Gibson Girl

Luxury home furnishings designer Dana Gibson, a descendent of one of America’s most celebrated artists, is every bit the modern woman.

Dana Gibson’s glass-front studio showroom is awash in morning light, illuminating an abundant display of her colorful work. Pillows in cheerful florals and geometrics are mounded on an antique couch; tole accessories—lamps, ginger jars, cachepots—are scattered throughout on hutches, shelves and cocktail tables of her own making. Decorative trays and other artwork hang on walls painted a soft yet vibrant shade of lavender. Baskets on the floor brim with more of her inventory: travel bags, totes, eyeglass cases and more. Here, you’ll also find books of fabric and wallcoverings from the Dana Gibson for Stroheim line, her recent collaboration with the high-end home interiors company. Surrounded by these pretty things in glorious colors, it’s impossible to be gloomy.

Gibson’s studio on Horsepen Road in Richmond is the workspace of someone who is crazy about color but knows how to harness its energy in tasteful, controlled ways. “Color can be exciting, and powerful,” she says. Her work features traditional motifs—think chinoiserie, animal prints, twigs and trellises—reimagined with her signature painterly touch. Her colors are vibrant and saturated, but handled with measured restraint.

Talent is in Gibson’s genes. You’ll recognize her name—she’s the great-granddaughter and namesake of turn-of-the-19th-century artist and illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, best known for creating the iconic “Gibson Girl,” modeled after his wife, Irene Langhorne Gibson. The Langhornes have plenty of stories of their own—Irene’s sister Nancy (whose second marriage into British aristocracy made her Viscountess Astor) became the first woman to hold a seat in the British House of Commons. The Langhorne name is also carried through generations of Gibson’s family. Her father, Langhorne Gibson Jr., a lifelong Virginia resident and retired investment banker, is creative in his own right—he is a born storyteller and the author of several books.

Gibson’s mother’s side of the family is equally talented; her mother, Casa Bacot, is an accomplished artist, and her grandmother was a sculptor. Growing up in Richmond, Gibson and her three siblings saw their mother make art a priority, respecting her off-limits studio and going to galleries with her, learning early the importance of following artistic yearnings.

Though Gibson consistently took home top art honors from St. Catherine’s School, she didn’t set out to become an artist after graduation. “I didn’t think that art would be as practical as a college major,” she says. Like her father, Gibson had a knack for telling stories, so she focused on a degree in writing, graduating from Hollins University and earning a Henry Hoyns fellowship to pursue her masters of fine art from the University of Virginia. But art was always a part of her life; she says she could be found drawing in her dorm room for hours on end.

After college, the now 50-year-old Gibson did a stint teaching literature and writing to high schoolers in Baton Rouge. “I loved teaching younger people how to express themselves, and helping them find their voices. But teaching was hard,” she says. However, taking a ceramics class at Louisiana State University proved to be a pivotal experience for her. “I completely lost myself in building this big strawberry pot … and it was all over,” she laughs. To Gibson, making ceramics didn’t feel like work—though she thought she could earn a living doing so. In the years that followed, she moved back home to Richmond, grew her ceramics business, met and married her husband, Mark Longenderfer, and became mother to Jack and DeWolf, now both teenagers.

Gibson’s early work included vases, tureens and animal figurines—pieces that recall the feel of a gentle English countryside but with a simple, no-fuss aesthetic. Luxury retailers Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus were among her top customers. But around the time the economy floundered in 2000, Gibson also felt like it was time to do something different. “I got tired of ceramics. They can be limiting—they break easily, are harder to ship, plus you can’t get intensity of color,” she says. “And if I had to make one more vase .…”

So she shifted her focus, still using home accessories as her canvas but working with more practical, useful things, like pillows, lamps and bags. “I wanted to create things that were functional but pretty, too,” she says. Today, she sells her wares to about 700 retailers and is involved with other product collaborations. Several years ago, a Dana Gibson-embellished slow cooker by Hamilton Beach brightened up kitchens across the country and is still selling strong. She’s also working with the MT Company of High Point, North Carolina, on a line of upholstered furniture featuring her Stroheim fabrics. “I designed and chose those frames and finishes. This spring we’re adding bright leathers to the mix, plus a few creative fabric applications,” she explains. And you can also expect more designs from Dana Gibson for Stroheim. She’s currently developing a new collection of fabric and wallcoverings that will be released in about two years.

When dreaming up new looks, sometimes capturing what she calls a “scribbly sketch” with pen and ink, paint, or even drawing on her computer, she gravitates to images that originate in nature. Her designs have clever, telling names—further indulgence of her artistic flair and love of words. Social media is another creative outlet for this business-savvy artist—Pinterest and Instagram are her virtual playgrounds for sharing peeks at her latest work and inspiration.

If Gibson’s great grandmother, the original “Gibson Girl,” represents the face of women at the turn of that century, Gibson herself is a model of what it means today to be a modern woman—thriving in art and business amidst a bustling family life. And she’s using her talents to help people outfit their interiors with inspiring pieces: “It’s important to have uplifting surroundings, to live among things that move you, and to celebrate being alive every day.”

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