Doug Tompkins, Quilt Collector

Sadly, I never met Doug Tompkins. By the time I was deep into my research into Amish quilts, he was deep into ecology, living in a remote area of Chile, where by 1995 he was one of the largest private land owners. Once collecting Amish quilts had been his passion. Now he collected land. Tompkins died in this wilderness doing one of the many outdoor activities he loved.

I write at length about Tompkins in Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon because he was instrumental in disseminating the idea that Amish quilts are art objects of the highest caliber. After visiting the landmark 1971 exhibit, Abstract Design in American Quilts, curated by Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof at the Whitney Museum of American Art, he was smitten, and bought his first quilt that year—a non-Amish red and white baskets quilt. His next two quilt purchases were Amish, a Center Diamond and Sunshine and Shadow, both from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Before long, he showed up on his motorcycle at Mary Strickler’s Quilt, Julie Silber and Linda Reuther’s Bay area quilt shop, which was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Doug and Julie, who eventually worked as the curator of Esprit’s growing quilt collection.

By the late 1970s quilts filled the walls of Esprit’s headquarters, the San Francisco based fashion company Doug and his then wife Susie had founded. Before long, he began limiting his collecting exclusively to Amish quilts, favoring the strong graphics and simplicity of the Lancaster County community.

Tumbling Block quilt on display in Esprit design workroom. Doug Tompkins’ credo, “No Detail is Small,” appears on the back wall. Published in Esprit: The Comprehensive Design Principle (1989). Photo by Sharon Risedorph.

Amish quilts fit Doug’s visual taste—he liked bold graphic arts. But it also fit his worldview; Doug understood his Amish quilt collection as part of a larger, self-consciously “authentic” lifestyle choice. The fashion company’s San Francisco headquarters embodied the paradox of quilts functioning both as works of abstract art and as “authentic” objects evocative of simplicity and humility—qualities rarely found in the fashion industry. Doug noted that the presence of a Lancaster County Amish quilt “comes across as a sort of truth.” He also linked the fine workmanship of the textiles with the company’s fashion designs. He wrote in Esprit’s souvenir quilt catalog:

“As most of our visitors already know, we are a clothing manufacturer; and fabrics, color, texture and shape are ingredients found in both our products and in quilts. Workmanship also plays a big part in the final product. Our interest in quilts really emerged quite naturally from this close affinity. We have found that living among such masterpieces of design, color, and workmanship has inspired designs, tuned all of our senses to design and left us all a little bit, if not a lot richer.”

I believe the Amish quilts hanging all around Esprit’s designers influenced the companies clothing. Here you see a vest I was lucky enough to score from eBay, along with an Amish quilt that once was part of the Esprit collection, that I suspect may have been its inspiration.

Esprit vest, c. 1980s, personal collection
Checkerboard, unknown Amish maker, c. 1900-1920. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, 1997.007.0469, Esprit owned this quilt in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, during the height of Esprit’s existence as the “it” company, employees, and probably those jealous outsiders who wished they worked there, called it “Little Utopia” and “Camp Esprit,” as the company subsidized its employees’ rafting trips, opera tickets, and foreign language lessons. Staff referred to Doug’s penchant for rock climbing rather than sitting in an office as MBA – “Management by Being Absent.”  Doug believed in authentic living, a policy he brought to running Esprit, believing these staff perks would “heighten their sensibilities about being alive, and if they are alive and more dynamic, the byproduct goes to their organization.”

Tompkins’s philosophy imbued not only staff benefits and Esprit’s quilt collection. It also revealed itself in Esprit’s marketing in unexpected ways. in 1985 Esprit began to feature its employees and customers in its “Real People” advertising campaign, rather than professional models. In 1989 Tompkins instituted a “Buy Only What You Need” campaign in Esprit’s catalog and on its hang tags to encourage consumers to buy less and use what they have longer, indicative of his increasing discomfort with consumer culture and his growing environmentalism.

After selling his shares in Esprit, he eventually deeded the quilts in his portion of Esprit’s collection—the Amish ones from Lancaster County—to his nonprofit foundation, the Conservation Land Trust, in hopes of selling them in order to raise money for his deep ecology pursuits. The Heritage Center of Lancaster County successfully raised funds to purchase 82 of the Amish quilts made in the county–ones that had hung in the dramatic Amish: The Art of the Quilt exhibit at the de Young Museum in 1990–establishing the core collection of the Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum. Unfortunately, like many cultural institutions, the Heritage Center and Quilt and Textile Museum faced economic hardship during the financial crisis. The museum closed its doors in 2012. The quilts are now part of the collections of the Lancaster County Historical Society.

Amish quilts on display at Esprit corporate headquarters, c. 1983. Photo by Sharon Risedorph.

I never was lucky enough to visit the Esprit headquarters while the quilts hung on its walls. But the many photos I’ve seen suggest to me that perhaps Doug had an affinity for not only Amish quilts, but also the Amish. The minimalism, open spaces, and heavy use of solid wood echoed the simple interiors of many Amish homes. Just as likely, we can attribute his aesthetic choices to modernism. But aspects of his life in Chile also suggest a bit of Amishness: a one-room schoolhouse for local children, organic gardens, replacing tractors with horse-drawn vehicles, living without electricity and modern appliances.

In her introduction to Amish Quilts of Lancaster County, Julie Silber tried to unpack Doug’s appreciation for Amish quilts:

“These quilts appear simple. But they required discipline and persistence and they demonstrate highly developed skills and sensibilities. . . . Lancaster quilts are understated, unpretentious and focused, all qualities Doug personally admires.”

Those are qualities I also admire. I wish I would have met the guy.

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