Taking shape

Twentieth-century textile designers struggled to attain recognition, due to the influence of the dominant Modernist movements. A new book profiling prolific designer Jacqueline Groag addresses the imbalance. Anna Richardson reports

The relative obscurity enveloping 20th-century pattern and textile designers is a curious and infuriating state of affairs to many.

‘Given the obvious appeal of textiles and wallpapers, it has always surprised me that surface pattern has so often been marginalised within mainstream histories of 20th-century design,’ noted Lesley Jackson in her book 20th Century Pattern Design. ‘While the achievements of William Morris during the 19th century are widely recognised, very few pattern designers since then have been awarded the same degree of attention.’

Geoffrey Rayner, Richard Chamberlain and Annamarie Stapleton address this lack of attention in a new book, Jacqueline Groag/ Textile & Pattern Design, which focuses on the life and work of one of the most influential textile designers of the last century.

Groag’s chosen path served to obscure the brilliance of her international achievement, writes Rayner, as design and architectural theory was increasingly dominated by the rational, reductive and functionalist concepts of male architects such as Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The International Modern Movement denigrated the fields of pattern and textile design as frivolous and without merit, primarily a woman’s domain and therefore insignificant.

The sparse minimalism of Bauhaus-influenced design and architecture was increasingly hailed, while the more decorative modernity, such as that associated with the Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstatte, was perceived as decadent, says Rayner – pattern and decoration were dismissed as superficial and unimportant.

‘The Wiener Werkstatte developed an incredibly modern style of printed pattern, which influenced other movements, such as Art Deco,’ says Rayner. ‘But because of the opposition from the International Modern Movement, it was played down and became almost invisible.’

But Groag brought the Wiener Werkstatte to Britain. Having trained in Vienna in the 1920s at the Kunstgewerbeschule under the luminary Josef Hoffmann, she produced textile designs for the Wiener Werkstatte and Parisian fashion houses, before emigrating to the UK in 1939, where she was greeted with open arms. ‘She brought this alternative version of modernity with her,’ says Rayner. ‘There was so much exuberant modernity that came out of Vienna. Then it was crushed, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t valid. Groag was one of the main people to bring it back.’

With clients ranging from fabric manufacturers, such as David Whitehead, to the Design Research Unit, BOAC aircraft interiors and Associated American Artists, Groag displayed great variety in her work. ‘That’s why she’s a great Modernist – she designed for particular purposes,’ says Rayner. ‘Some textile designers have their own style and present it to the world as an artist does, whereas Groag would always fulfil the client’s brief.’

From the colourful and playful to the abstract and sculptural – from a summer dress to Sealink ferries interiors and London Underground upholstery – Groag’s work pervaded post-war design. ‘You might not realise how great her influence was unless you studied it, but people saw her work a lot, and just by seeing it, they would draw it in and regurgitate it,’ says Rayner.

Despite the variety, Groag’s designs bore the mark of Vienna, and although she didn’t limit herself to a particular style, her work is always recognisable. ‘If you look carefully you can always work out the Hoffmann grid,’ explains Rayner. ‘And there are lots of Viennese motifs, particular flowers and stick-like leaves and branches. You can recognise these elements, like recognising a painter’s hand.’

Modern and timeless, Groag’s patterns seem as relevant today, particularly in the wake of 1990s minimalism. They reflect a modern 20th-century attitude to pattern design, which people are still catching up with. Rayner says, ‘People realise that there’s more to life than a beautifully designed piece of kitchen equipment. You want to be in a physical environment that’s not just reductive – that’s her heritage.’

Jacqueline Groag: Textile & Pattern Design is published by Antique Collectors’ Club on 31 October, priced £25. An exhibition of Groag’s work opens at the London Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, London SE1, on 23 October

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