Dena Fishbein

Dena’s Chic Design

Dena Designs has just the whimsical, exuberant look today’s quilters want.

By Cynthia Van Hazinga

A native Californian, Dena Fishbein tried New York City and liked the fast-styled work pace there. “You’ve got to get in step, or you’re dusted,” she says. But the Golden State is the place for her; she lives now in the San Francisco’s East Bay, where she’s been the hands-on head of Dena Designs for an amazing 20 years. Dena Designs produces a vast variety of chic, hip products from stationery through table linens and bags to fabulous fabrics for quilting.

Her distinctive cotton prints, produced by Free Spirit Fabrics, are a smash success, and it’s a good match, for if there ever was a free spirit, it’s Dena. Her hottest seller now is her “Leanika” collection, inspired by her love of vintage prints and updated with a modern, geometric touch. It includes some totally irresistible lovebirds and some crewel-like flower designs, all in appealing colors.

Next up is “McKenzie,” which Dena calls “tradition with a twist.” It’s her favorite approach: main patterns, often floral, that draw on vintage traditions, spiked with geometrics and solids that have a “hip, modern feel” that’s nostalgic but original. “I love a fresh, clean look,” she says.

A Collector

There’s no denying it. Dena’s an obsessed collector-maybe even a pack rat, although she’s organized. “I have a walk-in closet filled with vintage fabrics that I just love,” she says. “I try to think how to show them to the world, and when I have the urge to design a particular something, I find myself going to the closet and poking around until I see just what I want. And then I have to replenish the collection!”

Since her studio is in her home, Dena’s three children have had the free run of it since they were babies. Her youngest daughter has completed a “beautiful” quilt from fabrics in Dena’s collection. And, to her mother’s delight, another daughter is attending New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology to study fashion and accessory design. They all enjoy going with Dena to flea markets, tag sales, and secondhand shops in search of vintage beauty and charming curiosities. “It’s a big hobby,” Dena says, “which we pursue anywhere we travel, even as far as Japan.”

A Passionate Painter

Dena’s a true artist, which some define as someone who paints every day, no matter what. “Oh, I do,” she says, “I paint pretty much every day for at least one to eight hours.” Water-based gouache is her medium, and she paints on watercolor paper. Her designs go from there to fabric. “Some of the geometrics are computer-generated,” she explains, “but even they start with a sketch, a design I make.”

And embellish. The author of a book Embellish Your Home (Sterling 2006), Dena has a flair for finding just the right contrast, the right ribbon or flounce or appliqué to take her creations to a new level. She has a great time doing it. “I love fabrics and patterns, and I always have,” she says. As a kid, she was a passionate dollhouse builder, making all the furniture, doll clothes and houses by hand after school. She loved to combine florals and geometrics and made wild, original projects all the time. “I can sew a straight seam,” Dena says now, “but it’s not my forte.”

That would be design. “Dena’s designs are fanciful, yet strong, and include black as well as pastels.”

A Fresh Take

Quilting today is not what it used to be, although many quilters adore the old-fashioned look. “There’s a modern, fresh take on patterns and fabrics,” Dena says, “that adds whole new dimension.” Quilting is an important part of home decoration, not just covering beds. “It’s mixing and matching, letting your imagination run free. It has to be fun.”

“I am so not into perfection,” Dena says. “The fun is the process.” She likes her products to have a hand-made look. “It should say, ‘this is lovingly made by hand.

For more information:
Dena Designs:
Free Spirit Fabric: