Calling all Mid-Century modern fanatics: A new exhibit at the Textile Museum is opening this weekend, one that will leave you coveting the fabrics and furniture on display. Textile designers Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag, and Marian Mahler are the subject of Art by the Yard: Women Design Mid-Century Britain.
The bulk of the exhibit is devoted to Day, who pioneered modernist home furnishing textiles and was part of a design power couple with her husband, furniture designer Robin Day. When Day debuted her Calyx textile at the Festival of Britain—a travelling exhibition intended to help lift the country from its post-war depression and rejuvenate art, science, and industry—it caused a sensation. Day approached each textile as a work of art, evident in Calyx‘s climbing, tulip-like cups, their yellows and reds punctuating the olive background. “I think it’s bold for today,” said guest curator Shanna Shelby. “You can only imagine how it was perceived in the 1950s.”
Like Calyx, many of Day’s fabrics were inspired by nature: Fall features sketch-like, meticulously lined leaves, each one set against its own square. Sequoia suggests two tree trunks, each rendered in heavy black lines that give the impression of branches within the trunk. As Day’s career progressed into the ’60s and ’70s, she still drew upon nature for inspiration, but her style became more graphic: her colors were brighter, her patterns bolder. A field of flowers, less delicately depicted than in her early work, is the subject of High Noon. In Parkland, Day depicts groovy white trees set against a checkerboard of greens. These fabrics, and other later pop creations like Chevron and Sunrise, would look right at home in the Marimekko catalog of prints.
The selection of Marian Mahler’s fabrics on display is much smaller and spans only a few years, so it makes sense that her work is less varied than Day’s. She takes her cue from man more than nature, depicting sails, vases, and mobiles in her textiles. The cross-hatched circles in Untitled (Bird Chair) suggest Bertoia chairs. Like Mahler, only a few examples of Jacqueline Groag’s work are featured in the exhibit. Groag designed for materials other than fabric, and a small square of plastic laminate featuring her black-and-white Lilliput design is on display. One of her untitled fabrics, an abstract assortment of discs and rounded triangles, recalls the patterns one would find on a formica-topped table from the ’50s.
The last part of the exhibit showcases Day’s textiles in context with the furniture of her husband, Robin, who designed the furnishings for London’s Royal Festival Hall, which was built for the Festival of Britain. Robin’s furniture features the clean lines and pared-down functionality of Ray and Charles Eames. Though Robin and Day did not collaborate, their work is complimentary: His 41 Chair, with its U-shaped arms and back, echoes the objects in Day’s cleverly named Magnetic textile.
Day died January 30 of this year, and she remained thoroughly modern until the end. When her work was featured at the Textile Museum two years ago, she turned down the museum’s offer to fly her to D.C., concerned about her carbon footprint.