June 11, 2015
Text by Julie Dugdale
A Providence textile designer is serious about sustainability in creating her playful fabrics and home accessories.
At first glance, you might think the room is primed for an elaborate banquet. Long tables stretch fifty yards from the center of the room down the length of the rectangular space. Each table is swathed in white fabric, some of it boasting colorful and intricate patterns.
But this is not, in fact, a function room awaiting party guests. It’s Griswold Textile Print, a historic, third-generation, family-owned mill in Westerly, Rhode Island, that screen-prints, by hand, Melinda Cox’s line of vibrant, patterned fabrics. Cox, founder and owner of Providence-based textile and rug company Balanced Design, strolls the tables with a practiced eye, checking the progress of the prints. Her own designs range from oversize peacock-feather imagery and geometric stripes to patterns that mimic bird footprints or butterfly wings—all inspired by shapes she observes in her everyday surroundings.
“I refer to myself as a minimalist,” says Cox, who also takes aesthetic cues from midcentury artists such as Alexander Calder and Mark Rothko. “I do not like visual clutter. If you see a building, I might only see a rectangle.” Indeed, her prints are bold, yet simple—the kinds of designs that look stunning on accent chairs, throw pillows, drapes, and ottomans.
A graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Cox worked as a graphic designer in Boston before moving to Providence to enroll in classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I knew I wanted to jump into the marketplace; I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Cox says. “So I took a little of everything: ceramics, bookbinding, papermaking. The theme of all of them seemed to be pattern design.”
She founded Balanced Design in 2002 after a trip abroad revealed a refreshing sense of environmental and social responsibility (think: fewer cars on the road and reusable shopping bags). “I vacationed in Paris for two weeks after 9/11,” she says. “It was a dramatic time to be an American in Europe. I had a very strong sense of awareness; I remember sitting on a bench across from a market, watching everyone bringing grocery totes into the store. That’s when I realized I was going to do a business with some sort of social value attached to it.”
Home decor seemed like a natural fit for Cox’s bright, modern tastes. “I knew I’d be balancing issues of sustainability, or eco-friendly ideas, with good design—great color, shape, and form.”
In other words, Balanced Design upholds what she calls a “greener” standard. “I made that decision by acknowledging that there are no pure products.”
Having her artistic vision realized so close to home is important to Cox, both from a transport and a best-practices standpoint. The nearly eighty-year-old Griswold mill company, which is one of the last of its kind, infuses its fabrics with water-based dyes to avoid harmful chemicals. It’s a key player in Balanced Design’s sustainability-conscious ethos, but even before Cox began printing there about two years ago, she kept her manufacturing as local as possible. The company debuted with a line of throw pillows— felt appliqué on organic cotton flannel, followed by hand-screened silk with water-based ink, then other fabrics, all using inserts made of regenerated fibers from recycled plastic bottles. The pillows are sewn locally, too, in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Eventually, Cox added a line of American-made custom rugs of New Zealand wool. The rugs have remained popular, but Cox plans to focus on her fabric-by-the-yard business in the near future. She hopes it will inspire more local collaborations, like the nautically inspired cushion upholstery she recently produced for the prestigious Hunt Yachts in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. “It’s about how I can take these patterns and apply them,” Cox says, “and develop where these patterns can go.”
One thing is for sure: Balanced Design will continue to offer playful home accents in graphic patterns with an aesthetic that many people have dubbed, simply, “happy.” And that’s exactly the vibe Cox is going for. “Indoor spaces really need to make people happy,” she says. “Happiness, right now, is where the market is going. I think happiness is coming into the home.” •