Post-WW2 textile and pattern design is defined by the work of a few woman designers, of which one is Jacqueline Groag. Another was Lucienne Day whose name is much more widely known, but whereas few of us will own an original Day furnishing fabric, many of us will have spent hours of our lives sat upon Groag’s famous London Transport moquette design used throughout the 1980s and 90s.
By the time Day had her career breakthrough (with ‘Calyx’ at the Festival of Britain in 1951), Groag was already a highly successful and respected designer in her field. Groag was Czech-born and studied textile design in Vienna during the 1920s. Jewish, Groag fled Austria as the Nazis grew to power, arriving in London in 1939 as many of her contemporaries did.
Jacqueline Groag: Textile & Pattern Design: Wiener Werkstätte to American Modern gives a detailed history of Groag’s early career in Vienna, continuing with her status as Britain’s ‘most influential designer of surface pattern’ in the 1940s, through to a more varied career in the 60s and 70s designing for carpets, plastic laminates, wall coverings and that famous yellow/orange/brown rectangle moquette.
The books starts with some food for thought, giving mention to the disdain with which surface pattern and decoration was viewed by the growing Modernism movement and how applied arts was one of the few artistic educational options open to women at that time. How strange that dismissing women in this way actually gave them the opportunity to create so much of the commonplace everyday design that would go on to define the period.
Plenty of space and research is given to detailing Groag’s (and her future assistant Karin Williger’s) time in pre-war Vienna, and the artists and architects who educated and influenced them. Space is also given, of course, to the impact the rise of the Nazis had on their lives.
Ahead of the famous Festival of Britain was the Britain Can Make It design exhibition in 1946. In the book it is noted how the exhibition was a ‘victorious propaganda exercise’ that advocated the quality of British industrial design while boosting the moral of a deprived post-war public. Infuriatingly, most of the goods displayed were only available for export due to the wartime restrictions still being in place. Apparently the exhibition was dubbed, Britain Can Make It but Britain Can’t Have It. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound!
It is this period that feels a little brushed over, not in terms of Groag’s activities but in terms putting the work into an economical/social context. The timeline jumps a little suddenly from 1939, when there was no appetite for Groag’s work in a Britain ‘that generally considered “Design” as esoteric and unnecessary’ to Groag becoming incredibly well respected and sought after by the mid-1940s. The V&A’s article on the Britain Can Make It exhibition does some good gap filling here.
Towards the end of her life Groag made lists of her achievements, seemingly concerned about her legacy as a designer. It is her legacy I mull over as I move into the ‘plates’ section of the book, which accounts for around 70% of the 200+ pages. I’m so often dismissive of 1950s pattern design but immersing myself in the authentic 1950s design reminds me of how exciting it is and how it bears no resemblance to the designs that adorn modern-made “50s inspired vintage style” clothing. My complaint about Tarantino films is that they paved the way for a swathe of rubbish gangster films. By the same token I could complain that Groag and her contemporaries paved the way for kitsch and cartoony novelty prints that arguably distort people’s perception of the fashion of the period. Yes, I am being harsh, and as a vintage fashion lover, a little snobby.
Groag’s designs are both folksy and naive, energetic and urban. It is lovely to see how the textures of her original artworks (some of which are collage) are still present in the finished fabrics.
There’s an abundance of 1940s designs present in these pages and what I’d give to own dresses made from them! They are so vibrant they blast away the misconception that the 1940s was a drab and tweedy place.
Turning the pages of the plates section is an enjoyable experience. The book gives us a sense of how Groag’s designs developed thanks to the inclusion of her drawings and painted wooden dolls and also the chronological order of the images taking us from 1929 through to the early 1970s.
We are treated to some beautiful double page spreads of Groag’s designs which I expect will be valued by textile design students wishing to look at the repeats, that are harder to judge in the smaller images.
Something I’ve learnt from the interiors trade is that the draping/gathering of fabric can completely transform a pattern. A row of flat circles can find life as undulating curves once the fabric has body. So while I enjoyed the many excellent flat images in the book I would have loved to see more of them shown as they would actually have been seen when in use.
Thinking more on Groag’s legacy, I have to ask – why is Jacqueline Groag so unknown when Lucienne Day is so well known? Did Lucienne benefit from the Brangelina effect? (Lucienne was one half of a designer power couple husband Robin Day) while Groag’s husband Jacques’ architectural career slowed after their move to the UK.) Or perhaps Groag peaked too soon, allowing Day to become the poster-child for post-war optimism? Or could it be the cruel reality that we like our celebrated British designers to be just that, British? I don’t know the answer but at least this book serves as an excellent record of Groag’s life’s work.
Jacqueline Groag: Textile & Pattern Design: Wiener Werkstätte to American Modern is a book for lovers of pattern, textiles, vintage fashion, mid-century design and pioneering women designers. Filled with joy and movement, you’ll appreciate the impact these patterns must have had on a post-war world.
Jacqueline Groag: Textile & Pattern Design: Wiener Werkstätte to American Modern
Geoffrey Rayner, Richard Chamberlain , Annamarie Stapleton
Published by ACC Art Books, 2015.
Paperback, 22x27cm, 224 pages, 180 illustrations.
ISBN 9781851495900 RRP £29.95