of its simplicity. It's about trying to get at the essence of something, not just be decorative.
Q How did your time up north influence you as a designer?
A I was living near the Leech Lake reservation. I would go to powwow, take classes and learn from the elders, like how to make purses out of birch bark. Some say that's politically incorrect. But I was watching a PBS special on powwow, and someone was carrying one of my blankets. Then I knew it was OK. I just try to be really respectful of all cultures. After I moved back to the Twin Cities and wasn't living up there, it didn't seem authentic to me anymore. I decided to look at my own ancestry for inspiration. My mother was born in Sweden; I started learning about the Saami people of northern Sweden. They're the original people, like Native Americans, very mystical. I wanted to share their stories. Now I'm moving on to other cultures. I was a cultural envoy to Kazakhstan [last year], and I got interested in Central Asia, Genghis Khan and the Silk Road.
Q That design aesthetic isn't known for its simplicity.
A I know! I have a design percolating in my head, with the complexity of their design but trying to simplify it -- and how to do that without insulting their culture. It always has to be a story for me.
Q What's the story?
A I can't talk about it. I'll jinx it.
Q What's an example of a story that made its way into a textile?
A One of my blankets is based on Odin's ravens. He was a Viking god, and he had two ravens that sat on his shoulders. They'd fly around the world, then come back and whisper in his ear about what they'd seen. That's how he was omniscient.
Q What's the biggest challenge of translating a story into wool?
A One of the limitations of textiles is that there are only two colors on a line. My designs have to be simple because of technical restrictions. I'm forced to keep it simple. It's not easy to be simple and still have some substance.
Q What's with all the rocks in your living room?
A I make them, from foam rubber wrapped with wool felt. I'm working on a complete Lake Superior shoreline. I miss being up north, and I like having nature around me. If I can't have the real thing, I just make it. My rock collection keeps growing. People make fun of me -- I don't care.
Q You also seem to have a fascination with birch bark.
A I always wanted to be a birch tree. I think I was a birch tree in another life. I had to do a birch blanket, then clothing. It's so elegant and beautiful, so classically Minnesotan and Scandinavian. It's one of those crazy things I can't explain.
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784