During her time at Tufts, Van Dusen created costumes for the university’s theater department, which prepared her for internships both during and after college with the fashion brands Norma Kamali and Proenza Schouler, and a postgraduation job in the studio of the designer Mary Meyer. All the while, Van Dusen was creating her own bright, pattern-centric clothes — which she’d been doing since high school — on the side.
“I would go to fabric or vintage stores and try to find big bolts of fabric,” she says. “I would make samples, take preorders from stores, and then produce the collection six months later.” Duo NYC, a boutique in New York’s East Village selling curated vintage clothes and independent designers, was an early supporter of Van Dusen’s samples and placed a collection order.
Just a few years after moving to New York, Van Dusen started Dusen Dusen, her own womenswear line, but she quickly became disenchanted with the dictates of the production process and with the need to adhere to a rigid seasonal collection cycle. “I didn’t really feel at home within the fashion industry,” she says. “I was more interested in clothes than capital-‘F’ fashion, and the scene was never superappealing to me.” Instead, her persistent interest in the fundamentals of color and pattern led her to start designing her own prints, partly because of the difficulties inherent in working with the limited quantities of the vintage dead-stock fabrics she preferred.
As she moved away from producing clothes (she still makes them “very occasionally,” she says) and toward textiles, Van Dusen became frustrated by the relative lack of attention being paid to certain areas of domestic design, such as bedding. “It just felt like this huge neglected category,” she says. “So I was like, ‘Well, if no one else is gonna do it, I’m gonna have to.’” The brand expanded to include Dusen Dusen Home, a line of textiles and home accessories that includes towels, pillows, kitchen textiles and, of course, bedding. Such a reorientation also opened up interesting creative challenges: “It was an opportunity to think about prints on a bigger, uninterrupted scale.”
That her bold colors and geometric patterns — wide stripes, cursive squiggles, ’60s flower prints — have an insistent childlike quality and wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in a playroom aren’t perceived as demerits in Van Dusen’s universe. Again, it all goes back to our primitive psychology: Children “are drawn to bold shapes and bold colors because it’s the way we’re wired to exist,” she says. “It’s a real shame that there’s not much in the world for adults that’s supercolorful and fun. I think there’s a way to do color that’s sophisticated and smart.”
When selecting colors during the design process, Van Dusen uses an artist’s color wheel and a healthy dose of intuition to hit on combinations of shades that will make each sing. “On the design end it can be an endless sea of revision,” she says. “I’m constantly tweaking until I feel like it’s finalized, but sometimes I have an idea and it just works right away.”
Her playful, contrast-heavy approach stands out in a design landscape characterized by social-media mood boards full of muted, monochromatic minimalism, which may be one reason Van Dusen’s pieces have become cult favorites among celebrities like Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson and Jessica Williams. But her wares’ appeal has also gone thoroughly mainstream, as evidenced by her recent collaborations with large-scale retailers: with the furniture brand Dims on a wood chair; with the luggage and travel-accessories maker Arlo Skye on a suitcase collection; and with Uniqlo and Keds on apparel.
Which poses the question: How does Van Dusen alter her process when partnering with a corporate giant? “I have to reorient myself around their customer,” she says, “and I find it to be a really fun mental challenge. They want my vision and my aesthetic, but it has to be through their eyes.”
Up next is a whimsical collection of kitchenware — a saltshaker, a pepper grinder with interchangeable “outfits,” a kitchen timer with a face — as well as a new set of boldly patterned towels in neutral tones.
Van Dusen’s lack of formal design education has allowed her to preserve what she calls her “naïve design” aesthetic, and to retain a certain spontaneity within her process; she typically creates “on impulse, instead of through this belabored process, the way things are typically made,” she says. Hers is a maximalist vision through which the quotidian becomes a kind of statement and playfulness a form of chromotherapy. “I’m not super trend-driven; I have always had my same sort of aesthetic. If you look at something I made in 2010, it looks the same,” she says. “Obviously, I’ve evolved, but I’ve always been drawn to poppy colors and patterns and as much stuff on the wall as you can fit — within an organizational system.”