Donna Gorman – textile designer

by admin on July 30, 2009

Donna Gorman expresses her love of contemporary design through bold shapes and colors in textiles across multiple product lines. She learned the business of design over two decades working with Finnish design house Marimekko, and used that knowledge of licensing, design, and production as a springboard for her own company Donna Gorman Design. Her work can be seen in products she has created for Seabrook Designs, Crate&Barrel, Target, Dansk and other retailers, as well as in her children’s line Flip Kids! and in her women’s and home accessories line called See Design. Based in Connecticut, Donna also lives and travels abroad extensively, cultivating a creative lifestyle and a savvy global business.

SEE DESIGN tote bag by Donna Gorman

Tote bag for See Design by Donna Gorman

I wanted to ask you about your two decades working at Marimekko, where you served as vice president of licensing and design until 1992, at which point you started your own line. To what extent did your tenure at Marimekko impact your aesthetic, or did you already share part of this design DNA?  

When I started at Marimekko, I was 24 years old and at the beginning of my career. I had a small collection of hand-painted children’s clothes, which I was selling through reps in various cities, but I was totally unskilled in the business of textile design. Marimekko hired me anyway. I had an aesthetic which worked well with them, and they offered me a job in 1982. I learned the tech part and the business on the job. I approached them because I loved what they did. I almost fainted when they offered me a position in the studio so quickly — it was like a dream come true. I have always had tremendous respect for Marimekko and their design, and it was a privilege to work with them and their designers. After 24 years, I can say that I learned a tremendous amount there about design and the business of design.

Donna's bedroom in Vieques property, reissued vintage Marimekko bedspread and her own pillow designs

Donna's bedroom in Vieques, Puerto Rico, with reissued 1950s Marimekko bedspread and her own pillow designs, photograph by Peter Murdock

Tell me about how decided to launch Donna Gorman Design and what products you started with. 

Well, I launched my company right after Marimekko was sold by the Ratia family to Amer group, a large multi-business company from Finland. Things were changing in the company — the design pendulum was swinging very far away from Marimekko and much closer to the Ralph Lauren look, and my role had become too high-level corporate. I was no longer designing anything. I was directing designers and managing people, something I don’t like to do.

So it was the perfect time for me to make the split, and I was ready for a change. And then Kirsti Paakanen, Marimekko’s new owner, asked me to stay on as a consultant. So I continued to work with them on a client basis until about a year ago. That, too, was great, because I was launching my business and I already had a first client!

When I started to do my own new design work, I actually struggled quite a bit. I was very well connected because of Marimekko, but most of the people I knew only associated me with them and did not see me as an independent designer. So I actually got no business from people I knew initially. I also had to break away from Marimekko and develop my own design style, meaning what I had to offer to these companies that they could not get from someone else. It took a little time before I started getting clients. The clients I did get, I mostly arranged licensing agreements with. I would design a product or collection, and they would pay me a royalty. As time went on, I continued to develop more relationships with retailers too. So I would develop program for them directly, which would be manufactured by miscellaneous companies of their or my choice. It was a nice clean business in that sense.

Also independently, I was able to combine my other interests into my work, so I co-authored an entertaining book called The Artful Table. With that I used my love for photography, food, design and entertaining to create a product. It did not make me much money, but it got me a lot of attention and my clients appreciated it.

Donna Gorman at work developing new textile patterns

Donna Gorman at work developing new textile patterns

A collection of textile patterns by Donna Gorman

A collection of textile patterns by Donna Gorman

What are the different components of your business now, and how do you see it all evolving from here?

Business has changed so much and continues to change very rapidly, especially with this weak economy. It is tougher and tougher to get companies to invest in new design projects, particularly in home furnishings and particularly if it is contemporary design. It is much safer to recolor the same old thing, or a copy of something, than it is to develop new ideas. That is unfortunate for everyone. 

Hence, along with my Flip Kids! children’s collection for Sweet Potatoes, and some other small licensed collections I have been working on for existing clients, I have decided to import my own collection of resort products. I call the collection See Design. I import caftans, sarongs, bags, pillow covers, etc., from India. This is a new project for me since I am directly involved and own the inventory that I am developing, and it’s much riskier than what I am use to. But I decide what the collection looks like and what the designs are, not a buyer I am trying to sell some ideas to. So this gives me more control of my work and my image. And once again, it ties together different aspects of my life. Since I have a house now in a resort area, I really understand the lifestyle.

In a way, I am going back to what I did right out of college with my hand-painted kid’s clothes before I worked for Marimekko. But, of course, the stakes are higher now since I am having the collection manufactured and am approaching large retailers.

Girls swimsuit and dress, Flip line by Donna Gorman

Girls' swimsuit and dress, Flip Kids! line by Donna Gorman

Tunics for SEE DESIGN line by Donna Gorman

Tunics in the See Design line by Donna Gorman

Pillows for SEE DESIGN by Donna Gorman

Pillows for See Design by Donna Gorman

I understand you were trained as a photojournalist. Did you work in this field prior to being with Marimekko, and does this background influence how you approach design?

I have always loved photography, and it will always be an important part of my life but never professionally — although I photograph my own work and take lots of photos that influence my work. It is still a great artistic outlet for me when I have the time. I own many fancy cameras, some I hardly ever use. The point-and-shoot digital is the camera of choice most times. My college degree is in photo journalism, which is not just visual photography, it’s journalism. Capturing an event, getting the story visually, stopping to take the shot before you offer to help someone. I knew I would never pursue it as a career when I graduated, but since I was not in art school, it was the most artistic major I could find within the limits of where I was.

In a way, I think it helped me more with my design career, because it taught me how to hustle for work. You learn that as a photo journalism student, it’s not just about taking pictures. It’s about getting THE shot — and the assignment.

Bubble photo by Donna Gorman

Bubble photo by Donna Gorman

Coconuts photo by Donna Gorman

Coconuts photo by Donna Gorman

Your textile designs can be juxtaposed beautifully within a modern context — with modern architecture, modern furniture, and so on. Do you design with this interplay in mind, or do you see your designs fitting into a wide variety of environments?

I am only interested in contemporary design. I am happy when lots of people like my work and refer to it as transitional, but strong colors and bold painterly shapes are what most inspire me. That is why it is not a surprise to me that I worked with a Scandinavian company for so many years. I just always felt comfortable with the aesthetic. I remember when I first started at Marimekko, one of the most fun things was I loved a lot of the things that the other designers there loved. We saw things the same way. That had never happened to me before in my life — I was always a bit fringe about what I liked. I guess I grew up in a conservative area.

As I get older, I am really interested in taking more and more risk with the environment I live in. I am incredibly bored with things otherwise. My environment has always been a place for me to experiment with my ideas.

Donna's living room in Vieques property, her pillows in foreground and her photos on far wall

Donna's living room in Vieques, her pillows in foreground and her photos on far wall - photo by Peter Murdock

Donna's home in Vieques, her pillow designs on chairs

Donna's pillow designs on chairs - photo by Peter Murdock

You’re based in Connecticut but live and travel abroad regularly as well. I’m curious about the logistics of your business — are you working and communicating with staff and production from wherever you happen to be?

I travel to factories a lot. I love to meet the people and see where my products are being made. Communication these days is so much easier than it ever has been. Of course, you need face-to-face also, but I get a lot done on the web and on the phone.

Some of my readers are just beginning a creative career. Do you have any particular words of advice about how you’ve approached your work or about launching your own line after such a long relationship with one company?

I really don’t have any blanket advice for a young designer, except to work really hard. And make sure you honor your customers’ opinions. If you sell a concept to one company, don’t approach their competitor for business if you can help it. It burns relationships, though sometimes it is unavoidable. But if you can avoid it, loyalty helps to build relationships with companies.

A textile design by Donna Gorman

A textile design by Donna Gorman

What are some of your favorite things, whether they directly impact your work or just make you happy?

I love bright colors. I often paint patterns using the same simple colors and then transpose them into specific colorways once the pattern development work is done. I also love flowers, nature-inspired design, and travel, which is something that has always meant a lot to me and my work. I also love being able to integrate my work into my life. It helps to tie the string of ideas together, which is really helpful. Living a “creative lifestyle” is something that is really important to me personally, but it definitely gets reflected in my work.

Donna Gorman

Donna Gorman


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Thanksgiving 2009
11.26.09 at 8:15 am

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Janette 07.30.09 at 10:23 am

I grew up with Marimekko in our home, so my eye was always attuned to that look from an early age. It’s so nice to see that same fresh, happy, modern design done these days in Donna’s work. I enjoyed learning about how she started and how she is adapting to the current economic climate. Wow, love the house in the photos!

Mary Beth 07.30.09 at 1:29 pm

Maybe it’s because I’m the mother of two small girls, but I find myself increasingly drawn to brightly colored bold prints like in Donna’s work. It was really interesting to read about creative work done on such a large scale through licensing agreements – I had no idea that was how it worked.

I’m coveting that orange tote bag!

Kassie 08.01.09 at 7:02 pm

Thanks so much for this insight into Donna’s business. For someone like me who loves design but is not sure how to turn that into a business, this gives me new ideas of what is possible. Love Donna’s style, and good for her for making it on her own!

Bea Carosella 08.17.09 at 4:39 pm

Donna –
It is so spectacular to read about you and your success! Lovely –
Still think of your wonderful laugh
Your designs are solid and gorgeous
Much continued success

Bea “Bolts”

janice ensminger 10.08.09 at 9:32 am

When Donna was a little girl she designed her Barbie doll clothes with remnants I gave her. She showed creativity at a very young age. Congratulations on your success Donna.
Your Mom

admin 10.08.09 at 9:37 am

Moms often seem to be the nurturer of these budding creative talents. Yeah, moms!! Thanks for posting your lovely comment. – Kathryn

a shim 10.12.09 at 10:09 pm

awesome. i saw her home published in Met Home a few months back and didn’t get to read it so thanks for sharing a great story about her patterns and of course, her splendidly happy patterned home!

Jennifer Paganelli 10.22.09 at 2:02 pm

love your work…I’m along time friend of Ingrids and Laurie Korobkin..met you at your lovely home at Ingrids 50th just wanted to give you a shout and say your stuff is wonderful. Be well. Jennifer Paganelli

Elizabeth (Betsy) Rafferty 03.18.10 at 7:56 am

Hello and thank you so much for sharing this interview with Donna Gorman. I just saw an article about Donna in Metropolitan home. I live in Boston and live in a bulding where we recycle magazines and luckily ran into this quite serendipitiously. That article then brought me to your blog and I am delighted to meet you. There are so many ways that I relate to both of your stories and I look forward to getting to know more about you both. I bumped into the Marimekko Exhibition at Design Research in Cambridge a few months ago and I was thrilled to see it all — though I had to enjoy it from the sidewalk and had to control my impulse to want to take home some of what was on display. I worked on Wall Street for 14 years and for a private equity co here in Boston. I am turning over a new leaf and starting to get creative myself. I am clearing out some antiques and just created a space to get busy in. I love to read about women like yourselves who have been active in the design field. Thank you so much for sharing the way you do. I thoroughly enjoyed the Metropolitan Home article and picture spread featuring Donna Gorman and her home home in Puerto Rico. I love what she created there. It looks like heaven to me! Thank you so much! Your blog is very inspiring! Betsy

admin 03.18.10 at 8:07 am

Hi Betsy – What a wonderful comment you posted for Donna Gorman and for Seeds and Fruit! Inspiring others to pursue their own creative paths is very much my goal, and Donna’s story and her work are a great source of encouragement! – Kathy

Deborah Katz 04.04.10 at 6:06 pm

I am really love Donna Gorman’s pillow covers. Where can I buy them?

admin 04.05.10 at 7:27 pm

Hi Deborah and others — Visit Donna’s website linked at the top of the interview to get information on all her products! Thanks for your comments, which Donna and I both appreciate! – Kathy

Srimathe Ekanayake 04.10.10 at 8:53 pm

Dear Donna,

Great work and was impressed. Im from Sri Lanka and a Textile designer i studied at RMIT university Australia. I would like to get in touch with you and would like to drop in some words. I would really appreciate if you could send me your e-mail.

Amazing start and great approach to the design environment

Kind rgds

John Girouard& Bruce Freeman 04.15.10 at 1:05 pm

Love Donna!Congrats on the new line,looking forward to seeing if they carry it here at the C&B in Toronto.Had the opportunity of seeing some of the beach bags,while recently in Vieques!Awesome!Congrats again Donna,we look forward to hooking up again soon.John and Bruce

Donna Goldman 06.28.10 at 3:36 pm

I bought See Design grey & white tunic while on vacation in Boca-it’s my favorite thing!! I would love to buy more-can you direct me? Thank you!

admin 06.28.10 at 3:39 pm

Hi Donna, to find out how you can buy more, please contact Donna Gorman at the link at the top of her interview. Happy shopping! – Kathy

CHRIS BIRCHFIELD 09.24.10 at 12:18 pm

in 198 I began a tiny design and manufacturing tote and soft luggage company in Maine utalizing my own fabric designs. We grew to include 65 stitchers and related persons in rural Maine and along the way won a grand SBA award for business person of the year (1994) . in 2004, after seeing the handwriting on the wall, i.e. the difficulty of progressing further and maintaing on shore manufacturing, I sold the company to a man who promptly took it all off shore………….
Anyway, opened a couple of stores in Florida and 1 seasonal in Maine and found your bags at the NYIGF. They are the only ones I bought as they were what I recognized as clean ,creative, no artifice , and truely functional. Keep up the good work, can’t wait to show your great fabrics
Chris Birchfield

donna gorman 10.06.10 at 4:31 pm

Wow, thanks Chris for the kind words…… It is nice to hear some background from a customer……especially when it is an interesting as yours…..
I really appreciate your business and support of my collection. It is not easy launching something new in this economy……. but I keep hoping to find the people like you who can understand.
Donna Gorman

najma shaheen 11.26.10 at 7:49 am

wow! excellent.its very pleasing to see such kind of information.
i am from pakistan and student of clothing & textile from the university of agriculture faisalabad, pakistan.
i required such type of information.
i m greatly impressed from your ideas.
keep it up.

Jane Dagmi 06.13.11 at 8:16 pm

Donna. i heard your name frequently in the halls at Country Living Magazine though we never worked together on any projects. Yay for you and your commitment to color and design. I am doing a bit of writing for Benjamin Moore and your bold confident aesthetic has just inspired me. I will go to your website and explore more.
Oh, and…slightly envious of your Puerto Rico digs…in a good way.
Congrats on bringing happiness to the world of design and fashion,

donna gorman 06.29.11 at 6:42 pm

Thanks for the kind words Jane………. I worked quite a bit with Country Living…many years ago……….. with Rachel Newman……..I always enjoyed her company and working with her……Janson Kontos too…and a lot other great people at the magazine. We had a lot of fun times in Finland!!!! Shooting photos in lots of great places.

Best to you and your work with Benjamin Moore…… I love paint and the amazing things it can do for environments…… and for not a lot of $.
I have been known to repaint my walls quite often……. just to try some new ideas.

Thanks again for your kind words and good wishes.

Mary 04.15.13 at 10:22 am

Where can I purchase See Design tunics in the US?? I bought one in Eleuthera Bahamas and would love to get some more!!! Thnks

Jane 05.20.13 at 9:52 am

ran into a See Design pillow in Boise Idaho. still thinking about it so I googled it. AMAZING that Donna worked at Marimekko- I have that stuff all over my house . . . so cool to see how she is connected to it. Wonderful interview!!!!

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