By Lisa Green
If you look closely — and it helps if you are well versed in the wardrobe of Sesame Street characters — you might find pieces of Miss Piggy’s elegant cocktail dresses in the patchwork of Stephen Rotondaro’s quilts. Rotondaro, who was a costume designer with The Muppets for 25 years, likes to say he sewed his way to seven Emmys. And now he has sewn his way to his own quilt show at Brookside Quiltworks
in Egremont, Mass. The show, which will feature around 50 quilts made over the course of 30 years, opens on Sunday, Oct. 8 and will run through Dec. 21.
So how did an award-winning costume designer, adept at creating a spider costume for The Muppet Christmas movie or — perhaps his most bizarre assignment — a smoking jacket for a brick (yes, a brick), come to embrace the art of quilting?
“My mother died at age 54, and left quilt tops,” says Rotondaro, who by osmosis picked up the sewing gene (he also has a graduate degree in costume design from NYU). “To honor her I finished her work. Then I worked with a quilter at The Muppets. She had a calendar of Amish quilts that inspired my first one.”
Everywhere he’s ever worked — The Jim Henson Company, Sesame Street, Chelsea Editions (a high-end textile manufacturer), Rotondaro collected tiny bits of fabric that were headed for the scrap heap. He also had inherited his mother’s collection of cotton fabrics. All of that collecting accounts for the astonishing play of patterns in his quilts, whether designed in traditional Amish patterns or his own free play of colors and prints. Some of the scraps get used right away; others, like those in one of his hexagon quilts, took years to accumulate.
One of his favorite patterns is called Broken Dishes, a basic quilt pattern constructed entirely of half-square triangles. He’s worked Broken Dishes in versions of monochromes, bright solids, fabrics of the same theme, and random bits and pieces that appeal to him, or have special significance. Rotondaro sews the pieces together by machine, then has the tops and bottom hand quilted, many of them finished by an Amish woman in Ohio.
Despite their artistry, these quilts are not necessarily precious decorations. “Everything I make is very usable,” Rotondaro says, picking up a quilt that hung as his shower curtain when he lived in New York, and a slightly faded set of placemats. “At The Henson Company, as a group we made friendship quilts when somebody had a baby or got married. We made over 30 of them. And now some of those babies are having their own kids. I’ve made a lot of baby gifts.”
Now living in Hillsdale, New York with his husband, an architect (they built a stunning house 12 years ago), Rotondaro, who grew up in California, still contributes to The Muppets wardrobe. He just made a dress for Miss Piggy (or “Piggy,” as he calls her). He made a Broken Dishes quilt for The Muppets TV show (2015-2016), and last year created a quilt (from his own scrap collection) for a talking bed for “Elmo’s World: Sleep." He also recently sewed costumes for “The Happytime Murders,” a feature-length film set to launch next year, making clothing for both the human actors (including Melissa McCarthy) and the puppets (which are not Muppets).
When you have a surfeit of Emmy Awards, you put them on a shelf in your coat closet.
Rotondaro’s quilt production depends on his costume design workload, but he made 12 quilts one winter when he wasn’t working. In spite of creating a collection substantial enough to fill the Brookside Quiltworks barn, working with fabrics and sewing is just what he does, whether it’s for costumes or quilts.
“I don’t consider myself a quilter,” he says. “I just make quilts.”
Stephen Rotondaro Quilt Show
Show Opening Sunday, Oct. 8, noon–3 p.m.
2 Sheffield Rd., Egremont, MA