Post-war textiles

The years following the Second World War were a remarkably creative era in British textile design. Designers created radical, buoyant styles that elevated textile design to new heights and lifted public spirits, despite ongoing austerity and restrained colour palettes.

During the war the British government introduced the Utility Scheme (1941), which aimed to ensure the general population would still have some access to consumer goods, despite cutbacks. At the end of the war, ongoing austerity meant that textile design remained limited to simple woven and printed patterns which were cheap to produce. One of the chief practitioners of the day, Enid Marx designed abstract geometric pieces with small scale repeating patterns such as Spot and Stripe, Honeycomb, Ring and Chevron, which the manufacturer Morton Sundour Fabrics trialled. Once approved by the Board of Trade Design Panel, these designs went into production.

Left: Spot and Stripe, furnishing fabric, Enid Marx, 1946, England. Museum no. CIRC.221K-1949. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Right: Chevron, furnishing fabric, Enid Marx, 1946, England. Museum no. CIRC.203-1949. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Some designs were made in a dark brown, which was later dropped from the final – undeniably dull – palette of rust, green, and blue and cream. Marx was critical of the eventual colourways, condemning rust as "most deplorable and responsible for much of today's low standards of public taste".

The Festival of Britain

In 1951, the Festival of Britain provided new opportunities for textile design and subsequent manufacture. The summer-long event intended to provide a 'tonic' for the nation by highlighting advances in British science, technology and industrial design. One distinctive design type that emerged used magnified representations of atomic structures to create patterns for ceramics, fabrics, wallpapers and other products. Scientists had used X-ray crystallography (the study of crystal structure) extensively from 1915, and in 1946 Dr Helen Megaw suggested that crystal patterns could be used as inspiration for wallpaper and fabric designers because of their repetitive symmetry and natural beauty.

Her idea provided a starting point for the 26 manufacturers of the Festival Pattern Group, a team set up by Mark Hartland Thomas, Chief Industrial Officer at the Council of Industrial Design. The crystal-structure diagrams of the arrangement of atoms of substances like boric acid, insulin, aluminium hydroxide, haemoglobin and afwillite became a hit of the Festival.

Left: Boric Acid, wallpaper, William J. Odell, 1951, England. Museum no. E.886-1978. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Right: Afwillite 8.45, dress fabric, S. M. Slade, 1951, England. Museum no. CIRC.75A-1968. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Contemporary style

Other developments in textile design sprang from new ways of using more traditional sources of inspiration, such as botanical form. The 'Contemporary' style often used organic material as inspiration for its bold abstract patterns. Designers like Jacqueline Groag and Lucienne Day created imaginative and original patterns with new energy. Textile manufacturers were initially sceptical of these experimental designs, but they became hugely popular with the public. Increasing demand was met by a supply of fabrics at a wide range of prices, including new textiles such as rayon. This was a man-made fibre and cheaper than natural fibres like cotton or silk.

Lucienne Day's famous Calyx which debuted at the Festival of Britain and became one of her most successful designs – was a bold, non-representational botanical pattern, unlike many of the traditional flower prints of the day. Similarly, Perpetua (1953) comprised various plant forms, linked by thin stem-like lines that spread across the fabric as if growing spontaneously.

Left: Calyx, furnishing fabric, Lucienne Day, 1951, England. Museum no. T.161-1995. © Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation/Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Right: Perpetua, furnishing fabric, Lucienne Day, 1953, England. Museum no. CIRC.385-1953. © Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Day's winning designs helped build the reputation of Heal Fabrics (launched by Heals department store during wartime), while other British manufacturers benefitted from design talent arriving from Europe. Marian Mahler and Jacqueline Groag, both graduates of Vienna's industrial arts school (or Kunstgewerbeschule), contributed to the quality of the output of the UK textile company David Whitehead. Like Lucienne Day, Groag was extremely versatile in her work. Both designers, although known for their textiles, produced pattern for other media including plastic laminated surfaces – a popular product of the time. The bright and joyful designs of these innovators were gradually adopted by the established textile design market, elevating Britain's standing in textile manufacturing and becoming popular with consumers.

Left: Furnishing fabric, Jacqueline Groag, 1951, England. Museum no. CIRC.282-1951. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Right: Furnishing fabric, Jacqueline Groag for David Whitehead, 1952, England. Museum no. CIRC.12 to B-1953. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Groag was influenced by her love of the Viennese Secessionists, an art movement formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists, including Josef Hoffmann and Gustav Klimt. Contemporary developments in fine art were incorporated into the new textile patterns – a result of both designers' artistic literacy and manufacturers' drive to reinvigorate the industry. Designers drew on the work of favoured artists for inspiration: the spirit of the hanging mobiles of Alexander Calder is evident in many memorable 1950s patterns.

Companies such as Edinburgh Weavers, Ascher and the US based Fuller Fabrics, invited artists of international standing to try their hand at textile design, harnessing the style of prominent painters and sculptors such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Henry Moore. These designs were 'translated' into textiles for dress and furnishings by adventurous manufacturers using their knowledge of production processes. Some practitioners had knowledge and skill that bridged both art and textile production and were able to create striking pattern through weave structure alone. Alastair Morton of Edinburgh Weavers was one example.

Left: Furnishing fabric, Henry Moore for David Whitehouse & Sons Ltd.,1954, England. Museum no. CIRC.510B-1954. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Right: The Blue Vase, dress fabric, Pablo Picasso for Fuller Fabrics, 1956, US. Museum no. CIRC.430-1956. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This new approach to design in the 1950s paved the way for subsequent trends. In the late 1960s, social change and a new generation of designers replaced the delicacy and scale of the 1950s patterns with larger scale designs using still bolder colours. Both Pop and Op art movements influenced design, resulting in futuristic patterns stimulating and disorientating the eye. In this context, Barbara Brown was a particularly prolific designer and supplied Heal Fabrics with many notable designs.

Frequency, furnishing fabric, Barbara Brown for Heal Fabrics Ltd.,1969, UK. Museum no. CIRC.34-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These printed patterns reflected a growing interest in science fiction and modernity. In contrast, there was also a trend from the mid-1960s for reworking traditional patterns. The use of florals, both as all-over design or stylised historical motifs, evidently satisfied consumer nostalgia for previous traditions. The craft tradition in textile production also reached a peak, with textile designers Peter Collingwood, Archie Brennan and Tadek Beutlich, for example, choosing the loom as their means of expression. They explored the possibilities of weaving, incorporating new material such as leather and grasses.

By the mid-1970s, the surge of design confidence ignited in the post-war years and nurtured by a buoyant industry was finally running out of steam. The new realities of the global financial crisis and political uncertainty had a huge effect on manufacturers who became less willing to take risks with new designs. This uncertainty was reflected in the many diverging patterns in this decade: nostalgic florals, psychedelia and re-worked classical motifs all co-existed, and at times were combined into one design. As always, the concerns and aspirations of society were mirrored in the creation and supply of design.

Left: Broderie, furnishing fabric, Morton Sundour Fabrics Ltd., 1960 – 70. Museum no. T.2218-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Sara Lee Courtaulds. Right: Coranto, furnishing fabric, Morton Sundour Fabrics Ltd., 1960 – 70. Museum no. T.2226-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Sara Lee Courtaulds.
Background image: Frequency, furnishing fabric, Barbara Brown for Heal Fabrics Ltd.,1969, UK. Museum no. CIRC.34-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London