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The Vintage Guide To London | February 24, 2018

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Designing Women Review

Estella Shardlow is deputy editor of Vintage Seekers, the premium online platform curating a heritage lifestyle. In a regular Vintage Seekers column Estella reports on high-end vintage events and news. This time, she takes a closer at the Designing Women exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum.

Hard to imagine it now, but when Lucienne Day’s ‘Calyx’ – this innocuous blue square of linen printed with stylised plants – premiered at the 1951 Festival of Britain it majorly changed the face of British product design. In a nation recovering from the shadow of World War Two, established British manufacturers turned to a crop of female textile designers to reinvigorate their brands. These bright young things breathed life into British interiors and offered a “tonic for the nation” in a country of smog and rationing. Out with the chintz and drab palette, in with abstract patterns in vibrant colourways.

Heals & Sons were tentative about commissioning Calyx, fearing it was too avant-garde for the masses. They soon snapped up a further three designs from Day, however, when the prints proved a runaway success. It was the start of a collaboration that would span 20 years. At around the same time, John Murray, the enterprising Director at David Whitehead Ltd, spotted the talent of a young illustrator, Marian Mahler, and gave her the mandate to revive their home furnishings.

Day is the most famous of the women featured in the Fashion and Textile Museum’s new exhibition, who with her husband Robin formed Britain’s ‘It’ design couple of the Fifties. The other major players were Jacqueline Groag and Marion Mahler (although most of their work was done in the UK, they are of Czech and Austrian nationality respectively), along with Paule Vézelay, Mary Warren and Mary White. Not a huge pool of talent, then, but thanks to their fruitful collaborations with major companies, like John Lewis, Liberty, Rosenthal and Edinburgh Weavers, their output was prolific.

On first impression they seem a homogenous bunch; the exhibits are all rippling geometric pattern and bright, matte colour. But look closer and personal stylistic deviations come to light. Groag trained at the Wiener Werkstätte, the esteemed Viennese workshop, and there is a ghost of its most famous alumnus, Gustav Klimt, in her gilded collages and mosaic-like, molecular forms. Mahler’s background as an illustrator informs the graphic, whimsical quality of her designs, which are generally more figurative than the others’. As a painter, Vezelay was closely involved international abstract art groups and her designs exhibit the same enigmatic, biomorphic quality as those of her Surrealist contemporaries, Jean Arp and Andre Masson.

The influence of Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism, the art movements du jour, is indeed striking in the swathes of multi-coloured cloth on display. Day was vocal about the influence of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró on her work: “I was very interested in modern painting, although I didn’t want to be a painter. I put my inspiration from painting into my textiles.” Furthermore, as if in testament to her blurring of the fine art/textile borders, she was the first textile designer to have her name printed on the fabrics for sale.

Buy a Lucienne Day china set or Mary Warren tablecloth and one was able to bring modern art into the home at a fraction of the price. Like the Arts & Crafts movement a century before, these female designers were able to bring the transformative power of art into the home through beautifully designed, functional materials, from curtains and carpets to plates and wallpaper. Roller-printed on rayon and cotton, the elegant, contemporary fabrics were quick and affordable to make – perfect for stylish young couples setting up home. Along with the furniture of Ernest Race and Gordon Russell, it was all about the democratisation of good design and breaking from pre-war tradition.

The upheaval was palpable at the time, with Ambassador magazine writing in 1952: “The still, objective sight of the cluttered up and immobile Victorian room has given place to light and air, grace and pace.” For the women who pioneered this transformation, this exhibition is a timely appraisal