The two things you are most likely to find in Susan Hable Smith's hands are a paintbrush and a pair of garden clippers. Peek behind the scenes at her backyard studio where the creative dynamo behind Hable Construction wields them both.

By Oma Blaise Ford; Photos by Rinne Allen

Susan and her sister, Katharine Hable Sweeney, started their textile design company in 1999, and they have been growing and expanding the business ever since. Susan's designs are seen not only in their core Hable Construction products, but also in collaborations with companies like Garnet Hill and Hickory Chair, and in her own fine artwork.

What's the story behind your studio building?

The studio is an old Mill Village house that I moved from Eatonton, Georgia, about 50 miles away. I was able to buy two of these houses from a village of them that were being sold off, so that I could salvage pieces from one in order to restore the other and make it a really solid house. It's just so charming and I love working in it.

What has been the biggest benefit of moving from New York to Athens?

The quiet and the space. I didn't have the space (physical or mental) in New York to paint.

How has your work changed since making the move?

I always subconsciously leaned toward painting botanicals, but I never made the full connection until I moved to Athens and started gardening. There are always categories when you're putting together a fabric collection and there's always been a botanical category for Hable Construction, but I've been able to do some richer things through the freeing process of working on my own fine art and having the luxury to plant things in the garden that I'm thinking about for my art.

Your artwork and the fabric patterns aren't photo-realistic, they're stylized. What's your process?

I paint literally, but I also step away and paint from my memory. Really, it's about simplifying for me -- the line work. When I step away from the literal, I rely on the line, and the negative space is just as important. The line work is core to the Hable patterns. My hand simplifies the form, and there's a quietness to the way I do it. The line is whimsical in its own way -- free-form -- and I think that makes it approachable. 

Besides your own garden, where else do you find inspiration?

My mother also gardens, and she actually travels with a flower press in her car and will press natural elements for me. It flattens things; it transforms them into two dimensions and changes the form. I can see them in the fabric that way. And then I like to make the scale really large -- that's my instinct.

What does a typical day at "Hableland" look like?

No day is exactly like another. It's never the same, and I love that about what I do. I have employees who come in to the studio, and everyone specializes in something specific, so there's a good ebb and flow between meetings and quiet work. I have a flexible, flowing approach to my schedule. Everything just gets dropped in, in a natural way.

With all the different projects you're working on, how do you keep them organized?

I have to put projects where I can see them -- I'm very visual. So I lay out work in distinct areas on the big worktables, and my bulletin boards get cleaned off a lot and dedicated to specific projects. Everything has to be visual for me, and I surround myself with what I need to think about, or else I might forget something.

What have you learned from running a successful creative business for 17 years?

One thing about being in business for a while is that the ebbs and flows come and go, and you just have to keep moving. The business is a lot like a garden in that way -- it changes and you have to adapt and pull things in and out and not try to keep everything the same. The more rigid you are, the worse shape you'll be in. For me, allowing the flex and flow -- not pushing so hard against a strict idea of the schedule or to-dos -- really helps with the stress of life. 


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