Wednesday 21 March 2012

Art-iculate: Designing Women, post-war British textiles

Last week I visited the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey to view the new exhibition, Designing Women: post-war British textiles.
At the forefront of international textile design during the 1950s and 1960s three women in particular spearheaded a movement seeing art combine with manufacturing to revolutionise the landscape of the design industry as we know it today; Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag and Marian Mahler.
With the bulk of the exhibition space devoted to these three inspirational and ground-breaking women I was in textile and female trailblazer heaven. Renowned for their fresh and provocative designs, recognisable by bold pattern and saturated colour, this new wave of bold textile designers helped to bring the influences of the art world, in refreshing and largely abstract forms, into the contemporary home on a mass scale.
By partnering with progressive textile manufacturers and wholesale firms (like Heal’s + Son and David Whitehead Ltd), Day, Groag and Mahler were central in maintaining Britain’s preeminent position in textile design. The introduction of new technologies juxtaposed with inventive design helped these companies transform the home furnishing market by inspiring new product lines that are elegant yet artistic, and most importantly affordable.
Leaving a lasting impression on the state of contemporary domestic interiors in the UK, the legacy of Day in particular is staggering. Widely regarded as one of the most prolific British textile designers of the last century, I remember being at school, studying textiles for GCSE and not realising for quite some time that the imminent Lucienne Day was in fact a woman (something I look back on now as a good thing – her gender didn’t detract from her ability).
Day ('Calyx' pictured left)
Perhaps Day’s most recognisable work, which propelled her signature style into the global consciousness as a bold example of British avant-garde is ‘Calyx’, which was presented at the 1951 Festival of Britain. A milestone in 20th Century design, ‘Calyx’ in particular heralded a turning point in textile production, fusing fine art and fabric for the first time on a grand scale.

Of her work Day said: “I was very interested in modern painting, although I did not want to be a painter. I put my inspiration from painting into my textiles”.

‘Calyx’ was so well received at home and abroad that it went on to embody the period of innovation in British textile design, and became something war-weary Britons could take as a symbol for a bright optimistic future.

Specialising in home furnishings such as wallpaper, carpets and ceramics, Day worked extensively with Heal’s for decades and they are still to this day the go-to manufacturer for consumers looking to incorporate (retro) contemporary design elements into their interior décor.
Another fantastic designer of this era is Marian Mahler who made the use of roller-painting processes mainstream, enabling print designs to be produced quickly on rayon and cotton. Deftly combining the artistry of illustration with the technicalities of textile design in the early 1950s, Austrian-born Mahler created delicate, whimsical figures and modern abstract forms, which each have a beautiful graphic quality that elevates the resulting prints from mere fabrics to elegant textile art.
With a knack for creating affordable textiles with good, sophisticated design, Mahler was snapped up by manufacturer David Whitehead LTD, whom she designed exclusively for over several years, utilising domestic objects in a consciously modern way.
One of my favourite textile prints on display in Designing Women: post-war British textiles is Mahler’s 1952 design ‘Untitled (mobiles)’. Inspired by modernist painters and sculptors this textile reflects Mahler’s affinity to my favourite abstract artist Alexander Calder. Geometric shapes are arranged in rhythmical patterns to create an avant-garde fabric that can enliven any modern interior.
Last but not least, the third designer currently under the spotlight at the Fashion and Textile Museum is Jacqueline Groag who worked across multiple design disciplines from furnishing textiles and dress fabric to wallpaper and carpets.
Highly regarded for introducing a new genre of abstract, often whimsical patterns that appealed to consumers eager to abandon wartime austerity and strictures, before moving to London in 1939 Groag worked in Paris creating dress fabrics for revered brands such as Chanel.
Other revolutionary textile artists exhibited are Paule Vézelay, Mary Warren and Mary White.
Paule Vézelay started out as a figurative painter in the 1920s before working as an abstract artist, and became the first female British artist to refer to her work as ‘pure abstraction’. Inspired by surrealist artists such as Jean Arp and Andre Masson, Vézelay’s work frequently features floating shapes and partially biomorphic forms.
Influenced by the naturalistic patterns of William Morris and the flowers and fields of her childhood, Mary White produced stunning textile designs for Liberty’s and Heal’s. Unfortunately not much is documented about the life of Mary Warren; however her ground-breaking textile designs became synonymous with the elegance and fluency of manufacturers such as Heal’s.
Whatever you do and wherever you’re going this spring, Designing Women: post-war British textiles is a must-see exhibition that everyone who has an interest in design, interiors, fashion and British industry at large should explore.

Designing Women: post-war British textiles is showing until 16th June.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely - I particularly liked the Paule Vezelay prints - so bold and uncompromising. Should you be interested I've written a bit more here: