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Part 20. Fabrics of the Fifties and Sixties

Part 20 - Fabrics of the Fifties and Sixties

There are three books in my review this time, a catalogue of a recent exhibition, another based on one long gone and a monograph on two influential British designers.

From Atoms to Patterns, Crystal Structure Designs from the 1951 Festival of Britain: The Story of the Festival Pattern Group by Lesley Jackson is the excellent catalogue of the exhibition of the same name held at the Wellcome Collection in London, April - August 2008. In 1946 Dr Helen Megaw, a crystallographer from Birkbeck College had written to the director of the Design Research Unit suggesting they asked wallpaper and fabric designers look at patterns from X-ray crystallography; five years later the Festival Pattern Group asked her to select and collate the crystal structure diagrams to be used in the scheme. She chose well; Perutz (haemoglobin), Kendrew (myoglobin) and Hodgkin (insulin) all became Nobel Prize winners and these molecules formed the basis for designs but not only for dress fabric. Part of their innovation was to use the same designs on such diverse products as furnishing fabrics, tablecloths, silk tie fabrics, leather cloth, carpets, wallpaper, Formica, glass and china. All eighty products are described and illustrated (in colour) in the third chapter (twenty-one pages) of the book as Festival Pattern Group: Catalogue of Manufacturers and Designs. The first chapter, twenty eight pages, describes The Story of the Festival Pattern Group, nicely written and illustrated, the second chapter is a reproduction of The Souvenir Book of Crystal Designs the eighteen page booklet you could have bought at the Festival of Britain in 1951 for 2s 6d “telling the story in colour of the Festival Pattern Group”. As some of the illustrations have already been used there is a slight sense of déjà vu but it is an excellent idea to include it. Chapter Four is three pages of essays: An Introduction to X-ray Crystallography by Dr Helen Megaw, divided as Pattern in Crystallography and Notes on Crystal Structure Diagrams, both written for the intelligent non-scientist. Then in Chapter Five there are twenty-two pages of serious scientific stuff; An A-Z of Crystal Structures and Chapter Six has Crystallographers; The Scientists behind the Designs; three pages of potted biographies of the scientists whose work was used. Four pages of Notes, Bibliographies, Authors Acknowledgements and Picture Credits complete the book.

Please don’t be put off by the science, it is a very readable account of this little-known collaboration of “high science” and designers; a real eye opener.

My second book is Artists’ Textiles in Britain 1945-1970, A Democratic Art by Geoffrey Rayner, Richard Chamberlain and Annamarie Stapleton. The rationale for the book is their quote- “Many artists became involved with textile design which, like graphic design and book illustration, had a natural correlation with printmaking and quickly became seen, particularly in mid century Britain, as a legitimate and important aspect of an artists work.”

So, after a brief Foreword the twelve-page Introduction sets the pre-war scene. The next chapter is The Ascher Project and the 1940, three pages give a brief account of the 1947 exhibition of artwork commissioned for head squares and fashion yardage from such as Henry Moore; the remaining twenty-two pages are coloured illustrations. The second chapter, Painting into Textiles, the 1950s follows the same plan, two pages outlining the background to that exhibition held in 1953 and the next thirty-one pages illustrating the work of Piper, Robert Stewart, Eduardo Paolozzi and Edward Bawden amongst others.
The final chapter, The Sanderson Centenary and the 1960s is similar; a brief outline of the decline of the Modern Movement is followed by thirty-three pages of fabrics and artwork by Piper, again, Zandra Rhodes, Victor Vasarely, Haydon Williams and others.

Nine pages of Biographies follow then two pages of Bibliography and one Index- with text and illustration references helpfully differentiated. This is a well produced book with excellent full colour illustrations, competently captioned but the text is somewhat limited and formal, interesting but not an easy read.

Neither is my next book - Robin and Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Modern Design by Lesley Jackson.

Her text is more readable but this is no lightweight book, it is a well produced and stylish “comprehensive monograph” on their work, textiles from Lucienne and furniture from Robin.

There is a brief Preface with an illustration of Lucienne’s foray into “silk mosaic” (or patchwork) then the book chronologically charts their life. The first chapter is The Thirties and the War Year: School, College and Teaching, subdivided as Robin Day: Early Life in High Wycome, Robin Day: Royal College of Art, Lucienne Day: Early Life in Croyden,  Lucienne Day: Royal College of Art, Robin and Lucienne Day: RCA Diploma Show and Robin and Lucienne Day: Markham Square, with a page or so devoted to each, The next chapter covers The Forties: Fledgling Designers with a similar format, Robin’s work, then Lucienne’s then their partnership. The Festival of Britain follows, then The Fifties: The Triumph of Contempory Design, The Sixties: Geometric Patterns and Architectural Forms, The Seventies and Eighties: Later Careers and The Nineties: Rediscovery. This all takes up one hundred and seventy pages but there are a lot of pictures, most double page spreads have only a half page column of text. The book ends with Chapter Notes, List of Designs: Robin Day (eight pages) Lucienne Day (six pages) Bibliography, Index and Acknowledgements.

The illustrations are excellent-both colour and black and white; it is for this collection of Lucienne’s textiles that I am recommending the book, given what I perceive as the average age of Culcita readers, Robin Day’s contribution may be a study in nostalgia.


From Atoms to Pattern, Crystal Structure Designs from the 1951 Festival of Britain by Lesley Jackson is published by Richard Dennis (2008), ISBN 978 0 9553741 111 at £20.00. You may get this at Blackwells or order it from your local bookshop; Amazon is out-of-stock.

Artists Textiles in Britain 1945-1970 by Geoffrey Rayner, Richard Chamberlain and Annamarie Stapleton is published by the Antique Collector’s Club in association with The Fine Art Society/Target Gallery in 2003 at £19.95, ISBN 1-85149-432-4. This is not listed on their website and Amazon does not have it available. Their used prices are bizarre: £41.94, £49.64 or £132.82. For America they list £120.45 (new) or £110.00 (used). Try your local bookshop.

Robin and Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Modern Design by Lesley Jackson is published by Princeton Architectural Press, New York (2001) ISBN 1-56898-271-2. It was published in England with a different cover and title: Robin and Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Contempory Design by Mitchell Beazley (London) ISBN1840002395.  Amazon have it new for £22.52, others on their site offer it from £20.00 to £40.74.

OTHER BOOK NEWS: Reduced prices.

I saw a small pile of Dorothy Osler’s catalogue North Country Quilts: Legend and Living Traditions reduced to £9.00 in the Bowes Museum shop last week. It was well worth its earlier price, a snip at this, try to get in touch. This was reviewed in Culcita issue 4 (Autumn 2000).

Also I saw Toile de Jouy Printed Textiles in the Classic French Style by Melanie Riffel, Sophie Rouart and Marc Walter published by Thames and Hudson in a London “remainder” bookshop. Again, well worth its full price so it is excellent value at anything less. This was reviewed in Culcita, issue 12 (Autumn 2004).

© Brigid J.Ockelton. 2008

PLEASE NOTE - An indication is given of the availability and market price of the book at the time of writing and may not reflect today's availability and price.