Brenda Winstead calls the clothing design business she runs in her Logan Circle town house "Damali." That was a beloved daughter's middle name, and according to the African naming book where Winstead found it, it means beautiful vision in Swahili. The vision in her living room, especially after a show, is a bit unusual: Racks of shapely, earth-toned clothes jut in front of dramatic African art pieces; a bolt of copper-stitched violet organza shares a sofa with sheets of cerise tissue; a screen luxuriously draped with ivory-and-coffee mud cloth rises from a fabric-piled floor to a curving, jagged, fantastically shaped crown. The room is a rich, evocative, many-layered, aesthetically satisfying jumble.
Winstead's designs, crafted mainly from hand-loomed African fabrics that range in hue from dark and smoky to a sudden persimmon, tend to dominate the scene. Then you notice all the cloth that hasn't been turned into anything yet, that's just been bunched and spread around and hung in big pieces for its own sake.
In the entryway, a wooden column is temporarily swathed in a dusky length of cloth, brightly tie-dyed. "Sometimes I have to put it up and walk past it," says Winstead. "Then I'll say, `Oh, I know what to do with this.' " And if she doesn't know what to do with something -- say, an odd-shaped strip of mud cloth -- well, what are walls for? The piece, made to curve even more with a few extra tucks, now angles up a deep rose wall in the kitchen.
The living room functions as an informal showroom. Most of Winstead's art collection is here, too, playing off her designs: A tall, dramatic mask, framed in cascades of raffia, wears a scarf of intricately stitched Kuba cloth. Above a mantel full of graceful figures hangs an amber-toned portrait of Winstead and the daughter in whose memory she named the business. It was painted by the same artist who streaked a nearby dress with gold.
The heart of Winstead's operation is her second-floor studio: two rooms full of cutting tables, bolt-laden shelves and crisp white patterns flaring from the walls. Machines called sergers are used to run up the decorative external seams that characterize Winstead's pieced designs. She adopted this technique as a way of evening out and embellishing sewn-together pieces of handwoven fabric.
Although these rooms are crowded with the stuff of work, their purpose is design, not manufacture. Here, pieces of dresses and jackets are cut and "staged" -- arranged together -- by Winstead and her assistant before being sent out for final construction. At one window, a gauzy square of black seems to float over the Venetian blinds -- a lovely solution to glare. "We're here," says Winstead. "We spend all this time here and we want it to be beautiful."
After almost 10 years of the look she calls "Damali everywhere," Winstead is ready for some changes. She has plans to move the studio to the basement, now used only for guests. The office, which takes up part of the designer's skylit, high-ceilinged third-floor bedroom, will occupy the studio area. She talks about having some personal space, getting her living room back.
However the house is reorganized, it will likely remain -- from the pastel-streaked tiles in the kitchen to the doll collection in the bedroom -- a source and expression of creativity. In that sense, Damali will still be everywhere.