Mid-Century Modern design



'Calyx' furnishing fabric by Lucienne Day


I’ve been studying the work of textile designers of the mid 20th century. Designers like Lucienne Day and Maija Isola who designed for the Finnish company Marimekko.

I have an appointment to view a selection of 50’s textiles from the V&A’s archive in May 2010. I believe that seeing the fabric samples in the flesh will give me a greater insight into the scale of the repeats,  the true colours and of course get a sense of the actual cloth. 

I particularly admire the playfulness and wit of Lucienne Day’s designs, her use of colour and the fluidity of  her pattern repeats. In an interview for BBC Two’s The Late Show [12.5.93] Day cites the artists Klee, Miro and Kandinsky as her key influences though she didn’t want to be a painter: 

“ I thought painting was for oneself. I was a very practical person and if I did anything in that line I wanted it to be useful.”

In the book Robin and Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Contemporary Design, Lesley Jackson describes Lucienne’s design process:

“over the years she developed a pool of imagery, consisting of her own personal family of motifs. When creating a new pattern, she might draw upon motifs from this reservoir, but use them in a different ontext or combine them with new elements..This recycling and reworking of familiar imagery played a key factor in establishing her recognisable version of the ‘Contemporary’ style”

The designs “caught the spirit of the time. There was a great flowering post-war Britain – start of something wonderful. A spirit of optimism. ” [Lucienne talking on the Late Show]

Like her husband, Lucienne was politically motivated,  she wanted to make good, affordable design.

“If you have any social conscience at all you can’t remain an elitist and work just for the few,” says Robin. “Good design should – and I still believe this – enhance people’s quality of life. I suppose that’s a fairly vain thing to say. But that’s what we thought.”

“It came from our political beliefs,” adds Lucienne. “We believed in democracy. And, well, the Labour party.” [interview with Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian, 7.2.01]

Their work was embedded in their reaction to the times in which they lived.  A need to look forward, to design for newer, bigger spaces, for a new architecture. They firmly believed that their designs could improve lives. They agreed with the Bauhaus philosophy that a curtain was just as important as a piece of furniture, as the building itself.  

In Finland, the textile company Marimekko had a similar approach to design. The company’s mission statement really encompassed the idea of selling a complete lifestyle.

“Armi Ratia [company founder] confessed that she was heir to ideas that had originated in the early 20th century, when the ‘home’ was emerging as a focal point for design. In the Nordic countries at that time, the notion of the home’s importance to human well-being was most actively propagated by the Swedish author Ellen Key, whose ideas were brought to Finland by among others, Edward Elenius in his book Kodin sisustaminene [The Furnishing of the Home, 1910].  During the 1920’s it was believed that Finland, a nation torn apart by a civil war, could be reconstructed around the concept and design of the home.   The comfortable home environment as a beautiful object was seen to form the nucleus of a successful and happy society.” [Marimekko. Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture ed Marianne Aav]

Like their British counterparts Marimekko were also motivated to creating a better world through their designs.   They too produced large scale designs for large, open spaces and were also influenced by abstract modern art.

“Armi Ratia promoted abstract patterns for both furnishings and pattern at a time when the rest of the textile industry in Finland was still committed to florals – it was characteristically daring and perverse. ” [Marimekko.Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture ed Marianne Aav]

Armi encouraged and employed young designers like Maija Isola whose work became the trademark for the Marimekko brand.  There was no company like it in Britain. Heals were the nearest but they weren’t manufacturers, they commissioned designers like Lucienne Day and the cloth was produced elsewhere.  Heals produced Day’s design for the Festival of Britain [Calyx] , believing it would never sell subsequently, they were proved wrong and continued to support Day. What Heals and Marimekko had in common was they were design led not market led.

” they were initiators of change rather than a follower of existing trends. By treating the consumer as intelligent and discriminating, willing to absorb radical new ideas, these flagship companies opened the mass market to progressive textiles and fashions, revitalizing the sector as a whole.” [Marimekko. Fashion, Fabrics, Architecture ed. Marianne Aav, essay by Lesley Jackson].

On reflection I not only admire the quality of the designs that Day and the designers at Marimekko produced, but I admire their clarity of vision and their confidence to follow it through.  I am not interested in apeing their style in my own work even though similarities have been noted.  However, perhaps on a subconscious level I’m infusing my work with a mid-century style because I’m aware that there is a current trend in textile and graphic design for the ‘contemporary’ look.  The original textile pieces are now very collectable and sell for high prices.   I’m not certain why there has been a resurgence of interest in that period, perhaps it is because people of my generation are wanting to re-create the homes they grew up in? 

The trend towards the ‘Contemporary’ style in textiles has also spawned many successful imitators like Orla Kiely [sales exceed 100m in the last 7 years].  Orla Kiely’s stylised stem and petal patterns I believe echo Lucienne Day designs

Orla Kiely Multistem cushion, Heals 2009


Periwinkle tablecloth 1964 Lucienne Day


and more recently, Sanderson have issued an ubiquitous pattern ‘Dandelion Clocks’ which nods perhaps at Orla Kiely and Lucienne Day.

Sanderson print ‘Dandelion Clocks’

Perpetua, Heal's 1953


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