Unlike many other visual arts, fabric- and surface pattern-artists rarely ascend to the heights of fame as a star painter or sculptor or architect might. Though I suppose if we think about it, most artists in the visual arts are relatively anonymous as a few “star-tists” take up all the oxygen in the collective cultural mindscape.
That said, I love to think about those many industrial and commercial fabric designers toiling away at the big fabric houses. They made the designs, colors, shapes, and motifs that defined interior design eras. We lived, and continue to live, ensconced in their visions and art.
Whenever I come across the name of a 20th century fabric designer on my vintage fabrics, such as if the name happens to make it to the selvage, I furiously research and research to see what else I can learn about them.
- Who did they work for?
- Where did they study?
- Who influenced them?
- What are they known for?
And trust me, the nuggets of insight are few and far between.
Individual fabric designers are rarely covered in the archives of the great houses or introduced to the public. This is sad, tragic even, as these people gave personality and flair to homes across the world.
As a side note, what’s even sadder is that increasingly the big fabric houses are now leaving the dates, titles, collections, brands, and maker-names off of most of today’s pieces. It wasn’t this way in the 20th century, where a trove of information is often available, or at least hints which can frame research more easily. That shortsighted lack today is setting the future up for a huge gap of insight into 21st century fabric and surface pattern design documentation.
But that lament aside, here’s a glance at some of the biggest fabric design names, names almost everyone paying attention to the fabric design space would be aware of.
The ones I’ve picked here may also have been gallery artists, but I’m highlighting those who achieved “commercial success” for their wide reach in manufacturing and distribution into everyday goods. Mainly I’m doing this because obviously I can’t cover in a blog post ALL of the gallery-based textile artists of the past. Secondly, since we curate and sell mostly fabric for practical uses, and only a little bit of strictly “art” fabrics, I’m sticking to my knitting here.
Another time I’ll offer a list of some of the more obscure but equally notable (in my mind) fabric designers of the past 150 years. They’re out there and they’re amazing!
Most folks know William Morris as one of the big names in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century doing woodwork, furniture design, metalwork, stained glass, painting, and more. His company was Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (then Morris & Co.) and one of his biggest contributions was his wallpaper division. Morris made a huge impact on the wallpaper industry — his naturalistic designs are still used and replicated or riffed on today.
Lesser known is that he was also a textile designer who played an outsized role in reviving traditional textile arts by returning to handmade methods amidst the onslaught of industrialization. This is in keeping with the philosophy and ethos of the Arts & Crafts movement. He taught himself weaving and insisted on natural dyes, experimenting with them daily to get the nature-inspired hues he sought.
Morris’s main set up at Merton Abbey was reputedly a laid-back scene where the artisans created work free from the dehumanizing effects of capital as the sole-driving factor. This is not to say that Morris produced no commercial goods. He worked with British giant Warner & Sons in a manufacturing collaboration to extend many of his designs more widely. This helped both firms grow and cemented Morris as a key artist influencing interior design.
Intricate, nature-inspired designs, often featuring stylized floral motifs, trees, birds, and fruit, were used in Morris’s rugs, blankets, and on fabric, both in woven pieces and as block prints. His designs remain enduring to this day while originals are rare, treasured, and pricey.
Spanish-born artist, fashion designer, and inventor Mariano Fortuny is renowned for his innovative fabric designs and patented printing techniques. His richly colored and detailed textiles drew on delicate patterns and the use of Old World motifs to bring a sense of presence, place, and gravitas to his interiors. His iconic designs utilized hand-stenciling, hand-dyeing, and printing techniques and drew on sources such as ancient Greek and Roman art, Islamic and Byzantine designs, and Renaissance aesthetics. His textiles were highly ornamental, often riffing on themes from Medieval art, and European cultural and geographical lore, peoples, and sites.
Equally notable is the manner and style, in essence the tone Fortuny set in teaching his arts. Much like Morris, Fortuny looked to the timeless techniques of the past to influence the making of his unequalled textiles. More than that, the relationship between master and apprentice at Fortuny meant being initiated into his famously secret methods, methods still in use today!
That air of mystery and the rarity of the human relationship at the core of the values of the Fortuny brand gives me goosebumps! Would that all society were defined by these approaches of love, ease, and craftsmanship within a thriving human-scale offering like the Fortuny design house and looms in Venice. Insisting upon continuing to use traditional methods has resulted in a name — and a brand — that truly does mean luxury, even though it’s actually shot through with a simplicity that runs counter to the ethos of the industrial era. Truly, real artisanal methods work for a reason!
This Stroheim and Romann piece at Lady Virginia is NOT a Fortuny but has distinct nods to the aesthetic.
Sonia Delaunay, a Ukrainian-born artist and designer, was a key figure in the development of the Orphism art movement, which explored the interaction of colors and abstract, often geometric forms (though with an organic feel, too).
Delaunay was definitely a gallery artist working in a lot of mediums, textiles among them. Especially in the 1910s-20s she exhibited widely in Europe. But in the ’20s she also worked with Dutch design firm Metz & Company in Amsterdam, translating her bold, colorful, thoroughly modern designs into commercial textiles with an intended market.
Working in both interior fabrics and in fashion, Delaunay’s fabrics were avant-garde and highly coveted by the au courant crowd. Perhaps her pieces were among the first to truly be considered “wearable art.” But this didn’t mean all her fabrics were for the privileged. Her fabrics were used in ready-to-wear and interior design and her style helped influence both Art Deco and modernism.
British textile designer Lucienne Day also worked in the modern and abstract design space. She deserves credit for inventing and popularizing much of what we consider to be mid-century modern textile aesthetics. Like Delaunay, Day’s patterns were bold, geometric shapes with particularly vibrant color palettes. She was all about energy through color and clean lines that celebrated a new, exciting modern era, including at home. No more twee prints and cabbage roses, she was head first into the new era. Her famous design piece is titled “Calyx” and it captures that mid century atomic-like aesthetic.
And she was a businesswoman.
Heal’s, a renowned British furniture and home accessories retailer, was Day’s main manufacturer and collaborator, popularizing her work to a huge domestic interiors market. She was also bold about licensing her work to multiple outlets. So she worked with Liberty of London, which also dramatically increased her reach, as well as Edinburgh Weavers of Scotland, Thomas Somerset, and Cavendish Textiles.
Day is a departure from some of the earlier fabric and textile artists who had re-embraced an Old World aesthetic. She was eager to use nylon, rayon, and other industrial synthetics and to see her works brought to light with advanced, mechanized screen printing. She loved how modern materials could create precision designs, saturate color, and readymade goods for the ordinary consumer.
While mostly noted as a kind of star interior designer, Dorothy Draper also made unique contributions to fabric design specifically because her fabric ideas would help fulfill her vision for an interior space. Her bold and colorful textile patterns set a tone of glamour and theatricality.
“Brazilliance,” a design of large expressive palm leaves, became one of Draper’s key motifs which then spilled out to other designers. This was that Hollywood Regency aesthetic of opulence and grandeur, layered color for dimension, seen in huge scale in great hotels and theaters, and printed on new textiles like barkcloth.
Draper is known for design work at the sumptuous Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and the Arrowhead Springs Hotel in California. She worked closely with F. Schumacher & Co. to produce her pieces both for discrete interior design projects and to then make similar fabrics available to consumers. All the big fabric houses, like Scálamandre, Clarence House, and Brunschwig and Fils were producers of this influential aesthetic, a look that has taken on a “classic” look of its own that can “look vintage” but which remains fresh to this day.
As a side note it’s important to mention Don Loper, a fashion and interior designer who was also huge in the Hollywood Regency style. More on him another time.
Renowned as a fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli also left a mark on the world of textiles. She collaborated with edgy and unusual artists like Salvador Dalí to create unconventional and imaginative fabric designs mostly for fashion. She also was on the “wearable art” train with very avant garde pieces.
The famous “Tears Dress” or “Skeleton Dress,” made in 1938, was Schiaparelli’s vision that Dali brought to life. “Tears Dress” was made of organza that had a trompe-l’oeil surface design of a torn fabric that gave way to a sublayer of lace which then seemed to weep rhinestone “tears.” The whole ensemble got even more surreal with Dali kicking in all sorts of accessories. Schiaparelli is loved for her ability to upend convention with surrealistic elements.
Her surface patterns included a big lobster set across an elegant dress, a dress covered in multi-colored butterflies, and fabric that flew up around the dress seeming to defy gravity. She should be as famous as Dali and Man Ray and the rest — her fashion work was off the charts in terms of daring, statement-making pieces often defined by the color, texture, or print on the fabric incorporated into the design. And she was as surrealist as the best of them.
The nickname my mom had for me as a child was “Ladybug.” I remember as a kid being so drawn to anything Vera Neumann made because of her signature ladybug logo, which was everywhere — her commercial reach in home goods was huge! Now I see that Neumann was not just an imaginative artist but one of the most savvy businesswomen of the 20th century.
Many folks are familiar with “Scarves by Vera,” a collection that regularly produced new pieces. Collectors abound today!
Neumann’s surface pattern designs were translated into clothes, accessories, and home goods both small and large, like pot holders and kitchen towels on one hand, and sheets and coverlets, as well as playful and fun fabrics with a pop of color and an impish take for use on home furnishings and drapery. WestPoint Pepperell, F. Schumacher & Co., P. Kaufmann, and Springs Industries were some of the firms that produced her work either in collection collaborations, or as licensers.
Armi Ratia and Maija Isola
Like Neumann, Armi Ratia was a consummate businesswoman and the co-creator in 1951 of Marimekko, the iconic Finnish design company we’ve all come to love so much!
My grandmother, who was a very traditional person, had her own “grandmillennial” style way back in the 1970s, brazenly combining her sumptuous home full of inherited 18th-century and Federal era pieces with touches of the modern in art and furniture, among which was an ample dose of Marimekko linens, houseware imprints, and even poster art.
Ratia pioneered a kind of modern aesthetic that was at once modern and innocent, playful even. No cynicism here, the Marimekko brand, with Ratia’s support, brought to life a sense that interiors should be bright, fun, and not too serious, a combo which, ironically, doesn’t come across as juvenile but as spare, slimmed down, pointed, and vibrant!
But in many ways Ratia was actually the broad business visionary, where Maija Isola really took it and ran with it in the 1960s. Much of what we associate with being “Marimekko” is, in actuality, Isola’s work. “Unikko” is that era-defining poppy that’s synonymous with Marimekko and was Isola’s creation. It may seem hackneyed today, like so many products slapped with an image of Frida Kahlo, but “Unikko” captured the zeitgeist of an emerging time in the early ’60s and has held its own beyond the appearance of any cliché.
Oh my gosh, I am going to have to stop. I could go all day and this blog post is getting long! There are SO MANY more people to mention. But I have to cut my faves off somewhere so here’s the last but definitely not least entry:
Like so many of the others I’ve listed, Austrian-born artist Josef Frank did far more than textile design. He was a modernist architect, designer, and artist, too. But oh, those fabric designs! Some of his notable pieces include “Hawaii,” “Manhattan,” “Vänskap” (Friendship), and “Svartan” (Blackberry).
Frank’s work is famous for being the defining modern aesthetic of the Swedish design firm Svenskt Tenn (founded in 1924 by Estrid Ericson) which manufactured and distributed his work as locally as from their first store in Stockholm and then to a wider and even international consumer audience.
Frank was big on bold color and an organic quality, often drawing inspiration from the natural world. He wasn’t afraid to just let loose and get very trippy with his work. Check out this piece titled “Dixieland.”
Frank loved natural materials and his work was dominated by cotton, linen, wool, and silk, but he also embraced his era, the mid century, including the use of some blends for durability and unique colors.
A Small Peek at Favorite Fabric Designers
I hope this little sketch gives you more insight into some of the big names in late 19th and 20th century fabric design. Again, there are so many more names to consider. I’ll post on some of the lesser known commercial textiles artists in a future post.
— Lindsay Curren, Lady Virginia Vintage Fabrics