Designing Women

Britain was at the vanguard of international textile design in the 1950’s and 60’s and The Fashion and Textile Museum is celebrating the pioneering work of the women who lightened the austere and drab mood occasioned by the war with their modern and fresh designs. Formerly traditional English interiors were floral and naturalistic chintz but suddenly dramatic saturated colour and intriguing patterns came to the fore. Three women in particular had an influential role in this movement of combining art and manufacturing to change the course and art of textile design and were pivotal in the artistic revolution.

The most renowned was Lucienne Day who was regarded as not only the most successful and prolific of the female designers but distinguished for creating bold and avant-garde designs to be printed on furnishing fabrics. Her most famous of which was Calyx, a supremely modern print that was showcased at The Festival of Britain, which was an initiative to instill hope for the future when challenged with the daunting task of rebuilding after the devastation of the war, this design captured the spirit of the era and won a much coveted award. Lucienne’s work was characterised by her inspirations from modernist painters and the abstract forms that resulted from her choice of muse. Another leader of design was Jacqueline Groag whose harmonious and outstanding aesthetics made her an influential figure in transforming the market with elegant and artistic and affordable new product lines. Marian Mahler employed new manufacturing processes with the doctrine of good design and she presented delicate, whimsical figures and understated modern elegant textile art and they quickly become popular with the younger sophisticated clientele in their aspirations to create a stylish home. The mid-century pursuit of crisp and provocative designs is reflected in the work of other popular women designers producing in the same period also on showcase at the exhibition. Paule V├ęzelay well known as a painter and was credited as the first female artist to paint in what she referred to as ‘pure abstraction’ her surrealistic visual style translated well into fabrics. Also Mary White’s work which was sold in Liberty’s is on display as is the skillful work of Mary Warren.

Shanna Shelby, Exhibition Guest Curator, says “The distinct and innovate style of works created by these women is still relevant to contemporary domestic interiors.” Featuring more than 100 works from the comprehensive collection of Jill A Wiltse and H Kirk Brown, also included in the exhibition are twelve unique photographic portraits that explore the image and status of female designers since the 50’s.

Presented by a collaboration between Newham College with University of Brighton, they unite to display the textiles, designs and photographs that reveal the stunning originality and creativity of post-war women designers who hadn’t had many opportunities to contribute hitherto. Walking around the exhibition bedazzled by the brightness and painterly effects of the designs whilst listening to the vintage songs of the epoch, I felt the optimism and charm of that special period in history, for the future, for art and design and for women.

Words: Carly Florentine