Transcript: Material Women
There’s a relatively recent period of European history that is pretty silent. Everyone knows about the Second World War and the destruction and tyranny it trailed in its wake, but the focus of our remembrance has always been on the conflict itself and what was lost, rather than what happened immediately afterwards. In the years between 1945 and the early 1950s much of Europe was simply sheltering in the mental and physical ruins. People were worn down and although they were at peace, nothing was easy.
These years are fading now from human memory. If you ask my father, who is in his nineties, he says “it was awful, nothing was painted, everything was filthy, the clothes were awful, the food was awful, it was all awful.” Nicola Wood was a child at the time.
Nicola Wood: Of course. I mean, after the deprivation of the world war II, I mean, I didn’t grow up with anything. We never had sweets. I didn’t get toys at Christmas. I had, I had one, one doll and it, it used its face used to get painted. And each year at Christmas and my grandmother would make it a dress or something like that. So we didn’t have we didn’t, we weren’t consumers at all.
Nicola Wood was a teenager in the post war years. Britain was broke, most things she wanted were still rationed and people led difficult, constrained lives, and out of this came a very real hunger – a form of sensory starvation.
Ashley Gray: Now we talk about austerity today, but this generation really, really did know what it was all about. It actually meant that things were not there, you couldn’t obtain things, the aesthetic effect of that was to do with colour and to do with that drab existence, it’s not just because our generation sees this period in black and white. It was a much drabber time and it is interesting when you see exhibitions at the V&A and you look in terms of fashion and all the rest of it, things were darker, things were coarser and what took place after this period of austerity due to the war, and the end of the war and rationing was a generation that was just sort of looking to a more positive horizon, and looking for colour and looking for something different, looking for something to inspire and I think this amazing moment takes place really through the energy and the vigour of what is going on through the art schools . And so it was this wanting to turn away from the drab and the dull to something inspirational.
And that something inspirational turned out to be textiles – some of the most colourful, artistic and beautiful domestic textiles ever created, which because they could be turned out relatively cheaply in large quantities and transformed people’s lives, changing what they wore, what they sat on and how their homes looked.
Welcome to Haptic and Hue’s first series of podcasts, which looks at textiles of all kinds down the centuries and thinks about the role they play in our lives. I’m Jo Andrews and I’m a handweaver and a broadcaster. And before you ask: Haptic means the feel of something and Hue describes the pure spectrum colours.
This podcast tells the story of the mid-century modern textile revolution in Britain in the 1950s and 60s. It looks at why it happened in Britain and not America, Italy, France or Germany, all of which had good textile traditions. And it puts the people into focus who brought this cutting-edge design into ordinary homes. Until this moment design had belonged comprehensively to men, but in this story, for the first time a cohort of women began to dominate a field of professional design and make a commercial success of it: women like Lucienne Day, Marion Mahler, Jacqueline Groag, Althea McNish and Nicola Wood whom we heard from at the start of this podcast.
Ashley Gray: it is these amazing designers, these amazing artists who responded in a more open way to what was happening in Europe and what was happening in the United States, it was almost as if the cork had popped out of the champagne. They didn’t know at the time, of course, that they were at the forefront of cultural change and they were really leading it.
That’s Ashley Gray, an expert in mid-century design textiles. Revolutions don’t just happen by themselves – as Karl Marx and other knew, you need some pre-conditions in place and on the face of it, Britain after the war was a pretty unlikely place for any revolution:
Ashley Gray: It was often said that modernism would arrive in Britain from the Continent and we would sort of look at it, prod it around a bit and wave it goodbye as it headed off to America, so we have this sort of tradition of being unsure of these sort of things.
Britain had seen considerable inward migration before the war, both forced and voluntary. Three of the biggest talents in this revolution all had migrant backgrounds one way or another, and as a result had their eyes and minds much more open to the design waves that had swept Europe.Jacqueline Groag and her husband Jacques – a modernist architect – arrived as refugees in 1939. She was Czech by birth and had been a member of the Wiener Werkstatte, a successful and influential artisans co-operative in Vienna that pre-dated the Bauhaus, but had enthusiastically taken up some of its approach and ideas. Marion Mahler had also been to art school in Vienna and, fleeing Hitler, arrived in Britain in 1937. And Lucienne Day, probably the best recognised, versatile and successful designer of this generation, sounds entirely like an English rose, she was certainly born here, but with the name Desiree Conradi. Her father was a Belgian businessman and she grew up in a cosmopolitan household with an aptitude for languages.
Ashley Gray: Remember also that when one looks at this whole story of textiles, through our position as an island in Europe we gained something extraordinary from the tragedy of the politics of the Continent, so we gained people like Marion Mahler Jacqueline Groag and Zika and Lida Ascher as well, huge names in terms of developing fashion, in terms of developing design, who were forced to leave in many cases, their own countries due to the rise of the Nazis and all the horror that was taking place, and you look at Britain and as is so often the case of those, where we benefitted so much. And it’s a terrible thing to say that it was a benefit, but culturally they brought something totally different to us. And the great thing was over time it pushed open the parameters of the Brit mind if you like, to look at things in a completely different way. And I think you can not over-emphasise the importance of that extraordinary mixture of individuals who had studied at the Bauhaus or been associated with the Bauhaus, or had studied at the leading think tanks of creativity if you like in the art schools on the Continent, and they brought their ideas and they brought their extraordinary vision to this country and we benefitted from that and we still feel that and find that today.
And then there were the Art Schools with solid textile departments that never stopped training students despite the conflict. Some were more conservative than others but there was a critical movement of teachers who had begun to understand that textiles could be something more than simply a commercial product – instead they could be a way to bring art to the people, and in this case directly into their homes. But whatever their aspirations the Art Schools were not bastions of liberty and as a new generation arrived at their doors the schools were horrified to discover that many of them were women with dreams of being painters and sculptors, women like Nicola Wood:
Nicola: I wanted to be a painter. And they automatically, well, first of all, we studied everything. Anatomy, architecture, history of art, history of costume, you name it, life drawing, costume, life, drawing, composition, everything color. It was an amazing, amazing education. So the end of that, you could really do almost anything, but you had to have you had to have a specialty. And so they put me into fashion and even I’ve been drawing and copying fashion drawings. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be a painter. And I asked to be change out of fashion into the textiles, because then the textile school, they were throwing paint around and it was fun. It really looked like fun. So that’s how I got into textiles.
Nicola came from a tough background, she went to Art School at 15 on a full grant and later went on to the Royal College of Art in London, where, like many women of her generation, she found herself dismissed out of hand:
Nicola Wood: However, Roger Nicholson was our professor and I always remember I was in his office for some reason or other. And he said to me, quite casually, it’s pointless teaching women, all they do is leave and get married and have children. And that really upset me. And I can’t blame him on me not having children.
And it still rankles nearly 70 years later:
Nicola Wood: Yeah. I mean, I got so angry with the Roger Nicholson. I didn’t let him know I was angry. Of course you didn’t do that. But for him to say that I was like 24 at the time, I’m just about to go out on my career, you know? I don’t know. Women had to pull up deal a little bit. Unfortunately they did. And I know. And they still, they still are.
She cast an envious eye at her art school contemporary David Hockney:
Nicola Wood: He, well, he was in the painting school, lucky him. I did see him there. He always looked like an accountant because he wore a dark suit, which was rather unusual in those days, but he was unusual in those days.
She wasn’t the only one this happened to. Her contemporary, Barbara Brown, wanted to be a sculptor but she too found herself in the textile department.
Thirty five years earlier, Anni Albers, Gunta Stolz and so many other women had arrived at the supposedly equalitarian Bauhaus in Weimar Germany dreaming of metal work and architecture and had found themselves shunted into the weaving department as a safe destination, away from the men. Albers later wrote “Circumstances held me to threads and they won me over – I learnt to listen to them and speak their language.” Nicola too learnt to speak the language of textiles and accept this calling.
Nicola Wood: But I was so into the textile thing by the end, you know, I was good at it that I just carried on being in textiles. I went into it whole hog. That’s what I was doing. And I did it and I did it. I love doing it because it was, it was almost like painting.
In the 1920 and 30s the women of the Bauhaus had shown that forcing talent into one direction produced unexpected success, this time the female textile designers in 1950s and 60s Britain were the instigators of a movement which comprehensively changed public taste.
Ashley Gray: So there were two elements, the more progressive side that realised that textiles ere a critical part of the overall story of the evolution of art, and there were those who felt, oh you know the sculpture and the painting is for those who really know how to do it and really you are not going to be doing this for long, so you should be doing textiles. Now if that is what was taken place, how wonderful that it was those who were in a way coerced into that area of textiles who found a voice that is more clear, more colourful more impactful in the way that the whole of society then moved on, because they found a way of bringing their work into the home, as many artists particularly contemporaries, modernists who were, you know, a little different and we were a conservative nation in Britain and yet it was the textile designers who brought modernity literally into the homes, the sitting rooms, the lounges and the bedrooms and the kitchens across Britain.
Britain also had intact textile factories with relatively modern production methods. When the war was over firms like Edinburgh Weavers, Morton Sundour, David Whitehead, Heals and Liberty’s could switch back to private production quickly and start commissioning work. They were able to use good, new colourfast dyes, new man-made fabrics and the development of screen printing and roller printing as a commercial processes. This meant designers could bring a more painterly eye to their fabrics and begin to incorporate abstract and modernist ideas for the first time. Here’s Nicola talking about her design process.
Nicola Wood: When I was at Southport, how I got doing abstracts in South port was I had a microscope and a dead bee. And I put the dead baby under the microscope and looks at all the colors and shapes. And, and I, I was just doing paintings of what I saw in the microscope. And they were textile designs, of course, but they were paintings to me and they were incredibly abstract and beautiful. So that was my first inspiration.
These were the building blocks of this very British revolution. A public starved of colour and pattern, a diverse and talented group of textile designers comfortable with modernist ideas and abstract art and a capable and crucially, a functioning set of mills able to execute big orders.
All that was needed now was a little spark to light this fire. And it came in the form of the Festival of Britain in 1951. This was largely held in temporary structures on the South Bank of the Thames in London on bomb sites. Its aim was to look forward and not back so it didn’t include traditional goods, but instead wanted to welcome a new age and show that the country had a future to celebrate.
Lucienne Day knew this would be an ideal showcase for her work and a number of her textile and wallpaper designs were accepted by the committee. At the same time her husband, the furniture designer Robin Day, was asked to put together a number of room settings including a low-cost option. He asked Lucienne to create some cheaper fabric for this, and she came up with what she described as a forward-looking design. She said: “it is not a floral pattern, I tried to give it a sense of growth and although abstract, it is in fact based on a plant.” She took it to the legendary buyer, Tom Worthington at the upmarket London furnishing store, and asked him to put it into production. He took one look at it and said: “it wouldn’t sell a yard”. He only agreed to produce it on condition she accepted half her usual fee. She needed it done for her husband’s room so she said yes. This design, called Calyx is one of the iconic textiles of the 20th Century and contrary to Tom Worthington’s prediction, from the moment it was seen it commanded almost universal admiration. It won awards in Italy and America, and sold by the mile in Britain, across Europe and in the US. It chimed perfectly with the mood of the time. Lucienne Day said later: ‘All the things that went before Calyx were done because I wanted to sell them and because I knew, although modern to some extent, they would be acceptable to my clients. But what I was really interested in – the Bauhaus, painters like Klee, Kandinksy and Miro they gave me heart and made me feel I could do the same sort of thing for textiles.”
Ashley Gray: Lucienne Day stands the test of time because she opens the doorway to so many others who then came through that doorway. From the safe and the attractive and the decorative, leading into the more challenging. And the other thing you find with her which is so important and you find it with a number of the other textile designers, is that they understood that they couldn’t ever be caught frozen in aspic. Their ideas moved with the years and the decades. They were able to develop in an exciting way. And if you look at the textile designers you find it also with the generation that then comes up with Barbara Brown and others, Shirley Craven’s stable also. You find that there was this capturing the essence of the moment and I think that’s the key. You’ve got to be able to capture the essence of the moment and also in a strange way lead it and you see some of these designers. And I think Day did that and also in a later decade Barbara Brown does that as well. Her powerful colours and her use of shapes and block and all of this, they are utterly beautiful, and now of course we look back and so many of these designs are the emblem of the era.
And from that point in 1951, with that one un-regarded and chance design of Lucienne Day’,s this influential movement starts, people want this stuff, its fresh, its bright, its original. Suddenly these young women, who had been directed into textiles as a safe option to keep them occupied for a few years before marriage and maternity, had buyers beating a path to their door, waving money and often barely waiting until they were out of college or the paint was dry on paper. It was heady experience for Nicola and others like her.
Nicola Wood:Yes, it was a dream. It was heaven. I was in heaven. Everybody was wonderful. I loved what I was doing. We will kind of breaking all the rules in a way, in a nice way. We were changing. I don’t think we knew it at the time. We were just, you just doing it. You’re being the time. You don’t, I didn’t think, gosh, I’m in, I’m in the swinging sixties, but everything that happened from mini skirts and Bibas these were all exciting things that we were all involved in and it, it was it was a wonderful, wonderful time.
Her best-selling design was called Vibration:
Nicola Wood: Oh, it’s so exciting. Yes, that’s it. I didn’t realize that vibration would sell eight and a half miles on its first printing, but it felt good. It felt good because that vibration, I lived in Notting Hill gate and I’m plenum Crescent. On my street, I was, there was a house that had my vibration in the window, which gave me quite a thrill. I must say
The colours, the shapes the abstract nature of these designs shine down the years and still seem to us our eyes fresh, crisp and appealing.
Ashley Gray: But what was so lovely about that was it really enabled these innovative designers, and I think of Nicola Wood and the flames that comes out of her textiles from Armada and others, it really allowed the designers themselves to experiment and to push the boundaries out in a way that I think was the opposite to previous generations working in textiles in Britain when there was a certain way of doing it, a more conservative way of doing it. And during that post Festival of Britain period you had this really thrilling excitement of looking to wider horizons, learning from those in this country who had settled here from the Continent and elsewhere but also looking at how things were developing through the abstract expressionists and the like. These were women with great open minds who were prepared to experiment and push the parameters wider, wider still.
Kirk Brown: When I worked in New York, I really wasn’t making much money. And particularly after I left the bank to go to what was my real love, the shipping business. I really wasn’t I life. So, so I was ultimately in New York, after a number of years, I began to look at things that I could, that would enhance the, my life. I looked at antiquarian books, and so, well, no, I don’t really want to have to take it off the shelf to enjoy it. I want to come around the corner and see it. So I think there was that evolution, you know, when you ride the New York subway every day to work, it’s not the most attractive mileu, to be in everyday. So you want to, you want to find something that’s that’s attractive for your, when you come home at night, you want to have something beautiful to look at.
Meet Kirk Brown the third, who in the 1980s and 90s although he didn’t have a lot of money was developing the soul of a collector, a man in search of colour and good design. A chance trip took him and his wife Jill to London where they were shown some 1950s textiles in the Target Gallery:
Kirk Brown: And it, it was not, it was no plan at that point to collect a, make a collection of textiles. But what evolved was is that as time went along, they showed us more and more textiles and we began to collect, collect more and more of them. And we finally realized that we who were these people. And so we began to investigate who they were and principally we were re collecting almost entirely women designed by women at that time. And so we began to find a look into who were these, who are these designers and where did they stand in the sort of cosmology of textile design or just design in general that UK at that time period from the late forties, early fifties sixties, and came to realize that in particular Lucienne Day was so important. And at that point, we, we sort of changed from the randomness of our collecting to really focusing, making a concerted effort, to, to collect in particular for Lucienne Day, at least all of the textiles that we could find. And some of them of course are 50 now, 70 years on. And it are difficult to find at all in any kind of condition level on a good condition. And so that’s that was the catalyst to say, these people are important and we want to collect them. And we then made a concerted effort.
Don’t underestimate what he means when he says a concerted effort: here’s the curator of his collection, Shanna Shelby:
Shanna Shelby: Well, it’s several hundred textiles. And I think that specifically with the designer of designs of Lucienne Day, he and Jill have collected almost every design piece that was that was part of her overall textile designing history. And he even still now will find a very rare piece. And so I would say it’s, it’s almost complete in a way maybe he doesn’t have every single colour way that was printed, but he has a representation of almost all of her designs. And so that’s very impressive. And that’s where that deliberate sort of passion focus to complete the collection really shows up. And I would say the same is true for Jacquelyn Groag’s designs. Years ago he purchased a number of the drawings, collages, preparatory sketches, I would say. And so that was a huge coup to be able to have those as a compliment to the textile designs.
Kirk and Jill have more than 650 mid-century British textiles in their collection, most of which they picked up online or from dealers at very reasonable prices. It’s the world’s largest collection of mid-century textiles in private hands.
Kirk Brown: I have a warehouse here in Denver that they’re rolled all the important textiles or rolled on archival tubes and then wrapped in plastic tied off at the ends. Those are the, the textiles that we have sent for exhibitions and how they’ve come back. That’s how we sent them out. That’s how they’re stored. And we created that storage system. And then other textiles, we have very, some very large flat files where the textiles are spread out. And each of these drawers and between each textile is usually a piece of acid free paper.
And they still make room for just a few of their favourites framed and on their walls at home. Kirk and Jill are generous with their collection and loan pieces out to museums and galleries round the world. Shanna Shelby, Kirk and Jill’s curator says they are popular in the States.
Shanna Shelby: I think that the British passion for design and good quality is something that has always been attractive to Americans. I think American style is in general with design, you know, quicker, dirtier cheaper, if that makes any sense. And I think that the attraction to the British design is based in that desire for high quality, excellent design. And I think that there’s a long history of design industry in England that Americans didn’t really have. And so I think that that training and thoughtfulness and history there is, is what really has drawn Americans to British design.
And slowly over the years the perception of these fabrics has begun to change, the cloth that survives is now seen less as a domestic material and more as a piece of art.
Shanna Shelby: Well, I see them as art because I’ve always appreciated the design quality of them. And so when you, when you look at them in that way, you can really appreciate the, the difficulty that textile design would take. And so being able to take one simple design and use multiple colorways and still be successful is a design issue that no other artist really has to approach, except for maybe, you know, fine art printing, let’s say. So there’s a respect of that, the process, and also the technique and the imagination that it takes to produce a sustained successful textile.
Kirk Brown too sees them as art
Kirk Brown: I, we certainly see them as fine art at this point. And I think, I think there’s kind of a cross, but, well, they certainly have the, the utilitarian side to them is having grace people’s bedspreads or curtains or sofas or whatever they use them for. But I mean, I think they’re, they’re a niche of incredibly important design that don’t, that it depends on what people, th the opinion of the, of the viewer, whether they consider them art or, or simply design. I think that, that they’re there, you know, some of the best designs of, of textiles and designs in general in terms of creativity of designs and for, and I know that, that, there’s, there’s an, I think an evolving appreciation for the, as, as fine art and whether that’s a big witness appreciation or not, I don’t know, but it’s certainly there there’s more and more interest in them. And that, that particular niche and particularly those designers that were so prominent in the post-war period.
An exhibition of these textiles co-curated by Ashley Gray at Messums in Wiltshire earlier this year had a number of pieces for sale. I saw some of them this summer, restored and mounted as art. The colours and the sheer design quality of these magnificent pieces simply knock you in the eye. But are they worth several thousand pounds a piece?
Ashley Gray: Let’s not forget this the textiles were being produced as commercial objects, for sale to be used in the home. At the time they would have been incredibly fashionable for a moment and then things moved on and people redid their homes in a different way. Indeed some of the textiles, particularly by the modernist artists, were quite an acquired taste at the time. 35:28 But now when one finds these, here is a way, at a still affordable to a degree level of bringing modernism into the home. The only other way of doing that, when one looks at the explosion in Modernism at Sothebys and Christies and worldwide, where there is a huge desire for these pieces, the prices are astronomical, but within this particular area, within this particular market of the art world it is still possible today to find a way in. If you love and are inspired by those decades post war, there is still a possibility to start a collection without completely breaking the bank. And it is something different I agree, it is something unusual to see them literally rather than being hung as a textile itself, being hung as fine art. But to my mind, they have earned that right, because they are now the works that are inspiring a new generation of artists and they are important. 3
No one thinks this period of explosive innovation and creativity in textile design will happen again, but Ashley Gray believes textile departments in art schools are still producing good work:
Ashley Gray: I go to the degree shows in London. I went to a degree show, I won’t name the art school, and I went to look in the Art Department, and there was all sorts of conceptual work, strange noises, there was sort of piles of things on the floor, and I felt really dispirited, there was nothing of beauty, nothing ephemeral, nothing really that did anything but irritate one. As I left there was a sign to the textile department . I walked into that textile department and I saw some of the most beautiful things I have seen for a long, long time. Textiles of subtle colours, literally just either framed or floating, or hung beautifully. Beautiful colours, beautiful designs, some drawing on the history of art, and some completely new. Now these are things of unbelievable beauty, and to my mind in the world of today, it is within in the textile departments of our art schools where there is still something beautiful being produced, something innovative being produced and something that can appeal and re-assure and inspire all of us.
So the next time your grandmother or your great aunt tries to foist an old curtain on you, take a closer look, you may have something worth hundreds or thousands of pounds in your hands that draws its inspiration from the great art movements of the last century.
Today we may well think these fabrics beautiful and well-designed, but can we go beyond that and understand what they meant and how they made people feel in the 1950s? How did these textiles speak to the people for whom they were produced? Of peace and home and joy and an end to hardship and the start of better times. Seen in that way these domestic fabrics transcend their purpose and become symbols of intense longing and immense hope for a better world.
This episode of Haptic and Hue was written, narrated edited and produced by me, Jo Andrews. Many thanks to Ashley Grey for his expertise, to Kirk Brown for telling us about his extraordinary collection, to Shanna Shelby for sharing her love of all things material and most of all to Nicola Wood, who contrary to her professor’s dire predictions, did not take the path of marriage and maternity, but did become a painter, as she wanted and has supported herself with her own talent and skill throughout her life.
You can find show notes at hapticandhue.com/listen, where I provide a complete transcript of this podcast and a list of resources and background reading that you might enjoy as well as pictures of some of the women who were part of this story and the designs they produced. You can sign up there to get these podcasts directly into your inbox and have a chance to win the textile related gifts that I give away with each episode. You will also find blogs and other information about textiles and Haptic and Hue there.
Next time, I’ll be focusing on a woman who has spent more than half a century as a maker, designer and teacher. This episode will look at the weaver Janet Phillips and asks what it takes to make a living from something you love doing. Join me in two weeks time for another Episode of Haptic and Hue and thanks for listening.