Omega: On and Off the Grid

The last time I blogged about an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, it was after the show had already closed. Not this time! Beyond Bloomsbury, an exhibition about the designs and decorative arts of the Omega Workshops, will be on view until 20 September, 2009. So there’s plenty of time to catch these early examples of British modernism. Many objects are borrowed from the V&A, but (as is often the case when you work for a really large museum) I’d never had the chance to see them before.

The Omega Workshops (founded in 1913) are often criticized as a hothouse environment, lacking the radical social vision of the Russian Constructivists (see my previous post Russian Arc) or the Bauhaus. But as the historian Christopher Reed shows in his brilliant book Bloomsbury Rooms, this was one moment where life and artistic ideals were intermingled in many and complicated ways. Under the leadership of art critic Roger Fry – one of the first British observers to really understand the Postimpressionist art then being made in Paris – a group of painters and sculptors including Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell played at design. Their objective was to create a truly ‘non-traditional’ domstic interior, complete with textiles, ceramics, furniture, and other wares. Their aesthetic was basically expressionist. So the key objective for the Omega designers was to retain the freshness of touch that they could achieve in a handpainted object like the Japanese-style screen to the left, with its obvious indebtedness to Matisse. Notice in the detail of the screen below how they painted over the sides of the panels, and right across the hinges.

How to retain this sense of immediacy in a design for production, though? Textiles are a particularly interesting problem, because their grid-based construction of interwoven warp and weft threads lends itself to rectilinear designs but not to wild gestural composition. It’s almost funny to see the free-spirited Omega designers trying to use graph paper when planning out their textiles. Here’s an Omega drawing for a rug and a detail – notice how the blue line just wanders aimlessly off the grid.


As Alexandra Gerstein puts it in the excellent catalogue for the Courtauld show, this drawing ‘could not have been of practical use to a carpet-maker; the grid would have simply provided a framework or matrix for working out abstract designs and proportions.’

One obvious way to escape the grid in a textile is to paint or print the image on to the cloth, rather than weave it in. One example of this approach in the show was Vanessa White’s printed linen ‘White,’ which features blotches of colour scattered willfully across the surface, in no consistent relation to the overprinted linear design (which itself has a hand-drawn quality, thanks to the use of a stencil technique). In the detail to the left, a stray, tiny drop of red testifies to the speed with which the textile was created. But it’s in a woven textile like a carpet that you can really get a sense of Omega’s complicated relationship to the grid – which was, for them, both a geometric structure in which to play, and a constraint on the expressionist gesture. The African-influenced carpet design at right was created by Duncan Grant for the Ideal Home Exhibition held at Olympia in 1913. It shows only one-fourth of the whole pattern (on the same principle discussed in my blog post Game of Two Halves, it was replicated for each corner of the final carpet). For the manufacturer of the carpet,  it presented an obvious problem: how do you weave a textile that has the brushy quality of the black lines and hatch-marks in the drawing, which give it so much life and energy? The ingenious answer arrived at by Grant in conjuncton with the weavers at the Royal Wilton Carpet Factory (who probably made the carpet) is visible in the details below of the drawing and the finshed rug. As you can see, the draftsmanship of the sketch is conveyed in the textile through a series of ‘steps’ in each black woven line. As Fry wrote of the (unidentified) weaver, ‘he has taken a theme of almost daring simplicity, but not relying only on the broken quality of the knotted surface of the rug, he has deliberately broken his rectilinear by small steps up and down; he has also made his shading sometimes perpendicular and sometimes diagonal.’


Though this solution depended almost entirely on the judgment of the manufacturer, the carpet nonetheless realized Fry’s stated goal of ‘substituting wherever possible the directly expressive quality of the artist’s handling for the deadness of mechanical reproduction.’ It’s a great example of how the passage from sketch to product, and from one set of hands to another, can be the occasion for avant garde experiment.