Exhibition Archives: Designing Women: Post-war British Textiles

The art of textile design radically changed after World War II. Women artists working in England in the 1950s were pivotal in this artistic revolution. The drab days of the War were suddenly washed with the light of the fresh, progressive designs by Lucienne Day (1917-2010), Marian Mahler (1911-1983) and Jacqueline Groag (1903-1985). Original artist designs with bold abstract patterns, inspired by Modern artists like Alexander Calder and Joan Miró, as well as the use of dramatic saturated color marked a dramatic departure from England’s conventional notions of interior fabric design; the much more traditional look of floral chintz and naturalistic forms.

Of the three artists, Lucienne Day is the most noteworthy, having changed the direction of furnishing fabrics with her 1951 design, Calyx. The revolutionary design, introduced at the Festival of Britain, captured the spirit of the era and subsequently received the coveted International Design Award of the American Institute of Decorators. The mid-century pursuit of fresh and provocative designs is also reflected in the work of three additional designers, also included in this exhibition, who produced popular textiles of the period, Paulé Vezelay, Mary Warren and Mary White.

Designing Women: Post-war British Textiles showcases the stunning geometric and abstract designs of leading female designers with furnishing fabrics, hand-towels, and dishware in varied sizes and colors.

Exhibit curator Shanna Shelby draws from the Denver collection of Jill A Wiltse and H Kirk Brown III, whose passion for this unique area of design showcases rare and hard-to-find patterns and covers a comprehensive selection of modernist British textiles.

Lucienne Day (1917-2010)

Lucienne Day was one of Britain’s most prolific and successful female designers, best known for designing bold, avant-garde designs to be printed on furnishing fabrics. Day designed in a variety of media including wallpapers, carpets and ceramics but her fondness for fabric was seeded while studying at Croydon School of Art (1934-7) and rooted while specialising in printed textiles at the Royal College of Art (1937-1940). Day’s commercial success began with her groundbreaking fabric Calyx, printed in 1951.

Initially Heal Fabrics, Day’s principal client, was sceptical about Calyx’s ultramodern design, but decided to take a chance with the young designer’s refreshing and innovative ideas. This proved to be an astute and profitable decision for the manufacturer, as Day soon became a prominent figure in a new era of British design and was one of the first textile designers to be named on the print itself. Day’s strengths as a textile designer stem from her sophisticated color choices, stylised references to nature, abstract forms, and intriguing patterns inspired by Modernist painters. A gifted colourist, Day worked closely with Heal’s to ensure that her vision was properly executed in each colourway version of the final product.

This exhibition includes a selection of Day’s design style over the decades, from the playful linearity of her patterns in the early 1950s, to her experimentation with bold visual effects using black silk-screen patterns over fields of color in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, and finally her dynamic Pop style of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Lucienne Day’s career was and continues to be unparalleled.

Jacqueline Groag (1903-1985)

Jacqueline Groag was one of the most versatile female designers in Britain after World War II. Born in Czechoslovakia, Groag emigrated from Vienna to London in 1939 after studying with the Wiener Werkstätte, a workshop that focused on high quality design, both functional and aesthetically harmonious. Groag adopted these values of “good design” and developed her own style through drawings and collages. This exhibit provides an opportunity to view the original works on paper alongside the final textile pieces.

Groag’s design work for a variety of firms throughout the world produced an array of products, including furnishing textiles, dress fabrics, furniture, wallpaper, and carpets. In addition to working with some of the foremost textile manufacturers and retailers of the era, including John Lewis, Associated American Artists, and David Whitehead Ltd., she also produced laminated surface designs for companies like British Oversees Airways Corporation (BOAC). Jacqueline Groag’s ability to create skilful and aesthetically outstanding designs for multiple disciplines distinguishes her as one of the key designers in mid-century Britain.

Marian Mahler (1911-1983)

A native of Austria, Marian Mahler studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule (Arts and Crafts School) in Vienna from 1929 to 1932 and then at the Royal State Academy. Her emigration to Britain in 1937 provided her the opportunities to work with a number of textile manufacturers. In the early 1950s Mahler’s combined artistry as both an illustrator and a textile designer captured the attention of John Murray, Director of Furnishing Fabrics for leading textile manufacturer David Whitehead Ltd. Murray was given the mandate to reinvigorate the company by producing affordable textiles with good design. John Murray recognised in Mahler a unique vision that he believed would appeal to the younger generation of the time. Murray was proved right and the designs became remarkably popular with the younger yet sophisticated clientele who were looking to create a stylish home. Mahler’s furnishing fabrics were produced in either rayon or cotton, and the roller printing process made them quick to produce and affordable.

The textiles presented in this exhibit are all exclusive designs for David Whitehead Ltd. and are Mahler’s best-known works. The delicate, whimsical figures and modern abstract forms of Marian Mahler’s designs all have a beautiful graphic quality that elevate these fabrics to elegant textile art.

Paule Vézelay (1892-1984)

Paule Vézelay, born Marjorie Watson-Williams, is known primarily as a painter in Britain. She is widely credited to be the first female artist to paint in what she referred to as ‘pure abstraction’. She began as figurative painter in the 1920s before becoming an abstract artist. Her influential career led her to become a member of the international abstract group Abstraction-Création from 1934 and the leader of the British arm of the Group Espace in 1953. Her visual style also links to the surrealism of artists like Jean Arp and Andre Masson with floating shapes and partially biomorphic forms.

In the 1950s Vézelay created textile designs for Heal Fabrics which reflect her work as a painter. These fabrics, with their distinctive forms against large amounts of negative space, feel surprisingly contemporary.

Mary White (b. 1930), Mary Warren

Mary White, born 1930 in Kent, trained at the Canterbury School of Arts & Crafts and received the National Diploma in Design (Fabric Printing) at nineteen years of age in 1949. She went on to teach while pursuing her career as a freelance textile designer. Her designs were produced and sold in Liberty’s and Heal Fabrics. Heal’s produced one of her most successful designs, Cottage Garden. Her work was influenced by the naturalistic patterns of William Morris and the flowers and fields of her childhood.

Whilst many of Mary Warren’s designs are in important textile collections little is known of the designer herself. The fabrics on display demonstrate the skill with which she worked; the fluency and elegance of her modernist designs create a sophisticated style that represented the successful style produced by companies such as Heal’s.

Festival of Britain

Britain suffered devastating physical and emotional damage during World War II, and when the war ended Britons needed rejuvenation and hope for the future as they began the daunting task of rebuilding. The Festival of Britain, a massive exposition that travelled to cities across the country in 1951, aimed to instill a feeling of recovery and progress in Britons and to promote good design in their reconstruction efforts. Heralded as “a tonic for a nation”, the Festival presented a variety of exhibitions that celebrated the past and present achievements of the British people in the arts, science and industry.

With over 18 million visitors, the Festival helped popularise a new, modern aesthetic in British design. The Festival of Britain provided an ideal showcase for the work of Lucienne and Robin Day, who emerged as the nation’s two leading designers through their participation.

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.

2 thoughts on “Exhibition Archives: Designing Women: Post-war British Textiles

  1. I’m really loving seeing the exhibitions I didn’t get to see at the time. Keep up the good work.
    This one particularly reminded my of my childhood in the 50s. I’m sure we had some of those fabrics in our house. Pity they got thrown out!!


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