Queen Bee

Handmade quilts by Denyse Schmidt.

One of quiltmaker Denyse Schmidt's friends puts it succinctly: "Her quilts look like Josef Albers on a bender." Schmidt reinterprets traditional American classic styles—the bright and sunny Drunk Love in a Log Cabin, for instance, a vibrant mélange of turquoise, citrus, lime green, and yellow, or What a Bunch of Squares, soft green, blues, and yellows on a neutral background—creating improvisations in color and pattern that are personal, whimsical, and modern.

"I don't consider myself an artist," says Schmidt, who has the good looks of a Helena Bonham Carter. "The quilts are functional, one hundred percent cotton, prewashed to prevent shrinkage, and aren't meant to be fussy or intellectual." Taught to sew by her mother—"a fine seamstress"—Schmidt learned to interface by hand, bind buttonholes, and by age eight had her own sewing machine for making dolls' clothes. Her first professional sewing job was as a costumer for the Boston Ballet, followed by a stint making chasubles and vestments for Trappist monks. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design six years ago and exhibited her first four quilts at the 1996 International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York; after that her career took off.

"They were bought immediately by Henri Bendel and Takashimaya, and I've been quilting ever since," says Schmidt. "I sketch all the time, rely on the computer to make templates, then explore colorations. I change my mind several times, always questioning. I enjoy the process, yet sometimes it can be a painful experience," she admits. Schmidt hand-cuts fabric strips, often experimenting with asymmetry to capture the idiosyncrasies of the hand-drawn line. Then she pieces the strips together as quasi-squares within squares, pinning them to a wall, and studies the result, reworking colors and patterns for days, or even weeks, until she is satisfied with the overall balance. "I want all my quilts to be like some eccentric relative, with a distinct personality," she says. After the squares have been stitched together, they're marked with quilting lines.

A quilt is basically a three-layered sandwich: the top assemblage of fabric strips; a middle batting, usually cotton; and a backing of muslin. These layers are sewn together according to a pattern of quilting lines that may follow the outline of the fabric design or may be totally different. Either way, it is this topstitching that holds the quilt together. "Once the top has been marked for quilting," Schmidt explains, "I send all three layers to Rochester, Minnesota, where Amish needleworkers handstitch along the quilting lines. It generally takes two to three months to select a design and fabrics, while the quilting itself takes an additional two or three months, less in winter as the women aren't preoccupied with farming chores."

Denyse Schmidt, 68 Riverside Drive, Fairfield, Connecticut; 800-621-9017. $850-$3,300. Available in New York at Henri Bendel, Takashimaya, Zona, and the Whitney Museum Store.