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Timely Twists

Houston textile designer Rusty Arena celebrates 25 colorful years.


Houston textile designer and artist Rusty Arena surrounds himself with art and history. He’s pictured with a canvas of his own creation, Empirical Phylos.


Over the past two years, Arena has looked to the past through his collection of hand-painted textiles, in order to gain inspiration for his new designs. Jute, velvet and linen are the dominant fabrics in the designer’s work.

Arena’s factory also serves as a showroom, and offers a grand snapshot of his style.

The light blue hue of his Ligurian pattern on linen signifies the designer’s sparing use of color.


After a few thwacks of the iron knocker on the front door of Rusty Arena’s house in Houston’s artsy Montrose neighborhood, the textile designer known for sumptuous, hand painted fabrics appears with a smile. Arena, who is in the full throes of preparing for the 25-year-anniversary celebration of his business, Arena Design, is clad in jeans, white loafers, a baby-blue tailored cotton button-up shirt, stylish spectacles and his signature, closely-cropped pale locks.

“Have you been here since I redid the living room?” he asks, gesturing to a bright, casual seating arrangement to the left of the door. It has been lightened via a white, linen slipcover on the sofa; new velvet, champagne-and-beige zebra-striped upholstery on a pair of low-slung, bleached-wood chairs; and one of the designer’s own geometric-patterned area rugs. “That fabric on the chairs is delicious. I’ve had them for years and finally recovered them.”

Arena’s textile work is found in showrooms across the globe, and his fine art has been shown in New York’s Harris Gallery and Houston’s Hiram Butler Gallery. He was once commissioned to paint the nude body of Oscar winner Cloris Leachman as a trompe l’oeil of fruits and vegetables for the cover of a health magazine, and the American Institute of Architects has recognized him as its artist of the year.

While his career has been colorful, Arena’s entire house is a study in neutrals—awash in beiges, whites and light browns. Ceramic pieces and broken shards of ceramics, collected during the designer’s travels, adorn the surfaces of nearly every room, and—as one might imagine while ambling through the home of a textile designer—layer upon layer of texture via patterned upholstery, pillows and wallcoverings.

Arena, who moved into an upstairs apartment in the house more than 20 years ago, converted it to a single family dwelling after buying it from his landlord. It serves as a haven for the artist, and also an incubator for his ideas. The only room in the abode where he uses dark colors is the bedroom, where he says he hones his ideas and inspirations for new patterns.

“It’s that state between asleep and awake,” Arena says. “I work out all of the artistic things and use that time to lay out my plan. I get a vision or a picture in my head and then I try to figure out how to make it happen.”
Over the past two years, as the hands of the clock crept closer to the 25-year milestone, Arena looked back over the breadth of his work. He marvels at having created 240 original, hand-drawn patterns. The History Channel devotee gains inspiration from ancient textiles, art and his travels to Turkey, Greece and—a guilty pleasure—the South of France.

The newest crop of patterns will be unveiled during a round of parties beginning Oct. 15 at Caché on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, then on Oct. 22 in Dallas at ID Collection in the Dallas Design District, and, finally, the big 25th anniversary celebration at the Arena Design factory in Houston on Oct. 29.

“It seems to be merging more of my fine arts with my textile arts,” Arena says, as he flings a bolt of luxurious, Champagne-hued silk onto the bar in the kitchen. He calls the pattern—a contemporary take on a traditional damask—Damastricus. Soon the entire bar is covered in shimmery silk, white and taupe washable linen, and a natural brown paper printed with an incalculable amount of misshapen squares. “This design was actually taken from squares of papyrus, but most was done by hand.” It’s aptly called Papyrus.

For Arena, the look back through his past—like the artist’s travels to ancient cities, and hours spent delving into history on the small screen—has unleashed a fresh crop of ideas, which are flowing through him onto the fabrics. Nickel-sized dots from a popular pillow pattern are thrust onto the same velvet, but with a larger, bolder and more pronounced scale—dubbed Jumbo—and those traditional damask pieces are now home to playful smiley faces hidden in the pattern. “I’m trying to get back to my roots,” Arena says. “I started with more contemporary designs, so I’m going back to things I enjoy.”