Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Brunschwig & Fils: Where it Began

Brunschwig & Fils Advertisement
It was recently reported that Kravet, a fourth generation family company, one of the largest privately held distributors of fabrics and home furnishings, agreed to buy Brunschwig & Fils subject to a competitive bid process. As reported by Bradenton.com, "Kravet has agreed to provide financing to ensure that Brunschwig & Fils can continue as a financially sound trading partner during this time of reorganization."  Reading this gave me pause to reflect on my past relationship with Brunschwig & Fils.

In 1985-86 I was a Fabric Librarian for Brunschwig & Fils, at the Washington Design Center in Washington, DC.  It was the most colorful job I ever had and exposed me to high design and French textiles at an early age.  It is there that I discovered my love for French design and French anything. I got obsessed with chintz, ball trims, luxurious silks and damasks, and everything that was B&F.

The B&F library at that time was a big mess, heaps of materials, bolts of fabric, and tons of squares and swatches all piled up in a back room on a few shelves. It was a little weird and daunting at the same time.  My job, as I had a library background (not fabric but books), was to take the vast mountain of textiles and make it all easily organized and found.  I categorized by colors & textures, mostly, and I vaguely remember giving everything a certain number system or alpha system, so any employee could find what they needed for a designer. No computers then (geez, I feel old), just a typewriter, paper, pens and a xerox machine to use for making color-coded labels for the shelves.

I may have worked in the back room, but I was the face of the library of B&F fabric, so designers would come to me with their orders of swatches and such and I would pull them out. I had to keep track of it all, sort of like a real library. It was all so mysterious and fun, and I really knew nothing about textiles before that time except that I liked hunting for vintage tablecloths at thrift stores and flea markets.  That should have been a dead give-away to me, as here I am today loving my French tablecloths that I sell in my shop and keeping abreast of all things French. 

Brunschwig & Fils was textile school for me.  I found love in the color, texture, weight and flow of the French fabrics I handled every day. It was just fascinating. The people I worked with were extremely talented and knowledgeable about the history of fabrics and I learned a lot from each one of them. 

I also thought long and hard about going to design school. At that time I was mixed up as to what I wanted to do next. I had spent many of my younger years in theatre (from age 14-25, at that time), on stage and back stage, and was trying to figure out if I could really make a go of it. I needed a real job then as I had been living without health insurance and got sick and was in the hospital for a spell.  Fortunately, I had ended up at G.W. University Hospital in DC and I qualified for free health care as I was extremely poor. I was acting and cleaning houses and temping for a library services company, so little money for health care insurance. 

So, this is why I answered the ad for "Fabric Librarian" in the Washington Post classifieds. To really put this time in perspective, this was before the existence of mass office computers, tweets, facebook or anything remotely technological. Not sure I knew anyone with a cell phone. This may all seem rather ancient. I looked for jobs by opening the newspaper, so it was kind of by need and by fate that I even worked for Brunschwig & Fils. But in the end it was the jumping off point for me and the beginning of my love of textiles and anything French.

Looking back at this amazing time in my life has been a great way to realize again that there are no mistakes in life. Every little turn of events can bring you something that is life-changing without you realizing it at that time. Only later does it all come full circle and you can see that everything that happened in the past was all too perfect. B&F had an interesting role in the creation of my shop, r.h. ballard---it's very Francophile and heavily influenced by color, texture, with touches of romance and uniqueness.  I couldn't have planned that better if I wanted to.  


  1. Good Morning Joan!

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I enjoyed reading about it and when I too got the email from B & F my heart sank. I too love everything French, even married a Frenchman. You are a day trip away from me and have given me a new place to come visit.

    In fact, I love vintage French linens too and that is going to be the subject of my next blog post. I inherited all my mother in law's French linens.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Tammi. Would love for you to pop into the shop for a visit! Please keep in touch. Great to connect with someone who loves French table linens as much as I do! Cheers, Joanie

  3. What fun it must have been to give a designer some fabric and wait to see what they created with it! Provided you with quite an education as well and what's better than a "learn as you work" format? Kudos to you for following your early dreams! ~Leena~

  4. Thank you, Leena! It was an eye-opening and stimulating experience for sure, especially since I was young and energized and wanted to learn everything I could. What better place?

  5. Thank you for sharing! This brings back memories of my early working experiences in the mid 1980s ... seems so archaic now ... as I sit at my Mac at the local coffee shop! I too love vintage fabrics and have to touch each and every fabric that my clients pick out. Thanks for sharing, this brings a smile to my face! Have a wonderful week!

  6. Thank you, Camille, for your comments about the slowwww 1980's, when everything took a bit longer to do. Kinda miss that lovely pace, sometimes, but not when I'm on my favorite laptop! :) Nice to connect with someone who loves fabric as much as I do!

  7. B and F has a special place in my heart. It is what I think of when I think fine fabrics. The firm I interned with had a fairly decent selection of Brunschwig memo samples and we purged our library of discontinueds, I held onto as many as I could. A leftover yard of a gorgeous red chintz (I wish I could remember the pattern) became the seat on an occasional chair in my first "real" apartment.
    I'm still known to scour ebay for little bits and scraps of B and F for pillows, accents and inspiration. There's just something about them that speaks to you, isnt there?

  8. You sparked a memory for me, Southgate, of being able to keep swatches and squares and all kinds of B&F material that they discontinued. It was fun taking home pieces of embroidered silks and chintz and velvets. It seemed wrong to just throw them away. Thanks for your comments!