Design hero: textile designer Lucienne Day

Laura Dunkley explains why it was easy for her to choose her British design hero

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There’s nothing quite like the thrill of heading off, in the early morning mist, to an antiques market or country car boot sale, wondering what finds might be waiting for you. It could be a tin of beautiful buttons, lovingly collected over a lifetime, or you might peer into an old box of odds and ends and spot a tiny corner of something at the bottom that sets your heart racing…. Finding a length of beautiful vintage fabric is like hitting the lottery jackpot for me. Carefully laundering it, then folding and adding it to my collection, a source of pure joy.

The reason I tell you all this, is that I really do believe that anyone who shares my passion – and it is a passion – for fabric owes a huge debt of gratitude to the doyenne of British textile design – Lucienne Day – who died in 2010, aged 93.

Lucienne drew on the English design tradition of patterns based on plant motifs and shapes that went back as far as William Morris and she transformed these ideas into something totally fresh. She took Morris’s dream of ‘art for the people’ and truly delivered it. Following the Festival of Britain in 1951 (where her revolutionary abstract pattern, Calyx was hung in a dining room designed by her husband, Robin), the fabric was soon to be seen in every ‘contemporary’ living room around the country. There was something so new and hopeful about her designs that the nation, still only just recovering from war, responded to en masse.

Calyx was followed by related pattern Flotilla, a beautiful design of abstract marine motifs. This was printed on Rayon ‘for people who like Calyx, but have smaller windows and purses,’ said Lucienne at the time. It sold at the equivalent of 84p a yard, and was exhibited in the budget ‘People’s House’ at the Ideal Home exhibition in 1952.

Both of these early patterns were produced for Heal’s of London, and Lucienne continued to work with them over the next 20 years, producing more than 70 patterns. Unsurprisingly, she was also sought after by other textile companies such as Edinburgh Weavers, Liberty and British Celanese.

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Throughout the 50s, Lucienne’s designs became gradually more linear and she experimented with typography – creating the Graphica pattern for example, another of her prize-winning designs. The 60s saw her move on to blocks, zigzags and stripes of pure bright colour. Heal’s are still selling bedding which features her avant garde 1969 print, Sunrise.

One of my most prized possessions, I have a cushion made from one of Lucienne’s early fabrics, and it looks just as relevant and contemporary today, teamed with a pared-down interior of white walls, dark wood floors and modern low-line modular sofa. Surely the test of a great design? I can remember talking for quite some time to the maker who I bought the cushion from – the fabric had been in a box of old curtains at a car boot sale, and she told me her hands had been shaking so much when she realised what she’d found, that she could barely get the money out of her purse to pay. I knew exactly how she must have felt and was thrilled to be taking home my share of her find.

As well as designing printed textiles, Lucienne was also asked to design carpets, wallpapers, tea towels, table linen and ceramics, such was the buzz around her.

It was in the late 70s that Lucienne made the brave move from industrial design to silk mosaic tapestries. Abstract patterns built up of tiny pieces of shot silk, often no bigger than one square centimetre, her tapestries glowed and shimmered. Possibly the most spectacular is the hugely colourful Window tapestry (1986), commissioned for the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in Westminster.

Naturally shy and retiring, Lucienne nevertheless saw the importance of female visibility in a largely male-dominated profession. Only the fifth woman to be elected to join the elite Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry, she became the first female Master in 1987. Lucienne Day paved the way for women designers that followed, opening the door for Cath to bring us her ditsy florals, Orla her graphic leaves and Angie her mid-century/modern dandelions and seed heads.

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A true visionary and trail-blazer, Lucienne was a dazzling designer whose legacy lives on. She is, without doubt, my design hero.

• The V&A houses a wide selection of Lucienne’s designs in the Textiles and Fashion collection

• Lucienne also hand-selected twelve of her pattern designs from her portfolio to be re-released and revived through Classic Textiles housed in the Studio for Advanced Textiles at the Glasgow School of Art. These fabrics are now being digitally printed to order on a gorgeously heavy cotton/linen fabric perfect for interior use.

 

Would you like to contribute a Design Hero feature to the frombritainwithlove.com magazine? If so, let us know who your design hero is and why by emailing us at editor@frombritainwithlove.com.

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