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Ed Rossbach work
One example of fiber art by Ed Rossbach, Tim Grotta photo

UC Berkeley textile expert Ed Rossbach dies at 88
16 October 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Ed Rossbach, considered the dean of contemporary American textiles because of his influence on generations of young fiber artists in the United States, died on Monday, Oct. 7, after a long illness. He was 88.

Rossbach was a professor emeritus of design at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught in the former departments of decorative art and design from 1950 to 1979. He also served as chair of the design department.

No memorial service is planned.

His textiles are part of collections in the United States and Europe at museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. His work also is part of collections at the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art, the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and is included in many private collections.

The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., hosted a retrospective of Rossbach's work, producing an overview of his life and artistry in the 1990 book, "Ed Rossbach: 40 Years of Exploration and Innovation in Fiber Art." A 1997-1998 exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design of work by Rossbach and his wife, titled "Ties That Bind," continues to tour the country.

"He was the greatest textile person in the country," said Margaret "Penny" Dhaemers, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of architecture and a former colleague of Rossbach's.

Rossbach was known for researching older civilizations' examples of textiles and baskets. The exploration of historical woven structures included netting, plaiting and processes of printing and dyeing.

He was a pioneer in the use of non-traditional textile and basketry materials such as newspaper, plastics, metal foils, rice paper, twigs, spray lacquer, ash splints, heat transfers, plastic film, natural wood fibers, foil, staples, twine and fabric.

Rossbach is considered a pivotal figure in developing the San Francisco Bay Area as a center for fiber arts and involved his students in the activities of fiber arts centers, schools and galleries throughout the region.

In addition to basketry and other fiber arts, Rossbach was active in painting, ceramics, drawing and photography.

His wife, artist and UC Davis emeritus professor of design Katherine Westphal, said that after his retirement, Rossbach remained active in all these fields, as well as in writing, traveling and lecturing.

Among books authored by Rossbach are "The Nature of Basketry" (1986), "The Art of Paisley" (1980), "The New Basketry" (1976), "Baskets as Textile Art" (1973) and "Making Marionettes" (1938).

Rossbach was an honorary Fellow of the American Craft Council and a Gold Medalist of the American Crafts Council.

Rossbach was born in Edison Park near Chicago and grew up in LaGrange, a Chicago suburb. In an interview with a former student for a PhD thesis, he recalled his mother's pleasure and pride with his artistry when, as a boy, he produced a tablecloth with designed block prints in each corner and small trivets made from raffia.

"It's terribly important at a very early age, the appreciation that someone expresses toward your work," he told student Hanna Haim Hindawi in 1996. "I remember those things so well, I could reconstruct them, or do a drawing of all of them now. They had such an impact on me."

He earned a bachelor's degree in painting and design from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1940. After graduating, Rossbach went to Columbia University's Teachers College, earning a master's degree in art education in 1941.

"I had to earn a living," he told Hindawi. "I contemplated doing just art, but I was a shy person, and I could not imagine myself going with a portfolio of my art."

In his 30s, Rossbach decided to attend Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and he earned his MFA in weaving and ceramics there in 1947.

But when Rossbach ventured back west to teach 7th grade in a farm community outside of Seattle, he quickly realized he didn't like teaching and left before a two-year term required by Teachers College ended.

"I could not stay a second year, and it so happened that the war started, and I told the superintendent that I was leaving, and the next day I was in the Army," he said to Hindawi. "It was a tremendous relief to get out of this teaching."

He served in the Army's Signal Corp, in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, from 1942 to 1945.

Rossbach studied for two years on the GI Bill after World War II and began teaching painting and design at the University of Washington. There he met his wife, who was teaching at the university. Through her involvement with the Anthropology Department and a conference of anthropologists in Seattle, he met Lea Miller, then head of the UC Berkeley weaving department.

Miller invited him to teach a summer course on weaving, and he stayed on at UC Berkeley for nearly 30 years. He told Hindawi that, when asked what he taught, for several years he wouldn't say that he taught weaving because of the stigma attached to it.

When Rossbach came to UC Berkeley, weaving courses were part of the Decorative Arts Department in the College of Letters & Science. Anthropologist Lila O'Neale, who was interested in the textiles of Peru, Guatemala and the California Indians, headed the department. The Decorative Arts Department merged with the College of Environmental Design in 1975 to become the Program of Visual Design.

"Because anthropology had some emphasis on textiles, it was very convenient for a student who came to the Decorative Arts Department to do work which ordinarily would be done in the anthropology department," Rossbach told Hindawi.

At one point, a new chair of the department shifted emphasis to include ceramics and glass blowing, and Rossbach said he was dispatched to Los Angeles to try to lure artist Peter Voulkos to UC Berkeley. Voulkos, known for elevating ceramics from craft to fine art, did join the faculty.

Inez Brooks-Myers, curator of costume and textiles at the Oakland Museum of California and a former student of Rossbach's, said Rossbach orchestrated a design faculty at UC Berkeley that was unrivaled.

In addition, she said, he was a professor "without peer. He was gentle and kind, and he listened and he challenged."

Rossbach's own work was unparalleled, Brooks-Myers said. "He didn't follow all the rules," she said. "He had a wicked sense of humor and could use the most old and tested techniques to create the wildest and funniest works of art."

For example, he was known to mix images of pop culture icons such as John Travolta and Mickey Mouse with ancient techniques and innovative materials, Brooks-Myers said.

"He could do something funny that resonated very far, connecting to aspects of our culture," said Gyongy Laky, a former student and a professor of design at UC Davis, adding that Rossbach could produce historical, political or social statements within pieces of wonderful tactile and visual art.

"He was a very free spirit," she said. "He could move and do things seemingly freely and easily. At the same time, he had a very profound and deep intellect and was a major thinker and researcher."

The UC Davis Design Museum just concluded a "retro" exhibit of hand-painted textiles by Rossbach and Westphal from the 1950s to the 1970s.