Dr. Brigitte Tietzel: Much has been written about the Amish and their special form of textile design, namely, the quilts. You, Ms. Willi, had reservations about repeating yourself in a text contribution to the catalogue. Nevertheless, I would like to ask you what motivated your personal interest in Amish quilts.
Monika Willi: Many things have been written about them. As a non-member of this religious community, it is difficult to give an authentic picture of the Amish and their quilts. Even the makers themselves have said little about them in the past. From the beginning, though, these quilts touched me deeply, owing to their simple beauty, their unexpected colour tones – and certain pieces even sounding like music to me. I was also inspired by the extremely neat quilting work, one particularly enchanting in the fine wool of the Lancaster County quilts. These almost timeless pieces have terrific charisma! And the trigger for my collecting was that very aesthetic, followed soon afterwards by an interest in the Amish as a community. I knew nothing about them before 1972, although they originally came from Switzerland.
MW: I started collecting in 1973. Up until then, I had never collected anything systematically. My initial collecting was almost intuitive: the quilts seemed like "eye-catchers" to me. And even though they were created as utilitarian objects, there is often something very mysterious about them. By hanging separately on a wall, the single quilt begins to come alive. On another level, it acts like an image that, depending on the pattern and colour combinations, can be either extremely calming or very stimulating. At the time, I read both Jonathan Holstein's "Abstract Design in American Quilts," and John Hostetler's "Amish Society" with great interest, and decided quite early on to focus on Amish quilts.
BT: Amish quilts are characterised by very specific, repetitive patterns and unusual, sometimes quiet, sometimes bold, color combinations. Are there certain motifs that you prefer? And if so, why?
MW: My favorites are the classic quilts from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with their strict, large-scale compositions such as “Bars” or “Diamond in the Square,” but I’m also drawn to “Sunshine” and “Shadow or Nine-Patch,” each one, drawing on a wealth of variations. As soon as the patterns become influenced strongly by the "outside world,” or their colors seem to scream at one another (owing to the synthetic fabrics used), I feel they lose their unique character.
BT: And there are stories behind the individual pieces? Does one hear the stories when collecting? Would they be important for you?
MW: Unfortunately, when I started collecting, I didn't know about the stories behind them: it was only in the 1980s that quilt connoisseurs and dealers in the USA started to pay more attention to those while tracking down quilts in family collections. It would, of course, be exciting for me to know something about the woman who sewed the extraordinary baby block, for example, with its many facets: the optical illusion created by the cube motif, the staircase perspective, the two bright diagonals, and very intense colours. Where, in fact, did she get the small pieces of red, patterned fabric, when the use of printed fabrics was basically forbidden in clothing worn by the Amish?
BT: In 1988, you exhibited your quilts with other collectors at the Musée des arts décoratifs de la Ville de Lausanne. At the time, as Rosmarie Lippuner pointed out in her foreword to the catalogue, the Whitney Museum in New York was the first to show an exhibition of Amish quilts in 1971, at the time when they were understood less as a cultural-historical witness to a certain population segment than as examples of expressive, modern, abstract art that triggered a virtual boom. Was this approach also decisive for you in collecting Amish quilts?
MW: Yes! I saw the collection of Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof at the Musée des arts décoratifs in Lausanne back in 1972, which included a few Amish quilts. One piece impressed me so strongly at the time that I got goose bumps...it was one with bars, a striped pattern with rust-red and kiwi-green stripes inside magenta framing. On the one hand, the extremely simple composition impressed me with its monumentality; on the other, the choice of colors had an almost mystical effect. I then collected intensively on two trips to the USA between 1973 and 1975, an exhilarating experience! Shortly after that, the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva exhibited part of my collection under the title: "Amish Quilts 1870-1920" Collection Monika Müller Zurich (today Collection Monika Willi Zurich). It was the first exhibition of exclusively Amish "quilts" in an art museum in Switzerland, and the public was highly enthusiastic about the 23 pieces shown.
BT: This approach to Amish quilts is very popular. Last year, there was a quilt exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, which could not be shown in Krefeld, possibly because the collector believes that the textile aspect diminishes their value as works of art. Maria Schlumberger and Friedrich E. Rentschler see the quilts as a pure artistic expression. Does that make sense? Do you see them that way too?
MW: After all that has been written about it in the USA since 1971, and propagated through exhibitions, one can be of that opinion. As a collector, on the other hand, I wonder if the word "depreciation" connotes artistic value or commercial value, or both. For me, there are multiple attributes of interest to me in these works: they are artistic, folkloric, practical, and mystical. Quilts are traditionally part of the applied arts. I don't see that as absolutely as the two collectors you mentioned do. But their assessment partly typifies the way the works have been seen over the last 30 years. BT: In my opinion, such an assessment misses the intentions of the Amish quilt-makers completely. Creating art, especially art for art's sake (l'art pour l'art) was never the Amish intention. They would have rejected that as worldly, and basically seen its pursuit as a waste of time. MW: Yes, that's true... however, the quilt was the only item with which the Amish could incorporate something decorative into their homes within a range of the “permissible.” And given the skilful and disciplined way in which these women realised the quilts, one can only assume that such activity meant a great deal to them.
BT: Is it possible to take these textiles out of their context and reinterpret them? Separate them from their context of origin, so to speak, and see them as an independent form of expression?
MW: For me, something is lost that is of great importance and constitutes our fascination, namely that these quilts were created within a unique context, both religiously and communally. That's why we feel they are so special.
BT: People have praised the modernity, the abstraction, the rigorous geometry, the simplification of forms, the bold color compositions of the Amish quilts, claiming that they precede modern art. Can one really see it that way? Are the quilts to be regarded as purely formal?
MW: The strict rules of their "order" distinguish Amish quilts from those made by other pioneer women in 19th century America. Here, more than to the modern genre, I see a parallel to religious Islamic art, with its equally non-figurative mode of representation. These quilts are primarily the result of a religiously- influenced society that was strongly connected to its traditions. Simplicity is prescribed, and limitation in the choice of patterns and colors is the order of the day, although the rules change from community to community.
BT: Ms. Lippuner contends that, rather than the pure aesthetics that are important, the expression of the spiritual climate in which these textiles were created counts: one which allows for "seriousness" when looking at the pieces, and also for finding a "quiet joy" in them. How do you see that?
MW: I feel the same way. The aura of the Amish quilts is unique. I gladly echo a dealer from New York who, in the 1970s, said "...it's as if they were made by moonlight."
The interview with the collector Monika Willi, Zurich, was conducted by the Director of the German Textile Museum, Brigitte Tietzel.
Original document German. Translation, Sarah Batschelet