Think of fashion in the 1960s, and you are probably picturing Susan
Nevelson’s work. She pioneered the flower-power prints of the decade, working
for her friend and designer Ken Scott. Her prints have been worn by celebrities
like Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot. Aged 87, she continues
to work from her studio in San Frediano, painting and designing textiles for
Having moved to Florence more than sixty years ago, Nevelson has probably lived here longer than any other expatriate. She has seen major changes. Travelling here was a big undertaking in 1950s. Instead of flying a few hours in a plane, she sailed for seven days to Europe. She arrived in Florence in 1951, and her first recollections of the city in those years were its bridges, almost all of which, at one point or another, were temporary wood and iron constructions, having been destroyed in the war. Lots of taxis were horse-and-carts. In the years that followed, traffic was not a problem and, by the 1960s and 1970s, most cars were Cinquecentos. She was flooded out of her home in the flood of 1966. At the time she was living on piazza Serristori, and was saved only by the fact she lived on a level higher than the flood waters. The biggest change to the city has been the boom in tourism, she says. Every decade the city has become busier and more popular and populated.
It is little surprise that Nevelson ended up living in Europe. She has spent many years of her life in other countries, among them Switzerland, Turkey, France, Mexico. Among the photographs on her wall is one of her grandmother who raised her. The black and white photo, taken in 1918, shows a strict-looking Victorian lady, in front of Florence’s duomo. ‘My grandma travelled lots, and I remember her talking of these places Paris and Florence and always being desperate to visit.’
Nevelson is from Boston. She started art at the age of seven. Even at school she would be told off for sketching students in the classroom, instead of doing her schoolwork. After school Susan moved to New York where she soon established herself as a model posing for the cult magazine ‘Flair’, but it was in 1950 her life changed dramatically, meeting and befriending Ken Scott. He was designing fabrics, and when Nevelson expressed an interest in joining in, he initially said ‘no’, due to the fact she hadn’t had formal artistic training. But 8 years later he was to change his mind.
By 1961, she had established herself as a highly successful textile designer, working in America and Switzerland. She had moved to Florence, where she started to work with Ken Scott. A year later he launched his own label showcasing his first collection at Florence’s Pitti Exhibition. At the time in Italy there were few designers, but the company rapidly grew, and soon ranked along with Valentino, Emilio Pucci, Mila Schőn and Krizia competing with the French in fashion. Their partnership was a winning combination; Susan’s beautiful textiles, and Ken Scott’s designs and marketing. As the company expanded, her prints were soon used for flamboyant dresses the brand is famed for.
Ken Scott is synonymous with the 1960s. The striking floral prints, bright colours and patterns were totally unique at the time. Many of the patterns she composed as Head Designer are timeless; they are still modern, fresh and bold, despite the fact they were designed 50 years ago. At its heyday, the brand was worn by the biggest names of the time, among them Brigitte Bardot, Monica Vitti and Peggy Guggenheim.
In 1991, Ken Scott died, but the brand lives on. Today, Nevelson continues to design for the company, which has been kept alive by its director Aldo Papaleo. Susan’s patterns are lovingly painted in Florence studio, which are couriered to the Milan HQ and printed in Como.
She never studied art formally, but art is in the family. She was married to artist Mike Nevelson and her mother-in-law was the well known sculptor Louise Nevelson. It is perhaps little surprise then, that her daughter Neith is also a well-respected artist based in Florida.
Her apartment is like a living museum of her life and work. She lives at the top floor (up more than 90 steps) of a 400-year-old palazzo in San Frediano, with her Chihuahua, Khios. Full of colour, her walls are adorned with photographs of loved ones, portraits and stunning still lives, all testimony to her travels and creativity. Her curtains, armchair fabric, and table clothes are all her own designs. (‘Why would I buy anyone else’s work?’ she smiles.) At the top floor of her flat is her studio. ‘This room is the reason I took the flat.’ One look at the incredible light and stunning rooftop views, and you can’t argue.
Florence is home for Nevelson. She says she lives like an Italian, and rarely returns to America. Florence influenced her work very early on. Interestingly, Susan’s first commissioned work was of Florence’s skyline. ‘I remember going into Bloomingdales department store in New York and they had used my pattern to decorate the shop. I was amazed.’
Asked if she was proud of the fact that celebrities have worn her work, she responds: ‘Proud? No. It’s nice, because I am proud of my work, just not the fact someone wears it. Besides if they didn’t wear our dresses they’d be fools, as they were so lovely.’
For more information, photos and examples of Nevelson’s work, see www.kenscott.it/en.
Where would you take a guest who doesn’t like art?
Michelangelo, for the views of the city.
Best place for a cappuccino.
Bar Marina, in piazza
Best bar for aperitivo.
Caibiria in Santo
Best restaurant or place for bistecca fiorentina.
Angelino’s on via
Santo Spirito; they do the best pappa
pomodoro and steaks.
Best kids activity.
There is a lovely
little park behind piazza del
Carmine; it’s a nice green space for children to play.
Best excursion outside Florence.
To towns like Siena,
San Gimignano, Greve in Chianti.
Strangest thing you’ve seen in the city.
This winter, when the
fountain in piazza Santo Spirito froze; it was covered with what looked like
cascading ice. It was spectacular.
Advice for the newly arrived.
Take time to look
carefully at the Arno, go see the David and
al pomodoro at Angelinos.
Favourite view of Florence.
The one from my
studio, but there is nothing like sitting in a cafe on piazzale
Michelangelo and taking in the view.
Pet peeve or something you will never get used to living here.
The noise from the
motorbikes and the speed they go at.
One thing your nation always do better.
[Thinks hard] Baking
One thing the Florentines will always do better.
What would you ask Matteo Renzi over a cup of coffee?
[Thinks hard] I’d ask
him, ‘How do you like life?’
Kirsten Hills has been a broadcast journalist in UK for ten years working for both BBC
and ITV. She moved to Florence this past summer.
[This article was published in print on June 21, 2012 and revised online on July 4, 2012]