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Interview with Katja Ollendorff

by Margaret Penney | October 14, 2016

Katja Ollendorff is a prolific pattern designer based out of San Francisco. She creates colorful and fresh designs inspired by a global cultural perspective. She has worked with clients like J Crew and Rachel Zoe and is an active contributor to the online design community. Her Pinterest page has a half million followers. We wanted to learn more about this talented designer, so we asked her a few questions.


Katja Ollendorff

Katja Ollendorff

So you grew up living and traveling abroad and on the east coast? Has this contributed to you being a creative today? And if so, in what way has it shaped your interest in the arts and pattern design?

Yes, growing up the daughter of a Foreign Service officer meant lots of moving and traveling around. At a younger age I lived in Germany, Finland, and France and was exposed to a lot of art, dance, and traditional folk cultures in each of those places. I discovered a love for Marimekko design when I lived in Helsinki—little did I know then, but my Mom was dressing me in some pretty cool outfits. I really responded to those bright vibrant shapes and colors and still do to this day.

I always felt like a real “city girl” growing up—having only lived in major cities like Frankfurt, Paris, New York, D.C., and Boston. Each place contributed an endless amount of inspiration for me artistically. I walked everywhere (and when you live in places like those, you really see a lot). I was forever curious and constantly sought out new places and things to do and see. I guess you’d say that curiosity about the world and my love of travel has stayed with me now and will always be a big source of inspiration.

Once I moved to San Francisco, I added more nature into my life. I think I was craving that, and now I appreciate it so much. I and am very much influenced by my walks around the endless trails and beaches we have in SF and the surrounding Bay Area.

Tilly, Row of Leaves and Mona. Pattern design by Katja Ollendorff.

Tilly, Row of Leaves and Mona. Pattern design by Katja Ollendorff.

Can you tell us a little about how you got to where you are now? I saw that you started out in advertising, did you work as a designer in advertising? How was it to segue from advertising to textile design? How did you know you wanted to make the switch?

I did work in advertising for a long time but not as a creative. I was a Project Manager so I worked closely with all groups in the agency—from account service, to the studio, creative teams and production. It gave me great insight into the workings of a creative job from every angle. I got to look over the shoulder of great designers and learned a ton just by observing and absorbing what they were doing.

I never felt fully satisfied though because I knew I wanted to be that person doing the creating. That’s when I started taking a night class in Berkeley for surface pattern design. I made a big effort to drive across the Bay Bridge every Wednesday evening after work, for 3 years.

We were taught everything from the most basic cut & paste layout with tracing paper to using a hybrid of hand drawn and CAD techniques. Weekends were spent going to all day painting workshops and those were great. We used a variety of mediums and learned to paint everything from a gouache dry brush or a realistic watercolor to a loose floral. I think learning everything was important because then you could really see what resonated with you the most.

It sounds like a lot, but I enjoyed it so much and learned so much it flew by.

How would you define your visual style?

I am most drawn to bright colors, so my work tends to be very vibrant. I feel my designs are modern with folk undertones and even though I like to experiment with different mediums, I think my underlying style always comes through.

What are you inspired by? Where do you go for inspiration? Color, geographic regions, art movements, and so on?

I get very inspired walking in nature. I also love perusing used book stores for textile books and going to the library and just letting myself get lost in the art and textile sections. Things always pop out at me when I just let myself be curious. I always get inspired most when I’m not looking for something specific.

I also refer back to my many Pinterest boards if I’m stuck, and just look at the favorite things that I’ve collected. I’ve collected them for a reason—whether it be an interesting color palette or inspiring folk design detail— and using those images as a jumping off point always helps.

In the Field, Jungle Life and Mountains. Pattern design by Katja Ollendorff.

In the Field, Jungle Life and Mountains. Pattern design by Katja Ollendorff.

How important do you think it is for creatives to develop their knowledge of visual culture?

I think it’s very important. Going to places like museums, photography exhibits or art shows is so informative and good for the creative soul. It enhances your way of seeing things when you can appreciate how someone else sees things. It makes you look harder and see more. By appreciating other art and seeing a multitude of styles, you allow your own personal aesthetic to grow from within.

What advice would you give to a designer just starting out in pattern and textile design?

Education is important. Take time to hone your skills and learn the best way, not necessarily the fastest way. Finding a support system in your field is paramount. I am part of the Surface Pattern Design Guild, for example. It was started here in SF by a group of friends of mine from my class and has grown into an international hub for surface pattern designers. Lots of great information and support there.

I think networking and collaborating with people helps grow your circle, both creatively and professionally. And don’t be afraid to shoot an email to someone you admire and see if they’ll answer some questions for you. Join a common interest group whether in person or online—there are so many wonderful resources like Facebook groups, online courses, and tutorials online now. Take advantage of those.

I would also say don’t judge, be curious and appreciate all the art around you. Not everyone will like the same thing. How boring would that be! And try not to look at what your neighbor is doing too much and just do you. Let go of that artist ego and be confident in your uniqueness.

Can you tell us a little about your process? Do you work with pen and pencil, what apps are useful?

I work in a variety of mediums as I like to mix things up and keep pushing the boundaries, but I most often draw in my sketchbook with black pen and ink. I use a variety of pens with varying size tips and that make for easy scan in and clean up. I also really love vibrant inks like Dr PH Martin.

I often create several motifs in one sitting, scan them all into my computer, and just start playing and laying things out. Color comes last for me because I let the design tell me what it wants to be.

What has been your most favorite project so far, and why?

I absolutely loved working with the Turkish company Vivense in Istanbul. They purchased several of my collections that are now available on home decor items. It was great to see that working globally is an easy possibility. We seamlessly communicated via Skype or email and sent files back and forth on Dropbox without a hitch. They are lovely people and I enjoy seeing what they are doing with my designs.

What’s happening now at your studio? What new projects are on the horizon?

I’m forever putting my work out there, contacting people, networking on LinkedIn. (You have to do the work. Don’t expect it to come to you. If you are passionate and persistent you can make things happen.)

I’m currently talking with a few different companies about future projects. One is a high-end home decor company based in NYC that needs freelance help with bedding designs and another is helping to create artwork for a group of regional hospitals. Because I’m in the preliminary stages of both, I don’t know which way things will go. I can be excited about the possibility, but it could all fall through tomorrow. I just try to stay positive and be prepared for whatever comes.

My winning mural is also going up on the outside of the Minted headquarters building in November and I’m thrilled about that as well.

Happy Designing!

To see more of Katja’s work visit her website at, her Pinterest boards and her Instagram feeds here and here.


Margaret Penney is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Margaret is a teacher, designer, writer and new media artist and founder of Hello Creative Co.


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