Natalie Chanin: A Trip of One’s Own

ColumnNatalie Chanin’s bi-weekly column, Material Witness, offers a seasoned designer’s perspective on the fashion industry, textile history and what happens when love for community trumps all.

“I can’t believe that I am doing this.” Wait. Laugh. Repeat. These were the words I kept echoing over and over again as I sat at Gate B27 in the Atlanta Airport. My girlfriend, Jennifer Venditti, is sitting across from me, looking like a vision of New York City chic. I stare at her in amazement. We are waiting to board a flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with plans to catch up on the last six months of one another’s lives.

The thing is, while I am an adventurer at heart, I am also a mother and can’t impulsively jump on planes to go in search of truth in the New Mexico desert – or perhaps I should I say that I haven’t done something like this since the summer of 2005 when I learned of my daughter Maggie’s imminent approach. However, the subject of just such a trip came up during a recent phone conversation with Jennifer. Before we hung up the phone, I’d already made my decision, logged onto my computer, and searched for a flight. I interrupted Jennifer to say, “I just bought my ticket. I can’t believe I am doing this.”

In the few weeks before the trip, we lightly perused the internet, were sent many tips by friends, and talked about some of our options. But, truth be told, we didn’t really make a detailed plan. Our agenda was to meet at the Atlanta airport, board the plane to New Mexico, and travel the back roads through Santa Fe to the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos.

Neither of us had ever heard of Mabel Dodge and neither of us will ever be the same.

There are plenty of books about Mabel Dodge, but the Mabel Dodge Luhan House website describes her as this: “She was a woman of profound contradictions. She was generous. She was petty. Domineering and endearing. She was Mabel Gansen Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan – salon hostess, art patroness, writer and self-appointed savior of humanity.”

Mabel Dodge Luhan portrait

The pictures and the papers held by Yale University are fascinating.

A supporter of the arts, Mable changed lives, including – but not limited to – Georgia O’Keefe’s, whose room we stayed in and whose portrait you see above.

In researching, I found several accounts that Dennis Hopper wrote the script for Easy Rider at Mabel Dodge Luhan House and that he also edited parts of the film in those rooms. In fact, he owned the house for a time in the 1960s.

From the website: “Today as you approach the house of Mabel Dodge Luhan, it’s easy to see why some of the greatest minds of the 20th century were inspired here. Situated at the end of a quiet road not far from the center of town, the house appears much as it did in the days when Mabel admired her views of the sacred Taos Mountains from the third-story solarium. One can only imagine the tantalizing conversations that must have taken place within these walls. After all, Georgia O’Keeffe stayed here. So did D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Martha Graham and Carl Jung, among many other notables.”

In fact, D.H. Lawrence painted her bathroom windows so that she could exercise a bit of privacy in her own home.

I find it astounding that almost 40 years after her death, her presence and the space she built to foster creativity continues. Her passion is alive in those walls. I can hardly walk through the sitting room without the desire to sit down in front of the ever-blazing fire and start to write (paint, sketch, sew, fill in the blank ____). But, I don’t sit down and write; I sit down and dream.

When I tire of dreaming, I take walks in the clear mountain air. I feel like I can think for the first time in years.

I visit Mabel Dodge Luhan’s grave to say thank you. Others have been there before me. It is Thanksgiving Day.

I have had the luxury – through my work – to travel to many places and meet many people over the years. But I have seldom come upon a place where the desire to stay was quite so strong.

The trip did more than reinforce my perspective as a designer. Much more than that, it fostered my desire to share the process – even more than we do now in our Workshop Series. I sat on that couch and dreamed of a place – a space – where people could come to be inspired, to sit, to dream, and to heal from modern stresses. I dreamed of a place to nurture the creative spirit as Mabel Dodge Luhan nurtured mine – even from the grave. I returned home recharged, thankful, and ready to start looking for a space where this vision for learning and nurturing creativity can grow. And we will definitely be booking the Mabel Dodge Luhan House for a workshop sometime in the next year. I can’t wait to sit in front of that roaring fire again.

Coming home is truly the best part of adventure; however, a little piece of my soul is still at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. And I keep a little part of that house with me each day – I remember to sit down in my own home and dream, if just for a minute. Sometimes the best gift we can give is one we give to ourselves. I know this may sound trite, but sometimes a woman (a mother, a designer, an entrepreneur, a girl) just needs a trip of one’s own.


Natalie Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of three books including Alabama Stitch Book  (2008), Alabama Studio Style (2010) and the upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design which comes out spring 2012. Look for her bi-weekly column, Material Witness here and follow her on Facebook and her own blog at Alabama Chanin.

Natalie Chanin

Natalie “Alabama” Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of Alabama Stitch Book (STC – February 2008), Alabama Studio Style (STC – March 2010) and Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (STC – Spring 2012).