From the Winter 2015 Issue of Clef Notes Journal - The Elmhurst Art Museum is currently exhibiting the rarely seen works of mid-century modern artist Richard Koppe, including paintings, prints, and drawings. With the help of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the exhibit displays Koppe’s fascination with line and color, composition and space. His exploration of cubism and surrealism produced both playful and intricate works, and his mastery of diverse media transcended that playfulness across material boundaries. What you can’t see at the Elmhurst Art Museum, however, is the carefully curated photoshoot Clef Notes Journal commissioned with Staci Boris, the curator of the Koppe exhibit, and several Chicago fashion designers, called “Art By Design.” The photoshoot was devised to put Koppe’s works in conversation with specifically designed garments, adding another dimension to his artwork, and to explore the artistic elements of modern commercial fashion design.

Design permeated Koppe’s life and artistic career. His fascination began at St. Paul’s School of Art, where he immersed himself in line, shape, and color. His education carried him to the New Bauhaus School in Chicago, where his professors integrated visual art, technology, and industrial design. Bauhaus tailored Koppe’s education by combining his visual art courses with intense classes in math and science, giving birth to Koppe’s interest in machinery, engineering, and flight. Exhibit curator Staci Boris notes “One can discern his interest in flight and machinery throughout his body of work, with the swooping, ascendant curves of his lines and painterly gestures as well as his repeated use of winged creatures such as birds and angels. His body of work in the late 1950s alludes to space flight and exploration as well as the robotic forms of his large paintings of heads from the early 1960s.”

Koppe has participated in the interior design of spaces, the illustration of aeronautical engineering figures, and has created an impressive collection of sculptures. His interest in the three dimensional is no secret, and “he often strived to create an effect of three dimensions in his two dimensional work, and often made somewhat flat sculptures that created more of a 2D effect in three dimensions,” notes Boris. This balance in Koppe’s work is exactly what lends it so perfectly to a relationship with specific garments. His work shares many design elements and properties with the photographed clothing, and the comparison between art and fashion design is often overlooked.

Fashion designer Annie Andrews, of Annie A. Clothing, constantly strives for balance in her garments: balance in color, line, balance between masculine and feminine. Her clothes dovetail beautifully with Koppe’s works. In Figure X, we see Andrews’ brown criss cross top in front of Koppe’s Forest Figures (1949, ink on paper), which depicts three imaginary figures in white on a black background. Andrews finds the piece “magical, and very intriguing.” She sees a similar balance in the masculine and feminine in the top and the artwork, for the figures Koppe depicts are threatening and dark, yet soft and wispy at the same time.

Likewise, Andrews' Mellon-colored Coat Dress with Sienna UnderDress shares quite strikingly in the use of geometry and dimension that Koppe employed in both his Untitled (1948, oil on canvas) and Composition 1 (1948, oil on canvas). “If you take the garment and the painting, you can find similar shapes in them. You can find the little circle in the button, and the triangle in the neckline. We put her there intuitively. It’s a little magical and I think he’s got beautiful balance in terms of his composition and in terms of where the eye wants to go. There’s space, but it’s composed beautifully and it’s the same thing I try to do with my garments. It’s simple, but there’s always someplace for the eye to go. The belt, the uneven hem; it’s like this little teaser. Visually, there’s always something going on without overwhelming the eye. There’s a quiet, subtle sensibility in both his work and mine.” Her third piece in the photoshoot is the taupe dress with diagonal layers around the hips, behind which is Koppe’s Three Figures (1946, oil on canvas). This painting represents the heavy influence of surrealism and cubism on Koppe’s work, considering the dark colors, open doorway, and enigmatic figures. Andrews finds the relationship between her dress and the painting intuitive and beautiful, and appreciates the balance between angles and curves. “Your eye can easily make the connection between the dress and the painting. There are some harsh angles in the dress, but it’s very soft. The painting has that same essence.”

We also paired outerwear from the 83rd Anniversary Collection of Chicagoland's York Furrier quite intuitively with works from the exhibition and discovered some striking similarities in textural elements found in Koppe's work.  The lines and angles of the cuts of some of the garments correlate quite naturally with the geometric and surrealist aesthetic of Koppe’s works on paper. For Kathy Rezny, Co-owner of York Furrier, this comes as no surprise. “Fur fashion, like art, is meant as an outlet of expression for the artist or designer; and for the wearer, fur fashion projects their personal sense of style," notes Rezny.  Designers employ many of the techniques of traditional artists, not just to create an appealing color pallet or seasonal style but to visually articulate an idea or emotion that translates to commercial appeal. Says Rezny, Fur designers, "are using new techniques and adaptations to knit, weave, shear and groove fur into spectacular pieces..." When looking at fashion as works of art, "creativity abounds."

One particularly striking pairing we captured is  York’s Zuki designed abstract, dyed Sheared Beaver Jacket  with Koppe’s Planetary (1957). Both designer and artist captured the spectacular structural, abstract grid that catches the eye upon first view.  While the jacket does not share the works exact color pallet, as Boris explains, the garment's colors, "do appear in Koppe’s other more abstract and gestural paintings from a few years earlier, demonstrating his keen and continued interest in color, especially unusual colors (at least for abstract paintings of the mid-century), like pinks and purples and oranges.” 

The Zuki abstract jacket demonstrates just how that keen interest in color can translate to a three-dimensional garment quite naturally and articulate the same aesthetic.

Another more textural pairing that jumps out at the viewer is Koppe's painting Untitled with York's Natural Silver Feathered Fox Jacket. Boris notes that the painting is among Koppe's  best known works, and that the repeated horizontal lines in both paintings and garment - as well as the gradated grey - create an atmospheric background. Again we see the importance of line in Koppe’s work in relation to his fascination with space and dimension - and the fur coat only adds to the dark and cubic atmosphere of the two paintings. Koppe himself says “A dominant characteristic is the wiry line that describes space and volume. The size and position of the elements create dramatic tensions with subtle humor." Clearly, that element can be articulated three-dimensionally in a commercial garment designed to achieve a similar effect, while retaining a very commercial appeal.

For Rezny, the pairing of these Koppe works with pieces from this year’s collection was a natural fit. The collection, entitled “Artistry in Fur,” she says, “features fashion artists using sheared beaver, mink or shearling as their canvas. In these (pairings), the furs and art share the spotlight quite nicely. For the Zuki piece, it’s all about the bursts of color that catch the eye…(and) with the feathered silver fox, the fine lines softly draw your attention.” The juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical lines in both the paintings and the garments, she notes,  cause the viewer to observe the entire garment/painting, while focusing on every detail.

At the end of the day, fashion is fashion and art is art. But understanding elements of both and concepts shared between the two can help us understand why we enjoy what we enjoy in both art and fashion. 

The garment designs in this project (none of which were originally designed with Koppe’s work in mind) underscore the three dimensional, surrealist and practical elements of Richard Koppe’s work. These elements in both the art works and garments encourage the eye to new and exciting places. The garments offer three-dimensional perspectives of techniques utilized in Koppe’s works on paper, and the paintings themselves encourage new and altered perspectives of the designs.

As challenging as it may be to see these garments as art works, themselves, it is a distinct challenge to stretch the mind to see the practical and commercial side of visual art, but perhaps there is no better artist than Koppe to help us do just that: “Art is just as functional as the automobile we drive, the house we live in, the chair we sit in, or the spoon we eat with,” Koppe once said, “Who can deny the function of painting, sculpture, poetry, literature, music, dance and drama in our lives?” Who indeed.

Criss-Cross Tunic (Sienna/Mellon), Rayon (Silk detail), Price: $240

Pencil Skirt (Mellon), 4-ply Silk , Price: $160 | Annie A. Clothing (

Set against Richard Koppe's Forest Figures (1949, ink on paper), Richard Koppe exhibition, Elmhurst Art Museum.

Is it Fashion or is it Art?

The art of RichardKoppe sets a stunning context as we examine local fashion design from an artist's eye.

By Laura Kinter | Photos by Krizystof Hanusiak


Zuki designed “Abstract dyed Sheared Beaver Jacket with Natural Fox Collar and Trim, Sale Price: $5995.00, York Furrier 83rd Anniversary Collection available in York Furrier’s Elmhurst City Centre and Deer Park Town Center store locations.

Set against Richard Koppe’s Planetary (1957) ink on paper, Richard Koppe exhibition, Elmhurst Art Museum.

Left: Belted Coat Dress (Melon), 4-ply Silk/Horn Button, Price: $385 | UnderDress (Sienna), Rayon, Price $170 | Annie A. Clothing ( Available at

Set between Richard Koppe’s Untitled, (1948, oil on canvas) and Composition 1 (1948, oil on canvas), Richard Koppe exhibition, Elmhurst Art Museum.

Right: Vintage Inspired Dress (Taupe), Acetate, Price: $295 | Annie A. Clothing ( Available at

Set against Richard Koppe’s Three Figures (1946, oil on canvas), Richard Koppe exhibition, Elmhurst Art Museum.


Left: York Signature Style Sapphire Mink Walking Coat with Geometric Detail, Sale Price: $6,495.00, York Furrier 83rd Anniversary Collection available in York Furrier’s Elmhurst City Centre and Deer Park Town Center store locations.
Dancer Dress (Black), Stretch Italian Wool, Price: $320, Annie A. Clothing ( available at

Right: Natural Silver Feathered Fox Reversible to Cashmere Sweater Jacket, Price: $4,995.00.York Furrier 83rd Anniversary Collection available in York Furrier’s Elmhurst City Centre and Deer Park Town Center store locations. Set against Richard Koppe’s  (Untitled) 1948, oil on canvas. UIC Campus Collection. Richard Koppe Exhibition, Elmhurst Art Museum.