This is an chapter from a book I wrote about my year exploring textiles in England. Unfortunately, I was never able to get it published but I am still holding out hope, and I thought I might share a couple of chapters here on my blog.
Lucienne Day Exhibition at the Barbican
The weather was getting the slightest bit better and even though it was just the beginning of March, my friend, Sheila, and I were getting motivated to make the most of our remaining time in England. Sheila and her husband were in a perpetual state of indecision and uncertainty about returning to the states or putting down roots in London. They loved their life abroad but missed having close contact with family. I knew that I had only three and a half months left before we headed back to Arizona and I felt that I had only scratched the surface of things to do and see. The more I tried to prioritize and narrow down the list, the more things seemed to pop up.
I had seen an article in the Sunday paper about a show at the Barbican Gallery and Arts Center. It featured a husband and wife pair of designers who were very big in London in the sixties and at the forefront of Contemporary Design. I read that he – Robin Day, did primarily furniture design and she – Lucienne Day, did mostly textiles. I wanted to go right away.
Sheila and I both had our little girls in nursery school for only two and a half hours each morning so our free time was limited. I suggested we go to see this exhibit mid-day on a Monday, taking the wee ones with us. This was less than ideal, as I would have loved to go alone and take my time quietly dwelling on each piece in the show. Hoping and waiting for that however, would leave me having seen very little. So, Monday we picked up the girls at the school at 11:30 and took the tube to The Barbican. It is right at the Moorgate stop on the Northern Line, which was a “straight shot” as they say, from Highgate to the exhibit.
I had never been in that area before and it was very interesting. It had a different feel to it compared to other parts of London that I had seen. Instead of small tightly packed Victorian buildings and shops, there are lots of newer offices and large diner-type restaurants, obviously geared towards the business lunch masses working close by. Also, I think that this area was heavily bombed in WWII and new buildings went up later.
The Barbican Center is a huge complex built in the 1970’s. It consists of theaters, cinemas, galleries, meeting halls, restaurants, and even private apartments. The buildings themselves are modern, gray concrete with abstract, crooked lines carved into the walls in random places. They are not pretty to look at, and the landscaping is minimal. However, the whole thing is built along and over a canal or some sort of waterway. There are fountains, brick piers, patios and benches, so that it is fairly clear that thirty years ago or so, there was definitely a progressive plan to the entire space. It was not just a huge ugly thing that grew mistakenly wherever it could.
The aggressively modern design and the combination of art, architecture and daily life, made it the perfect place to exhibit the work of Robin and Lucienne Day. The show was called “Robin Day, Lucienne Day: Pioneers of Contemporary Design.” It was a retrospective of Lucienne Day’s textile, wallpaper, and ceramic dish design work alongside that of her husband’s furniture design. The exhibit was set up to look like actual rooms that someone might have lived in during that era. As I walked from room to room, I could easily imagine people drinking martinis, women with puffed up hair-dos, and men with thin ties. It felt like walking onto the set of the Dick VanDyke show. There were fabulous, striking fabrics and wallpaper hanging on the walls and hip, sleek chairs, tables, sofas and cabinets positioned next to them. They also had rugs, televisions and radios designed by one or the other of them so that the scene looked complete.
Having grown up in the sixties, the style was so familiar that I almost forgot that I was there to look at the design and techniques used in the textiles. I snapped out of my nostalgic episode and focused on the placards describing the artist and her works.
Lucienne Day graduated from the Royal College of Arts in the 1940’s. She met Robin Day at school and they were married before she had graduated. The two shared a talent for and interest in contemporary design that focused on minimalistic, abstract elements. They worked in the same studio, side by side, but independently, from then on. They still do. She worked as a textile designer for Heal’s department store for twenty-five years where she pushed for the production of her first contemporary designs against the judgment of the store’s design director. No one else was doing this type of design in the early fifties, but her Calyx design was a huge success that started a whole new trend in textiles and decorative art. Looking through the exhibit and marveling at all the original and beautiful textiles, I got the impression that she had a very focused, productive and successful career. Besides Heal’s, she also worked for a German company called Rasch producing wallpaper and dishes.
Her early work included stylized natural images such as leaves, flowers, and animals, placed in a geometric order, in large black or neutral colors. One piece was a large checkered pattern made up of alternating abstract horse heads and curlicues. Over time, the designs shifted gradually to color and abstract shapes and textures. They were bold, playful and cheerful. She was inspired by the works of Alexander Calder and Joan Miro, and it is gratifying to see such inspiration applied to textiles.
Lucienne Day was also influenced by the artwork that she had seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was amusing to think of her as a young woman, visiting the museum and studying the piles of beautiful objects. Did she know or even dream that today her own fabrics would be kept in their textile department?
Starting her career towards the end of WWII, she was impressed by the scarcity and bleakness that people had to live with. Her bright, whimsical designs are an expression or her belief that art should improve people’s lives. According to her comments noted in the show’s narrative, as a young designer it was the goal of she and her husband to make artistic items that were accessible and affordable to masses of people. For almost three decades, she succeeded in doing this through her own dress and interior decorator fabrics, and also through the influence that her work had on a whole wave of artists.
As I looked at the pieces hanging on the walls, I imagined all the things I could make out of them: pillows, dresses, curtains, quilts. The abstract geometrics would make great fabrics for quilting. I wished I could go into a fabric store today and see some designs like hers. I would have loved to find them reproduced for decorator fabrics, and also some of the patterns shrunk down a little for dresses. I hadn’t seen anything remotely like her work in new fabrics. (I even went into Heal’s.)
It is possible that some of the originals could still be available, undiscovered, at thrift stores and estate sales. There may even be some new fabrics being produced in this style since the sixties are regaining popularity. However, I decided, the most likely and the most rewarding way of obtaining my own stash of original and unusual fabrics would be to make my own. I thought - if she could do it, I could at least try. I saw a book at the needlecraft show called, Fabric Dyeing and Printing by Kate Wells. It looked great and I planned to get it and even use it. I wanted to practice making line drawings on fabric, using large repeat patterns of primitive or geometric shapes. I had always loved checks and dots and it was fun to think of making my own variation on this theme. It was uplifting to me to think of fabric as a canvas (which is ironic in a way). I loved the idea of painting or printing my own designs on fabric that I could then use in my projects.
I wished that I could get a book all about Lucienne with color photos of all of her fabric, however, I had to settle for the book about both of them that accompanied the show. It was actually a beautifully done book with interesting facts about both of their lives and work.
I was really glad that I had found out about this show and that we had made the effort to get out and see it. The Lucienne Day exhibition left me inspired and motivated both by the actual art and also the dedication that this woman had to her work. I would have loved to meet her and I wished I could bump into her on the streets in London and tell her that I am a fan.
[I did get a fantastic book called : Robin and Lucienne Day - Pioneers of Modern Design, by Lesley Jackson. I have done lots of textile design and fabric printing since I wrote this and she was one of my greatest inspirations. I have also discovered through ebay and etsy that her fabrics are still available to buy through vintage sellers.]