Exhibition Archives: Artist Textiles Picasso to Warhol

Introduction: Curtain Up

From the English artist, political theorist and textile designer William Morris onwards, many artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attempted to make their work less elitist and more relevant to the lives of ordinary people. Like Morris, they came to see the concept of design as an appropriate way to achieve this, particularly through industrially manufactured textiles for the mass market. Between 1910 and 1939, many artists, especially members of the Fauvist, Futurist and Constructivist movements, became involved with textile design, which like graphic design and book illustration had a natural correlation with print making and quickly came to be seen, particularly in Britain and America, as a legitimate and important aspect of an artist’s work.

Among those involved at this early period were many distinguished Modernist artists, such as Raoul Dufy and Sonia Delaunay in France, and, in Britain, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, two of the Bloomsbury painters connected with the Omega Workshops, and a little later, the English Constructivist Ben Nicholson. In America the pioneering work of the artist and textile designer Ruth Reeves helped set the pace, and leading textile manufacturers even recruited Modernist photographers of  the stature of Edward Steichen as designers. In Russia the women Constructivists Liubov Popova and Vavara Stepanova revolutionised the design of textiles and mass-produced clothing, the influence of which continues to reverberate today.

Britain, the 1940s: ‘Brave New World’

Throughout the 1940’s the British were in desperate straits: from early on they had to fight for their very existence; later, despite winning the Second World War, they continued to endure considerable deprivation and hardship in an age of austerity. Central to national recovery was the vital export drive, of which the textile trade was an important part. At the beginning of the war the government-sponsored Cotton Board had established its Centre for Colour, Design and Style in Manchester, under the directorship of James Cleveland Belle, who continued to promote British textiles throughout the decade in a series of exhibitions aimed, mainly, at the American market.

Textile designs by artists were an important part of this strategy and many leading British and, a little later, French painters were persuaded to design for various textile manufacturers. Prominent among these was Ascher Ltd, which, in the mid-1940s, commissioned major artists, such as Henry Moore and Henri Matisse, to design a series of head squares and fashion yardage for the recovering couture industry. Similar items designed by the painter Patrick Heron were shown by his father’s company, Cresta Silks, in 1946 at the blockbuster exhibition of British design, Britain Can Make It, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Among other artists whose textile designs were included in the exhibition were Alastair Morton and Graham Sutherland, who subsequently, in the later 1940s, designed textiles for Horrockses Fashions.

America, the 1940s: ‘Surreal Things’

The reasons for the successful engagement of fine artists with textile design in America following the Second World War are many, but reinforcing all was the enormous vitality generated in the triumphant resurgence of American society and culture in the post-war era. An enthusiasm for modernity and new ways of living permeated American society, and nothing showed a commitment to modernity more clearly than an association with modern art. Increasingly, possessing modern art, in whatever form, became seen as a social asset and, other than actually owning an original work of art, the most obvious way to demonstrate an allegiance to fashionable modernity was through the fabric of your clothes or the furnishings of  your home.

Surrealism was probably the most fashionable and popular art movement at the time and Salvador Dalí was considered superior to most other artists. In a canny move the New York textile converter Wesley Simpson, like the Aschers in London, quickly realised the commercial advantage of associating the work of well-known artists with the company’s textiles, and accordingly engaged several to design for him. Prominent among these were Dalí and the Franco-Hungarian painter and graphic designer Marcel Vertes. Dalí also designed for other textile companies in the 1940s, the most outstanding being his work for Schiffer Prints. Two of the most influential twentieth-century American studios for textile design and manufacture were set up in Chicago in the mid-1940s by the painters Ben Rose and Angelo Testa. Their work epitomises American Modernism in the twentieth century, an equivalent in textiles of the furniture of Charles Eames, or of Abstract Expressionist painting.

1940s – 1950s: Horrockses Fashions – ‘Fit For a Queen’

In 1946, the long-established Lancashire cotton goods manufacturer, Horrockses, Crewdson & Company Ltd, set up a fashion subsidiary, mainly for the production of printed cotton frocks. The company shrewdly engaged James Cleveland Belle, Director of the Cotton Board’s Manchester-based design centre, in an advisory capacity, who in turn commissioned the painters Alastair Morton and Graham Sutherland to supply textile designs for the company, and employed the couturier John Tullis as one of its first fashion designers. In the 1950s Horrockses dresses came to epitomise the traditional English cotton summer frock, the company’s high point being when Tullis designed a collection of dresses for the Queen’s coronation tour of the Empire and Commonwealth in 1953–54. Although extremely popular and affordable by all, throughout the decade the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret and other members of the royal family often wore Horrockses dresses, as did many celebrities of the time, such as the prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn.

Britain, the 1950s: ‘Palette and Loom’

Throughout the 1950s many British textile manufacturers, the most prestigious being Edinburgh Weavers, employed talented artists to design for them. Under the directorship of the visionary painter and weaver Alastair Morton, the company translated the designs of many leading artists, from William Scott and Joe Tilson to Victor Vasarely and Marino Marini, into exclusive textiles in a tour de force of print and weave. Aimed at the other end of the social spectrum were the inexpensive printed textiles of David Whitehead Ltd.

A manufacturer with an avowedly populist approach to good design, this go-ahead company produced many easily affordable textiles by artists such as Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi and John Piper. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of artist-designed textiles in the 1950s were a number manufactured by Heal and Son Ltd, the most memorable being the cool abstract designs commissioned from the painter Paule Vézelay.

America, the 1950s: ‘Modern Masters’

The ‘Modern Masters’ project, without doubt the most remarkable collaboration between any American textile company and a group of artists, occurred in the mid-1950s between the New York-based company Fuller Fabrics and some of the most internationally renowned artists of the twentieth century. Central to the project’s success was the strong relationship that developed between Pablo Picasso and the originator of the project, Dan Fuller, owner of Fuller Fabrics.

Picasso had never before agreed to design textiles for any commercial company, having already turned downan offer from Britain’s Zika Ascher in the 1940s. It was almost certainly the success of Fuller’s initial approach to Picasso in 1953 that ensured him a positive response when he was subsequently introduced to acclaimed artists such as Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Marc Chagall and Raoul Dufy’s then recently widowed wife. Fuller’s intention was to produce fashion yardage on a vast scale, which the company planned to sell in the lower price range of $1.50 to $2 a yard, literally ‘Art by the Yard’ for the masses. This was something very close to Picasso’s own political beliefs, which may well have influenced his decision to take part in the project.

Another successful collaboration with artists was that between Reeves Lewenthal’s gallery, Associated American Artists (AAA), and the textile manufacturers Lowenstein and Sons and Riverdale Fabrics, to produce ranges of fashion and furnishing fabrics designed by the artists represented by AAA. The project flourished between 1952 and 1957, with the artists’ designs being extended to coordinated ranges of ceramics and wallpapers.

America, The 1960s: ‘Picasso Unseen’

In the early 1960s, Picasso agreed to design for what were, until now, two almost unknown textile projects, both launched in 1963. The most spectacular of these was between Picasso and the New York-based textile manufacturer, Bloomcraft Fabrics. In the autumn of 1963 the company launched a collection of 11 furnishing fabrics, which were the result of a close collaboration between Picasso and Bloomcraft’s design studio. The designs were taken from a wide spectrum of Picasso’s oeuvre and screen-printed onto a variety of materials in sumptuous colourways. The collection, retailing at approximately $5 a yard, received considerable publicity at its launch, with a well-orchestrated advertising campaign and articles in leading magazines. Picasso’s wry sense of humour was particularly in evidence in a feature in Look, which  announced that the textiles were suitable for ‘every form of interior decoration, except upholstery, by the Maestro’s wishes, Picasso’s may be lent against, not sat on.’ Look,  December 1963.

Probably the most unexpected collaboration was between Picasso and the American skiwear manufacturer, White Stag, for textile designs for a collection of après-skiwear. With his consent and full involvement, a number of Picasso’s designs were adapted for the purpose and produced on various fabrics, from printed corduroy ponchos to PVC-coated rainwear, cotton sweat tops, and even a ‘Hostess Culottes Dress’, all priced between $9 and $30. The collection was kept tightly under wraps, with the code name ‘Project Marvin’, until its launch in June 1963 to great razzamatazz and an announcement in the New York Herald Tribune in the column of the fashion writer Eugenia Sheppard.

The 1960s: ‘Pioneers of Pop’

From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Andy Warhol, the epitome of Pop, worked in New York as an extremely successful graphic designer. His work covered many aspects of applied art and design, including textiles. From as early as 1949, he designed advertisements for textile companies, something he continued throughout the 1950s, but his designs for textiles are only just becoming known. Important among these is a group of food-related ‘Pop’ textiles he designed for his friend Stephen Bruce, proprietor of the legendary New York cafe/restaurant Serendipity 3, who used two of them for a collection of dresses he designed in the early 1960s. Samples of others for Balmoral Looms are in the collection of the Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, as is a length of the textile ‘Bright Butterflies’ for the company Nat Wager. For textile designs for other companies Warhol recycled his favourite motifs throughout a career that effortlessly blurred the borders of fine and applied art.

As with Warhol, in Britain the work of Zandra Rhodes defies the artificial boundaries that are often drawn, somewhat arbitrarily, between fine art, applied art and design. Originally trained as a textile designer at the Royal College of Art, her highly idiosyncratic work draws on an eclectic mix of sources, from commercial advertising to Elizabethan fashion, and North American Indian and Australian aboriginal art. Following her graduation from the RCA in 1964, despite having three of her designs produced by Heal and Son Ltd, she found it almost impossible to sell her extreme ‘Pop’ textiles to the mainstream fashion industry. This experience inspired her to develop her work in a dazzling fusion of fashion and textile design, which has ever since remained the primary vehicle of expression at the core of her art.

America, the 1950s – 1960s: ‘Illustration Into Textiles’

In the 1950s, a particularly sharp, witty and ironic school of satirical illustration evolved in New York, which helped define ‘cool’ in that culturally momentous American decade. Its leading protagonist was the Romanian-born artist, architect and illustrator Saul Steinberg, whose primary vehicle of expression were the pages of The New Yorker magazine. In 1947 a Mr Piazza, proprietor of an upmarket textile and wallpaper manufacturer, Piazza Prints and its  subsidiaries Patterson Fabrics and Harben Papers,  commissioned Steinberg to translate a number of his designs into a series of coordinated textiles and wallpapers for the quality interior decorator market. It proved a highly successful venture, on which Steinberg subsequently capitalised with a series of textile designs for mass-market summer clothing, almost certainly for the chain store J.C. Penny. Steinberg’s successor at Piazza Prints in 1956 was the artist and illustrator John Rombola, who, in his own eccentric, but charming, style, continued the Steinbergian tradition for the company until 1968.

Britain, the 1950s: ‘Painting Into Textiles’

The 1953 exhibition Painting into Textiles was a seminally important milestone in the developing concept of textile design as a bona fide artists’ medium in post-war Britain. A remarkably fruitful collaboration between the leading British export publication, The Ambassador, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (ICA), the exhibition was the concept of the magazine’s proprietors Hans and Elsbeth Juda. Hans felt it essential that the artists showed original works of art rather than finished textile designs, which manufacturers could then use as inspirations for designs or interpret directly as textiles. Many major British artists took part, among them Henry Moore, William Scott, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Eduardo Paolozzi, and leading textile companies such as David Whitehead Ltd, Edinburgh Weavers and Horrockses Fashions brought paintings and designs. The exhibition proved a great success with manufacturers and the public, and brought about a wider appreciation of textile design as an appropriate medium for artistic expression, which added considerably to the prestige of the British textile industry.


We do hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum online. If so, please consider making a donation, to help us continue our work during this difficult time.

Every donation will support us in showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design during our closure, and will assist us in welcoming you back to the Museum, as soon as we are able.

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