Art & Design in the 1950s’ : An extract from a talk by Lucienne Day at the Design Museum, Tate Britain public learning event: 5 July 2005
The period of the Festival of Britain, that great landmark of the Fifties which although it opened in May 1951, the concept and preparation actually had started just after the war.
I think about 1946. For anyone who hasn’t lived through that time, it must be hard to imagine. The period during and after the war was a terribly dreary time — it was hard to be at all optimistic, faced first with bombs and then with dreadful bomb damage and civilian casualties; when houses weren’t painted and roads not swept, because every man and some women were ‘called up’.
When I left college in 1940, the idea that designing textiles could be a viable way of making a living was quite absurd, and yet — that was what I was trained for and that was what I was determined to do eventually. There were no manufacturers producing textiles for furnishing (my chosen option), they had all been turned over to the ‘war-effort’ (that ever-recurrent phrase). The difference in the design scene now compared with that of fifty years ago is so enormous, that it is difficult to remember how it was when we both emerged, that is Robin Day and I, within a few years of each other from the Royal College of Art, newly qualified and hoping to make design our careers.
Not only was the practise of design fairly unknown, one was also faced with the restrictions of war. For my part, most manufacturers of textiles had been forced to close or to turn over their production to parachute silk and black-out materials — not an auspicious beginning for a young, would-be designer.
Inevitably, several years of teaching in art schools or colleges of architecture ensued and by this means we could survive. We were both supported by our mutual desire to produce designs which would enhance lives, reverse the heaviness and dreariness of the decade, making it possible for the many rather than the few to enjoy pleasant surroundings at reasonable cost.
The dress trade somehow managed to survive, so it was to them that I turned, producing a collection of designs which I thought suitable for dresses. I’d rather forget that part of my early career — especially the time when I had gone specially to Manchester, carefully dressed so as not to be mistaken for a ‘beads and sandals’ artist, much looked down upon then — when the potential client looked quickly through my portfolio snapping it shut and saying: ‘Well, come again when you’ve got something really interesting to show me. Good day.’ And there were other unfortunate encounters.
Far from giving up on the spot, I thought, OK, I’ll show them, and I suppose I did, because for a few years I managed to sell quite a lot of work to the dress trade. As soon as the furnishing industry was operating again, I managed to get a foot in there and by 1948 had made a contact with Edinburgh Weavers then Heal’s and had a few designs actually produced.
At the time I was a member of the association then called The Society of Industrial Artists (the SIA) later renamed the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD). I was actually the secretary of the Textile Group and in this way had met Alistair Morton who was the chairman and also the design director of Edinburgh Weavers. He was enormously helpful not only in actually commissioning some designs, but in giving me advice, which I lacked, on how much to charge; to make sure I demanded a rejection fee; never to leave a design in a client’s office to be collected later (there were some unscrupulous ones who would copy them). All this should have been taught at college of course, but nothing of this useful kind ever was. An instance of how lacking we were in being able to present ourselves properly as serious designers in an existing design profession.
The fact that I had had some designs actually produced meant that when Robin was given the task of designing two rooms in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion for the Festival of Britain, he asked me to design a hanging fabric for him.
The festival was a great opportunity for designers, as it was for us. Not only to be included but to be aware of the tremendous excitement and anticipation of everyone involved. As 1950–51 approached and the buildings began to appear, brilliant, colourful, strange and exciting, these feelings began to be shared by the public who had mostly been pretty sceptical when the idea was broached in the newspapers. For the great body of architects, would-be designers, artists and sculptors it really was the opportunity of a lifetime and we all took it — it seemed the final farewell to the war and all the drabness and shortages. After six years of war and austerity of all kinds, everyone was ready to let rip, curiously all in the same kind of way, going overboard with masses of colours and new ideas.
There was almost a kind of brashness with too much colour (often very discordant to conventional eyes), the furniture people designing ‘free-form tables’ and chairs with splayed legs on ball-feet and so on. This general pent-up outpouring of creativity became known later as ‘The Festival Style’.
That perhaps doesn’t sound very attractive, but in terms of entertainment with quite a lot of education thrown in, the whole things was, in fact, great fun. There were places to dance; I seem to remember then people took to dancing everywhere in the evenings and there were restaurants and bars and people selling catalogues and souvenirs (often dreadful, unfortunately) as well as more serious and beautiful things to see.
But going back to the Homes and Gardens Pavilion, our joint belief was, and still is, that good design should be available to all not just the rich and so Robin wanted this curtain through which the public would enter his section, which was not too expensive. There were, even then, a number of fabrics available, which were good modern designs, but of a rather elitist type — woven and based on paintings by artists and very expensive.
My problem was that I didn’t have a client even if I felt able to design something for him. I thought a lot about it and decided to ask Tom Worthington of Heal’s Fabrics if he would consider producing a design especially for me to be shown at the festival.
This of course was rather brave, the wrong way round as it were — a young designer didn’t normally approach a client with such a request! He was rather appalled at the result when he saw it, but was keen to do it because so far nothing produced by Heal’s had been chosen for the Festival. His words were, ‘My God, I shan’t sell a yard of that’. How wrong he was! His distributor in the US put it in for a competition there (the year it was shown at the festival) organised by the AID and it won the 1st award! The first time the award had been given outside the US.
This was the fabric I had called Calyx, and as some of you may know, it has become rather well known since then and sold enormously for many years and is still doing so. Even though I had designed a number of furnishings already, they all had been more or less what I had judged would be suitable and would sell. Nothing had been as adventurous as Calyx — this was a direct result of my abiding interest in modern painting. I had for years as a student enjoyed painters like Joan Miró, Paul Klee, Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicolson but hadn’t related my interest to my work until that time when I thought I must do something really exciting for his section.
That really was the start of my career. It gave me heart and courage to try other work. Since having seen a big exhibition of wallpapers in the Forties, they were mostly very conventional, and I thought boring, but there had been a lovely small abstract design by the painter Graham Sutherland. For some time I had hoped to design wallpapers, so the festival seemed to be an opportunity. I hadn’t any idea how to set about it apart from wanting to design patterns which had seemed to me would work on walls, but I took my courage in both hands again and telephoned the architect in over all charge of the whole project — the famous Hugh Casson and said that I had designed some patterns for wallpapers and would he like them to be used in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion if he thought they were good enough and could I send them to him for his approval. He was clearly very busy and replied that he was sure they’d be fine and to get in touch with Coles the famous wallpaper manufacturers and say he’d sent me! This is how the first wallpaper patterns I had ever designed came to be there.
You can probably see from the remarks I’ve made that the practice of design was really in its infancy. Very few members of the public knew what it meant nor did many of us know how to set up a design practice — certainly there was very little help from the art schools, even of how to teach design. For students at the Royal College it was considered enough to have got a diploma to be entitled to start teaching, which is what we did for several years after leaving college to augment our incomes.
After the success of Calyx, Tom Worthington showed his approval by asking me to design another pattern but ‘smaller, so that people in the new pre-fabs could use it’. So Flotilla was born and was well received too. Tom then asked me to design for him every year about six designs, with six special colourings each. This was how my long association with Heal’s continued, for about 21 years and established me as a serious designer, able to take on worthwhile commissions and I began to have requests from all kinds of other industries.
The publicity in the British press about an English designer winning the 1st award in an American competition of course helped people to remember my name! Also, that a year or so previously, we had decided that I would drop my maiden name, so that people began to realise that Robin and I were related.
He had won a prestigious award, too, in the States the year before mine and so was already well known by name, so ‘Day’ of one kind or another began to crop up from time to time.
This helped both of us even though we didn’t work in the same industries (except for two occasions rather later). Requests came from the carpet industry, the wallpaper industry here in England and in Germany, the Irish linen industry and other textile firms in Germany and Sweden.
At the same time as the Festival of Britain there was also to be, in Milan in Italy, a revival of a three yearly exhibition of design called the Triennale di Milano. Among other designers, ceramicist Lucy Rie, weaver Gerd Hay-Edie, sculptor Geoffrey Clarke and even a painted hanging by Henry Moore, was Robin’s furniture and a textile of mine — the inevitable Calyx, which won a Gold Medal. Awards by the Triennale were much prized. Britain (in the guise of Robin Day) exhibited again three years later and that time, four fabrics of mine were on display for which I won the Gran Premio. That was a tremendous tribute for me at the time.
I do believe, without any doubt, that without my husband’s request for a textile for the festival and the encouragement and stimulus of the Festival of Britain in 1951, my career would not have had such a happy outcome, which continues to this very day.