Blog post

Theories of Relativity: Erin Minckley Talks Textiles

“I could write a novel for each pattern,” Erin Minckley recently told us, in a conversation about Relativity Textiles, the standout wallpaper, fabric, and rug company she founded in 2015.  It’s her unique approach to pattern design —philosophical, well-researched, and often political—that has helped Minckley grow Relativity from a Kickstarter campaign to a successful company with an instantly recognizable aesthetic.

“Frida” wallpaper, fisherman’s baskets, & provincial stools at PAGODA RED

PAGODA RED and Relativity Textiles are kindred spirits. Both are globally-inspired design destinations, based in Chicago and owned by women. Minckley and our founder Betsy Nathan draw from an in-depth knowledge of the history and cultural traditions behind each textile and object they offer. The launch party for Relativity Textiles’ second collection of wallpaper was held at our gallery and Minckley chose several PAGODA RED objects for her powder room in the 2023 Lake Forest Showhouse. She notes that PAGODA RED was a natural fit for the space, as she aimed for “really high quality antiques with a lot of personality. I love to be able to say ‘This is one-of-a-kind—the only one you can get is at PAGODA RED.’”

“Chameleon” paper, a provincial table, fantail vases, & marble drums at the 2023 Lake Forest Showhouse. Photo by Dustin Halleck.

Minckley’s affinity for the unique is apparent in both her interior design work and her textile work. She often pairs clay vessels, European antiques, and modern art with bold, layered textiles, where chameleons perch on leafy branches, and geometric patterns wind up walls.  Relativity wallpapers are hand-screened onto clay-coated paper by artists in her Chicago studio, and their subtle variations reflect their handmade nature. Following the success of her wallpapers, Minckley has expanded into fabric, rugs, and art prints and written a book called Artists Who Thrive, a guide for other artists who hope to find commercial success.

Photo by Alan Arellano

In her design process, Minckley prefers “to get inspired by something, then change it enough that it becomes my own.” An early Relativity pattern began with her twin sister’s chrysanthemum tattoo, but took on a richer meaning when Minckley researched the history of chrysanthemums and learned they’re “a symbol of 6th century Japan, and also the official flower of the city of Chicago.” Relativity’s entire second collection of wallpapers was inspired by the 2016 travel ban in the United States and the seven countries on the restricted list. Minckley designed a pattern for each country—her way of “welcoming people” in unwelcoming times. “Escher,” the pattern for Libya, was inspired by aerial views of Libyan farms that reminded her of an octagon pattern by MC Escher.  Syria’s was inspired by local embroidery that can only be worn by married women on a certain type of garment, which she found intriguing. She herself was going through a divorce at the time and it “resonated with me. What are those rituals? What are those place markers and those rights of passage that we have in our lives as women? How would I want to symbolize that?”

“Kanoko” paper paired with a Ming wine jar. Design by Campbell Gray Interiors. Photo by Dustin Halleck.

Minckley credits The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned a Master’s Degree in Fiber and Materials Studies, with her ability to synthesize and conceptualize ideas into art.  She’s studied and traveled in Vietnam and Mexico and has spent extensive time living, working, and studying in Morocco, where she’s traveled more than 15 times. She also speaks fluent Arabic. Still, her work is not imitative or pulled directly from her travels, but a fresh way to honor and experience the artistry that exists worldwide. “I conceptually try to draw in other cultures to make an inclusive brand that’s like a portal into the rest of the world… You fall in love with that place—even if you don’t know why you’re drawn to it.” A prime example of this is “Peacock,” her bestselling pattern and the reason “Relativity still exists on planet Earth as as a business.” She told PAGODA RED that it “was loosely inspired by the Middle East, since the peacock is a symbol of the Middle East. You can see it from Iran to India. It’s in architecture, it’s in paintings, it’s in every type of pattern.” While the pattern originally drew from an ornate painting she did at the School of the Art Institute, the final version “is very versatile. It’s not too graphic. People have styled it in so many different ways. I could never even imagine what they would do with it.” 

A painting by Megan Borah with custom wallpaper inspired by her work. Photo by Dustin Halleck.

Along with a global aesthetic, a major hallmark of Relativity Textiles is that their wallpaper can be customized for clients. The onsite printers in their Chicago studio allow Minckley and her team to design and custom print wallpaper as desired. When we last spoke, she had just softened a bright blue floral to a lighter shade for a color-shy client.

Minckley told PAGODA RED this was a huge benefit for her work on the Lake Forest Showhouse and “it was really fun designing the wallpapers since we have print manufacturing in house.” For one featured wallpaper, Minckley created a vibrant field of flowers, pulled (with permission) from a painting by her friend and former employee Meghan Borah. She hung Borah’s painting over the matching wallpaper, a modern pairing that sat facing a provincial two-drawer table from PAGODA RED.  The wallpaper on the powder room ceiling was designed after installation had begun. Minckley realized the white ceiling clashed with the kaleidoscope of patterns and PAGODA RED antiques below. She asked her design assistant for a “teeny tiny floral print” she’d seen her design prior. When the assistant sent it over, Minckley, “put together a pattern in an hour. I pulled the yellow color out of the stem of the flower from the green wallpaper [in the room], and I made all her little flowers yellow. We printed it that day and installed it the next day.”

“Palm Flower” paper paired with a red lacquer cloud ladder & an antique peony carpet Photo by Dustin Halleck

PAGODA RED and Relativity Textiles are often a client’s first step into a new design world—whether it’s Asian antiques or bold walls.  Minckley believes that, ultimately, the best way to help clients achieve a new aesthetic is to address the “tonality” they hope to achieve in a space. Tonality, which draws from Buddhism, describes an emotion that a space elicits. For Minckley, “the emotional quality of the room really determines what is suitable, and what kind of pattern, scale, and colors you use. You don’t want to be excited in every room, or focused and calm in every room.”

For the Lake Forest Showhouse, she aimed for an eclectic space that looked “like you had traveled to far-away place and happened upon the room.” On a sourcing trip to PAGODA RED, she discovered a red lacquered ladder that inspired her to “have little red accents here and there. That is what tied the room together.” While she chose several other PAGODA RED objects, including two marble drums and a Queen Anne dresser, it was the ladder that helped her achieve cohesion in her design, which showcased multiple wallpapers and works of art.

Portrait of Erin Minckley by Cynthia Lynn

In addition to her own work, Minckley is a champion for local designers and artists. She’s mentored several aspiring textile designers and features local artists in almost all her spaces. In the Lake Forest Showhouse alone, she hung works by six artists besides herself, both friends and artists she discovered on Instagram.  She believes that artists are a “sparkle of hope in a complicated world. “ Still, she knows that creative businesses like Relativity Textiles are “not always going to appeal to everyone. You have to stay your course and hope that the people who are like-minded and have similar values will really appreciate what you’re doing. Ultimately, I’m designing for myself and if other people have the same sensibility—great!”

Interior Design & Wallcoverings: Relativity Textiles /@relativitytextiles
Photography: Dustin Halleck, Alan Arellano, Cynthia Lynn


Previous Post

Next Post