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Gamma Folk: A meeting of folk art, mysticism, pop culture and the bauhaus

Meet Lily Piyathaisere designer and creator behind Gamma Folk who recognizes the beauty in fusing modern design with traditional techniques. Having grown up in a quaint farm town in Northern California where handmade objects were no rarity, it only seems natural that she too was drawn towards making things by hand. She plays with textures, geometric patterns and splashes of color to reflect influences from folk art, mysticism, pop culture and the bauhaus.

Tell us about where you grew up and how that influenced your work.

I grew up in Petaluma, a quaint farm town in Northern California, an hour north of San Francisco. It's the type of place with Victorian houses, where a "downtown" consists of one main street, no malls and a mix of farmers and hippies. To this day, Petaluma is still where the majority of local dairy products come from and have an annual celebration called "The Butter and Egg Days Parade." They take their dairy seriously. And yes, I have milked a cow. But, did I mention I'm lactose intolerant?

Even though it wasn't very diverse at the time, It was a great place to grow up – a sense of community and the space to run around the fields, pick blackberries and explore. No really, there was a field behind our house and I remember friends would get together, climb trees and hunt small lizards. I won't go into what we did with them.

My family didn't live on a farm, but some of my friends did so the principles of living off your land and handmade goods were instilled in me at a young age. I remember sleepovers where the parents who were farmers would get up at 4am to feed the livestock and work all day tending the land. Also my late godfather had a wood-shop where he made really intricate carved artwork while my godmother was in the kitchen making homemade jam.

On the flip side, my home life was much more traditionally Chinese and Thai, so it was this interesting mix of Americana and Asian influences. Like I said, I had a somewhat traditional asian upbringing, but I owe a lot of my artistic abilities to my mom. She was a stay at home mom, but also a Chinese opera singer. Yes, the ones with crazy pink and white painted faces and super intricate costumes. These huge headpieces that incorporated hair, feathers, jewelry, bells, tassels and so much more. Chinese operas are extremely long and require a lot of different costumes so she began to make some of her own. Specifically headdresses and accessories so perhaps my love for jewelry and accessories started there. There's a ton of embellishments so I remember scouring through her treasures/supplies while watching her make them.

How did you get into this?

It all started on a bus. At the time, I was working as a graphic designer at Apple and the commute from San Francisco is about an hour and half each way. With being on a computer all day, the last thing I wanted to do on the commute there and back was be on a computer. I get motion sick from reading in moving vehicles so I picked up cross stitching and loved it. I found it meditative and from there, wanted to learn everything about stitching. I collected books from thrift stores to hone my skills and was driven to figure out a way to combine this traditional craft with modern designs.

Most recently, I've been experimenting with weaving and natural dyeing after taking a class at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn. I was constantly searching for specific colors in needlepoint linens as well as threads and found the search to be really difficult. So I took it into my own hands and decided to learn how to dye to make the colors I wanted. It's been so fun. It's opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me and plus, I feel like a witchy alchemist.

Your three favorite ingredients/materials?

Currently, my first favorite material is madder root. The root from the Madder plants or Rubia which originated in the Middle East. It has been used for centuries to dye reds and was majorly used in dyeing the red coats for the British Army. It also makes a beautiful coral, my current favorite color for the summer.

Another material I've been loving is embroidery linen from the french company Sajou. It is really quality fabric and has a nice weight to it.

The last one isn't a material or an ingredient, but I have really been excited about learning new knots, both nautical and decorative ones. Plus I'll know how to dock a boat if I ever find the need too.

What's your favorite part in your creative process?

I love conceptualizing and sketching new pieces, but I also love getting my hands on them and refining the details because there's a lot of problem solving that goes into that phase. Whether that's translating a design into stitches or learning a type of knot to finish a piece or even trying to achieve a certain color in dyeing, the trial and error is where I thrive. I also really love color and a big fan of the minimalism and bauhaus movements which I am constantly inspired by so picking out color palettes is a joyous event.

What has your journey been like so far?

My journey has been incredible so far. I started Gamma Folk while still living in San Francisco and now I live in Brooklyn and it's been really neat to see how my work has evolved and how my surroundings and change in scenery has affected my work. It's also turned into something I did to past the time on my commute into a business and that's all really exciting. 

I recently moved into a studio space I share with a friend and it's amazing. It houses all my many things. I have my loom there, dyeing station, stitching supplies and computer for design. Its a light filled sanctuary and smells great because my studiomate makes soap. We know each other from college in Long Beach, California and used to host a monthly craft night called Crafty Critters Club. We've come a long way from those days. Up until now I've been working from home which I really enjoyed, but now that I have a separate space to create, I feel even more inspired. And don't have to worry about my cat going to town on my yarns or worrying about my boyfriend cooking in the pot I just dyed out of.

I split my time up between Gamma Folk and running my own graphic design one-lady shop and love it. Never a dull moment and everyday the schedule is different. It's also great to take my love for modernist, german graphic design and reinterpret them in textiles/fiber jewelry. I'm always trying to straddle those two worlds which is really the approach that Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus movement had.

I've done a few craft fairs/events and that's been a great experience in both marketing and how to keep your booth from flying away in the wind. I highly recommend doing them for people starting out. Sure, it's a lot to take on, from making enough stock to retail displays, but being face to face with people who respect your craft is really gratifying.

I also have the most supportive boyfriend and group of friends and family on both coasts and am incredibly grateful for that. They're the best PR group ever.

I'm still pretty new to this and am constantly learning and not afraid to make mistakes. Trust me, I make a lot of them. But, that's all part of the process.

What has been your most cherished memory along the way?

My most cherished memory is probably the first Renegade Craft Fair I did in San Francisco back in 2011. At the time I was working full time and stitching at night so I was really burning the candle at both ends. I didn't know what to expect, what if I sold nothing? When you're starting something new that you've put your heart into, there's a certain level of vulnerability putting yourself out there. Anyhow, I had a great response and it felt amazing when people complimented or bought my jewelry, it really meant a lot to me. And I especially liked the grandma's out there who were genuinely concerned about my vision and recommended many types of magnified glasses or proper lighting to me. Your concerns have been addressed.

What do you do when you're not working?

I'm still semi new to New York and the east coast so in my spare time I love exploring the city and surrounding areas. There's always something new to find. I love Upstate NY and the Hudson area. Storm King Sculpture Garden is one of the most magical places I've discovered here. Also I can usually be found at one of the many museums here. There's so many that by the time I've seen all the exhibits I want to see for that season, a new season has begun and I get to do it all over again. 

I also like finding a good bowl of ramen and apparently there's a place that has ramen with a matzoh ball soup base that I need to visit soon. I enjoy antiquing/thrifting and adding strange figurines (my latest find was from Puerto Rico, of a Michael Jackson Dias De La Muertos Christmas Ornament), old textiles and ceramics to our collection. And I do love watching movies, even if I do fall asleep half way through them. I"m trying to make my way through the whole Criteron Collection, but also love comedies, b horror movies, arthouse films, and some sci-fi. The last great movie I saw, even though I'm so late to the game was District 9. 

Any cool summer trips?

We recently got back from my first east coast road trip up to Vermont, Montreal and Quebec City. It was so beautiful and I loved poutine. I respect a culture where fries are served with virtually everything. Vermont had beautiful farm land, we visited a spinnery with machinery from the early 1900s that they still use everyday to spin the wool. And who knew that soft serve ice cream is called cremee? Those Vermonters!

Montreal had the jazz festival going on so it felt so alive. It was really diverse and every area had its own character. We also did our own tour of the Expo 67' sculptures/buildings. I'm a big fan of geodesic domes and Mr. Buckmeister Fuller had designed on used for Expo 67 that still exist in Montreal. So cool. And the Marche Jean Talon, (farmers market) was one of my favorite things ever. So much fresh and beautiful produce for so cheap. 

Quebec City, while only 2.5 hours away from Montreal felt so different and more like a european city. There was a big music festival going on so we would be walking up cobble stone streets to the top of a fort with cannons and could hear Wu Tang Clan playing live from afar. Very surreal.

Also I'm hoping to visit Europe in the next few months, I haven't been in ages and I'm 5 hours closer than before. Thinking The Netherlands or Germany.

Where would you like to take Gamma Folk next?

In Gamma Folk's near future, I see continuing to explore natural dyeing and experimenting with more techniques in combining needlepoint/braiding/knotting/wrapping. I'd also like to eventually make more than just necklaces. Perhaps more earrings or bracelets. I've also dusted off my loom so I'm excited to play there too.

In Gamma Folk's next life, I'd love to move into a realm of making accessories for the home or bigger scale items like wall hangings or rugs.

Photographs by Christine Han. 

Necklace No. 7. Click here for details.

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