Art Culture

Mary Lydia Ryan: Creative Artistic Baggage 2021

| July 25, 2021 | 0 Comments
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Mary Lydia Ryan

Mary Lydia Ryan: Don’t judge a purse by its cover.  No, that’s not a typo; we are talking about purses here…and book covers.  It should be no surprise that the most well-read city in the nation is home to a designer who managed to turn books into handbags.  Mary Lydia Ryan a Seattleite for the past 19 years has inventively created a brand new type of purse as well as a new form of functional art.

Mary was working a corporate job, one she was looking for a way out of, when a friend of hers bought a used bookstore.  He asked if she thought she could do anything with the old books that had become too damaged, yellowed, and aged to keep.  He jokingly suggested that she could make purses out of the books and the creative idea behind Mary Lydia Ryan purses was born.  She began to take the books home, creating an inventory base that now overflows from underneath her bed into a full storage locker downtown.  In late 2006, after creating the first models and finding that they needed some work, Mary partnered with fellow local artist Gary Parker to improve the designs.  They added Kristen Bonnalie to the team as their seamstress and the trio began to produce a collection of purses, clutches, and billfolds.  In the summer of 2007, the collection was officially launched and can now be purchased in several boutiques in the Seattle area.  The interest in the bags stretches to Idaho and there have been talks of a carrier in Japan.

It may come as a surprise that the purses were not necessarily designed to fulfill an interest in fashion.  If you ask Mary Lydia Ryan about her original motives in starting the project she will admit that it was purely accidental and that it stemmed from her need to do something creative after simply punching the time-clock for too long.  When I met with Mary Lydia Ryan at Café Luce in the U-District to discuss her work, I asked her how she would compare her purses to the logo-laden bank account-draining designer bags that have waiting lists years long.   She responded, “Well, I’m not a designer. I create them for their artistic value.  There’s a lot of work that goes into them, but I didn’t create the covers.  It’s more of a recycling project and I think that people appreciate them for being usable pieces of art.”

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When asked what her favorite bag design was, Mary Lydia Ryan named covers with the titles The Very Naughty Girl and The Secret Life of Helen of Troy, both pieces that have an obvious tongue in cheek humor to them.  Perhaps this layered intellectualism illuminates why Mary Lydia Ryan named Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham as one actual book that has really affected her.  This book is a selection for an academic reader, to say the least, so I was surprised when Mary Lydia Ryan told me that she would not describe herself as a bibliophile.  Rather, she explained that since starting the purses she has been reading a lot of older books that end up in her hands.  “I’m reading more since I’ve begun the project.  I’m not one to live in the past, but I appreciate the connection to human experiences.  I love the unknown details of these eras gone by and I think that these books from the 20’s and 30’s are relatable and accessible on that human level.”

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Mary Lydia Ryan is a lover of vintage in her books, but also in her sentiments.  One of the reasons that the bags are so unique is that each one is individually made by hand.  One of the ideas important to Mary is the idea of putting time and effort into one’s work.  The bags, to Mary, are reminders of a time when people took pride in their craftsmanship.  “That’s just not a product of our culture anymore,” Mary Lydia Ryan points out, “I’ve debated mass-producing them, of taking them to China, but there’s an appeal to the authenticity of the work that went into the covers and I want to honor that.”  Mary Lydia Ryan does not mass-produce, instead creating each purse in a four-day process of construction.  The pages are removed and the book covers are run under a UV light to kill any allergens or mold, the covers are then refurbished and reinforced.  After that the fabric inserts are measured and created then adhered to the book using a heat process, this is followed by days of drying time.  The inserts are all made of elegant, high-quality silk blends and picked to accentuate the design and coloring of the book cover.  It is a time-consuming process and one that has slowed production for Mary Lydia Ryan since her creative team parted ways a few months ago.  The demand, however, is still high and exposure though her website and through pieces–like in January’s issue of Seattle magazine–seem to show that there is a market for these pieces of wearable art.  A recent Vogue feature highlighted the small pursues, or minaudiéres, made out of seashells by designer Tina Maristela Ocampo proving that Ryan isn’t the only one who sees that recycled art can indeed be high fashion.  As to whether or not she’ll be able to reach the demand Mary Lydia Ryan says: “I’m just going to keep on working.  Things in my life seem to go in cycles and I’m sure I’ll have more time for these soon.”

You can buy Mary’s bags at Harem in Capitol Hill, Frenchy’s in Madison Park, or Bella’s in Ballard.  See a more complete list of stores at

Mary is also a talented singer/songwriter.  Check out her website or go to her show Friday June 27, 2008 at Harem in Capitol Hill.

 Mary Lydia Ryan a Seattleite for the past 19 years has inventively created a brand new type of purse as well as a new form of functional art.

Category: Design

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