An essential sourcebook of prints from a key fashion decade.The 1950s was the decade when an analytical approach to design, with a lightness and freshness, combined with whimsical imagery and idiosyncratic subject matter. Showcasing hundreds of print designs, this book celebrates the heyday of postwar fashion design.From Lucienne Day and Robert Stewart to Maija Isola of Marimekko, the designs and influences of the print icons of the time are all covered. In addition to finished prints, the book contains exclusive illustrations and original artworks.The major themes of the period are explored, including: narrative and novelty; abstraction, exploring the distorted and attenuated forms used in print; artistic licence and the influence of contemporary art on fashion print; and finally kinetic prints that capture the influence of the era's 'mobiles, doodles and spasms'. Each short chapter introduction is followed by a range of illustrations with captions to give provenance and relevance, making this a unique sourcebook for contemporary designers and students.
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2 Narrative, Novelty & the Jive
3 Artistic Licence
Post war print design was no place for the lavish, the nostalgic or the grandiose. The drab utilitarian years of the Second World War gave way to an analytical approach to design that had a lightness and freshness complicit with an optimistic desire for a new world founded on modernity, originality and innovation. Art, architecture, interiors and textiles all came together under the banner of ‘contemporary,’ meaning to live in the present time, a look that encompassed acid colours, abstract form and idiosyncratic detail.
The 1950s saw an end to the restrictions on colour in printed textiles (five colours and only small repeats allowed by the ‘Utility’ rationing programme of 1942) and the shortage of a workforce that were the result of war-time austerity. A contributing factor to the innovations and design development of the textile industry was the shift in emphasis away from the production of war-time necessities to domestic concerns, all the more important as people had to be rehoused after the wholesale destruction of many of Britain’s cities. Homebuilding meant a renewal of interest in domestic textiles and wallpaper design.
Advertisements for home products such as wallpaper and soft furnishings, like this one for Crown Wallpapers, usually featured the importance of home-making, with an emphasis on affordable modernity – represented here by a young couple furnishing their new home. There is an element of the company playing safe with the inclusion of two ‘conservative’ samples alongside three that have a more contemporary feel.
David Whitehead produced contemporary fabrics for the mass market. This advertisement for printed fabric for curtains appeared in the popular home and interiors magazine Homes & Gardens. It was company policy to attribute the designs to the designer; in this case June Bailey (left) and Gillian Archibald (right).
Transformative and experimental, print designers relished the opportunity to break with the past and accrue motifs, images, colours and textures from an eclectic variety of sources. Design of the period was characterized by a preoccupation with form and structure and a fascination with motion. Influences ranged from the distorted, attenuated form of the Skylon – an engineering marvel erected in 1951 to mark the Festival of Britain – to the elongated figures of Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti and the underlying structure of natural form. Interest lay in the plant skeleton rather than the bloom, seed heads rather than the blossom, and leafless trees rather than foliage. A sense of lightness and levity was also introduced by motifs that danced and spun across print designs inspired by the mobile, an art form popularized by the American sculptor Alexander Calder. Motifs that typified the era could also be sourced in the brightly coloured scattered abstract shapes and fragile, wandering lines found in the work of artists Paul Klee and Joan Miró. Satellites and space travel provided the starburst and the Sputnik, and the parabolic curve of the ubiquitous boomerang shape could be found on products from furniture to curtains.
The ‘Britain Can Make it’ Exhibition, launched in 1946 by the newly formed Council of Industrial Design (CoID), encouraged the emergence of this new design aesthetic alongside a campaign to educate the British public in the constituents of good design. This included the establishment of high-quality art and design courses such as those run by London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, led by influential figure Dora Batty, and London’s Royal College of Art.
In 1951, London’s skyline was transformed by the Skylon. Part sculpture, part building, the Skylon was designed by architects Powell and Moya. Seemingly precariously balanced on three ‘legs’ it appeared to float above the South Bank. Seven hundred and sixty-two metres (250 ft) tall, the Skylon became a symbol of the Festival of Britain, a government-sponsored celebration of the best of British design, art and industry. It was a showcase of modern style for the atomic age. Twenty-six manufacturers of wallpaper and printed and woven dress and furnishing fabrics were invited by the Council of Industrial Design to produce designs for the Festival of Britain, and although these were predominantly textiles, associated products such as vinyl, plastic laminates and ceramic tiles were also produced for the exhibition. The emphasis on textiles was in recognition of the importance of the industry to the British economy, and was also due to the fact that the chairman of the Council of Industrial Design was Sir Thomas Barlow, owner of Barlow and Jones, a leading cotton manufacturer.
Exhibiting at the Festival enabled British designer Lucienne Day to launch her successful career as one of Britain’s most important textile designers of the 20th century. Her landmark design Calyx was used within the Homes & Gardens Pavilion and proved enormously influential. The fabric was retailed through Heal Fabrics, an offshoot of furniture store Heal & Son. Textile converters rather than manufacturers, the company bought in print designs from freelance designers and commissioned printers such as Bernard Wardle to produce them, as was the case with Day’s Calyx. Tom Worthington, managing director of the company from 1948 to 1971 also commissioned designers Barbara Brown, Michael O’Connell, Dorothy Carr, Roger Nicholson and Fay Hillier, amongst many others, resulting in Heal Fabrics becoming one of the pioneers of British contemporary design in home furnishings.
Innovation in print design was initially restricted in the main to furnishings, wallpapers and surface decoration on products such as plastic laminates; fashion came a very poor second. The 1950s silhouette was concerned with ladylike tailoring and the hourglass figure, it was not until the emergence of the ‘teenager’ at the end of the decade that fashion print began to display the novelty and whimsy of print designed for interiors. Subjects for fashion print design tended to lean towards a more traditional interpretation of floral motifs that were then made up into the shirtwaist dresses and gathered skirts that reflected Dior’s Corolle line (dubbed the New Look by journalists). Parisian couturier Christian Dior produced a ready-towear suit in 1953 printed with a tachist design (from the French to stain, spot or blot), but in general contemporary style in fashion fabrics did not permeate the mass market in the way that it did in interior design. Specializing in high-quality cotton dresses, very often featuring prints of horizontally banded stripes alternating with florals, British manufacturer Horrockses was formed in 1946. Ascher (London) Ltd also produced designs for silk and rayon dress fabrics that were popular with the European couturiers.
Advertisement in Homes and Gardens, April 1957. The boomerang shape was ubiquitous to this period, deployed in product, graphic and textile design. It was used to indicate forward thinking, movement and progress and may have had its origins in the shape of the artist’s palette, also a popular motif of the time.
A magazine illustration appearing in Homes & Gardens magazine, conveying the plethora of choice available for both fashion fabrics and home furnishings.
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