Friday, July 31, 2009


Although produced in 1914, this Frida Hansen tapestry called Danaids' Jar with its overt Classical mythology theme, in some ways preempts the general look and feel of a large percentage of the Art Deco era.

Hansen, although very much involved in the propagation of the national culture and heritage of Norway, particularly when applied to textiles, was also deeply involved, as were many designers of the period, in the cultural heritage of the Classical world. While many used instantly recognisable motifs and general pattern work derived from that era, Hansen herself preferred to use narrative themes from the rich mythology of the Classical world.

These themes tied in very neatly with her portrayal, through tapestry, of the mythological record of Scandinavia and of Norway in particular. While Southern European in subject, the tapestry itself is Northern European in nature, with its subtle colour palette and subdued narrative and therefore follows closely her Scandinavian themed tapestries.

While this tapestry does, in many respects belong to the Art Nouveau movement with its asymmetrical flowering bushes and stylised Japanese inspired water motifs, it does hint quite strongly, particularly with its slim statuesque figures and heavily abstractly patterned trees, the coming of the more formally stylised Art Deco period.

It must be remembered that the Art Nouveau movement itself did not die away to be superseded by the Art Deco, but in many cases and across a number of mediums, it was able to transform itself into the following movement.

Early signs of this transformation are important and when looked for, can be found quite easily. Hansen's Danaids' Jar is one of those points of change. The tapestry was completed in 1914, the year of the outbreak of the First World War. The war itself is seen as a convenient break between the two decorative styles, but by the second decade of the twentieth century the Art Nouveau movement itself was already in the stages of transformation, and if the war had not taken place it would have been easier to have seen those changes taking place. Because of the war, it is now convenient for many to say that the Art Nouveau decorative style died sometime before 1914, while that of the Art Deco started sometime after 1918.

The design and decorative world is a complex and untidy one, with influences, cross-overs and transformations at all points of its history. It is difficult to tie it into a convenient timetable and sometimes we just have to say that a design piece is a bit Art Nouveau and a bit Art Deco.
Posted by John hopper at 17:41 0 comments Links to this post
Labels: 1910s, art deco, art nouveau, design, designer, norwegian, tapestry, weave, woven
Thursday, 30 July 2009
Repeat Pattern Ceramic Tiles

Minton Hollins & Co 1870

While a repeat pattern is an easy enough option to reproduce within a ceramic tile scenario, it was not necessarily extensively used over a long period, and if so, was often relegated to less prestigious areas of a domestic home, like a kitchen or hall for example. However, it was used effectively within large commercial and public buildings to cover vast areas of wall and floor with complex pattern work that has often outlasted the initial use of the building and outlived its occupiers.

Minton & Co 1871

The tiles shown here were all produced in the 1870s and are typical examples of repeat pattern that was intended for either large or small scale coverage of a wall or floor. Often the tile was non-directional which meant that any straight edge of a tile could be placed next to another without having to allow for the direction or progression of the pattern. However, some tiles were directional though still part of a repeat pattern, as can be seen in the William Morris Daisy design, these had to be placed in a certain direction for the repeat pattern to work.

Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co Daisy 1870s

Also included is a border ceramic tile which was repeatable only on two sides rather than the four. The tiles were usually designed with thick borders on the two unrepeatable sides so as not to allow the repeat to follow both vertically and horizontally, thus creating a thin line. These border tiles tended to form the same function as a border wallpaper and very often lined, contained or seperated extensive repeat pattern areas and on the whole, when applied to a wall, tended to be set horizontally, rather than vertically.

The repeat tile very often followed a strict geometric pattern, usually because of its simplicity and ease with which to create a large scale covering that was still interesting as a large pattern and did not become bland, unattractive and indistinctive the larger it got. Medieval inspired Gothic patterns proved to be particularly popular for this very reason.

The Campbell Tile Co 1875

As the century progressed, repeat pattern ceramic tiles, while not disappearing entirely, did diminish in popularity at least in the domestic market. This was largely due to a combination in the rise of fashionable wallpapers and painted walls, and also the replacement of generally company designed tiles with that of the individual ceramic tile, very often with a reproduction of a piece of artwork. These individual 'art tiles' were sometimes framed, and more often placed within an area of plain tiles, or set as a small series around a fireplace or even placed into furniture, they very often had literary themes, such as scenes from Shakespeare or Tennyson.

By commissioning or at least buying the rights of a particular artist or artwork, a company could then attach a popular and fashionable artists name to the tile, thus securing its sale. Ceramic tiles were hugely popular within the nineteenth century and it has been said that Britain produced more tiles within the Victorian era than all other eras put together. Most were industrially produced, often on a massive scale, though some were hand produced and these tend to be thicker and more substantial than the mass produced ones.

Morris, Marshall, Falukner & Co Daisy 1870s
Posted by John hopper at 17:13 3 comments Links to this post
Labels: 1870s, artist, ceramics, design, designer, pattern, tile, victorian
Wednesday, 29 July 2009
Ben Rose and Meteoric Wallpaper

Ben Rose Meteoric wallpaper design 1965

Ben Rose was a trained fine artist that turned to design and consequently created a successful business and career for himself. He set up Ben Rose Inc in 1946 straight after the Second World War and was soon able to tap into the burgeoning interiors market, fed by the buoyant American economy.

He was successfully able to interpret and often to anticipate changes within the market throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, he was also uncompromising in his faith in modern textile and wallpaper design work and never went down the road of traditional and reactionary work.

By 1965 when this Meteoric wallpaper design was produced for his company, the interiors market had begun to change and there was a shift in emphasis as a number of companies began to start playing cautiously with the market by supplying more traditional and revival themes. However, Rose continued to challenge that market, and so therefore continued to produce both textile and wallpaper design work that was abstract in composition and outlook.

The Meteoric wallpaper design shown here does tend more towards the architectural theme with a special emphasis on the vertical rather than horizontal or mixed pattern. There was a reason for dealing in architectural and therefore large scale pattern. The interiors market was beginning to change in more ways than just fashion or a shift in customer conception. Many companies were finding that some of their most profitable customers were large hotel chains and general commercial enterprises. The domestic market, although still important, was to become increasingly less so as the century progressed, and although Rose's Meteoric design was still unveiled in 1965 as a domestic interior wallpaper, it does reflect the gradually changing market from domestic to commercial.

By understanding this shift from the home to the hotel, it is perhaps easier to interpret at least some of the movement towards large scale geometric and abstract forms in textile and wallpaper design during this period and after. It was obviously more profitable to produce work that was to be seen across an entire group of hotels or conference centres than it was for individual homes. It also gave design and interior companies a higher profile within the public commercial market than the private domestic one.

It is perhaps unfair to say that companies gave an uneven emphasis to the two sectors of their business, with the commercial getting more attention than the domestic market, but the gradual decline in the standard of contemporary design work within the domestic market as the century drew to a close, and the subsequent decline in interest by that market, may not be entirely coincidental.
Posted by John hopper at 17:44 6 comments Links to this post
Labels: 1960s, abstract, design, designer, interiors, pattern, wallpaper
Tuesday, 28 July 2009
Sidney Barnsley's Oak Dresser

Sidney Barnsley Oak dresser 1896

The career of Sidney Barnsley is very much tied up with that of his brother Ernest and also that of Ernest Gimson. However, Barnsley should also be seen as an individual as well as part of a successful Arts & Crafts team.

Barnsley more or less taught himself furniture making from scratch and although, like his brother he was a qualified architect, while Ernest pursued that career, it was furniture making that was Sidney's first and lasting love. He often entered his designed and hand made furniture into national Arts & Crafts exhibitions, with his work being well received.

Barnsley moved, with his brother and Gimson, to the Cotswolds in 1893, where they hoped to live the life that had always been an integral part of the Arts & Crafts philosophy from its very early days, and while the rural idyll that it idolised may have not have been quite what many city based architects and designers were expecting, Sidney Barnsley thrived in the atmosphere of traditional craftsmanship and skills that were often forgotten or seen as irrelevant within many urban centres.

The oak dresser shown above, that he produced in 1896, shows his appreciation and admiration of the traditional and often underrated skills of the local Cotswold population. The plain and functional dresser, with no decoration or ornamentation, appears to be stark by comparison to much of the contemporary furniture then available in Britain, and certainly appears painfully plain compared to the new Art Nouveau furniture that was starting to appear in various centres of Europe.

When seen in its natural environment, as in the picture below, as part of Barnsley's own home, rather than as a museum piece, the dresser makes even more sense and fits well into its plain but honest interior. Barnsley's home, with its large fireplace and simple table, chairs, settle and dresser, is a perfect example of how an Arts & Crafts home should look, though often interiors inspired by the movement were not this authentic or this committed.

The dresser and other pieces created by Barnsley, in a way celebrates the traditions of the English working man. It is unfussy and practical and by example extremely unaristocratic in its makeup. Also by producing the furniture in oak, and so much of the English Arts & Crafts furniture was made from this particular type of wood, a fundamental and intrinsically understandable connection was being made between the English consumer and the Arts & Crafts furniture designer.

Oak was considered to be the common backbone of the English interior throughout its history. Much of the medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan furniture was produced in oak, as was much of the everyday furniture of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. It was only after the general importation of expensive and exotic woods, particularly from South America, that the aristocracy were able to distance themselves from the oak furniture of the masses.

By producing simple country furniture in oak, designers like Barnsley were in fact aligning themselves, at least as designers, with that of the local furniture maker, rather than those that supplied the aristocracy. However, there is always a catch with the Arts & Crafts movement. These simple pieces of country furniture could never actually be owned by simple country people. They often had to make do with the cheaper mass produced pieces that the Arts & Crafts movement despised, while their own homage to country craftsman skills, ended up with the same aristocracy that the movement held in such low regard.

However, Barnsley's furniture does make a statement and is an important element in the history of English furniture design. It may not be a Chippendale, but it is probably all the more important because it is not.

Sidney Barnsley's house Pinbury, Gloucestershire 1890s
Posted by John hopper at 17:08 8 comments Links to this post
Labels: 1890s, arts and crafts, design, designer, furniture, oak, victorian
Monday, 27 July 2009
Al Eklund and the Stobo Company

Al Eklund Fagelbur 1958

This design by Al Eklund, produced for the Swedish company Stobo in 1958, is called Fagelbur. The design is made up of a vast number of seemingly random crossed and overlapping lines. This rough lattice pattern could well be a representation of the weaving technique used to produce fabric, and with the design being reproduced on a coarse and fairly rough woven linen, it is as if the pattern is copying, or even reinterpreting the base fabric. However, when the Swedish name of the textile is translated into English as Birdcage, the design takes on a different connotation as it could then be interpreted as the latticed bars of a birdcage, or perhaps it could be seen that the oval motifs are the birdcages, with the rest of the pattern taking inspiration from these motifs. In other words the design is open for interpretation and reinterpretation.

Eklund produced a number of textile designs for Stobo during the 1950s that were very similar in style to Fagelbur. Many took on the same monotone and dense appearance, so that they tended to appear as brooding abstract canvasses, rather than as interior furnishing fabrics.

Eklund was in fact a graphic designer, who was commissioned by Gota Tragardh, the then artistic director of Stobo, to produce a range of contemporary and hopefully uncompromising textile design work for the company. Along with a number of other carefully chosen leading Swedish artists and designers from a variety of disciplines, Tragardh hoped to make a name for the company nationally and more importantly internationally, by pushing Stobo into the cutting edge of 1950s textile design. To achieve this she encouraged her commissioned artists and designers to approach the textile medium with a fresh and uncluttered outlook and with a minimum of preconceptions of what a textile design should be.

She largely succeeded, as the work produced during this period for Stobo was some of the most innovative and uncompromising textile design work on offer anywhere in the world. The fact that Stobo itself did not survive the 1960s is a shame, but sometimes a company or a set of designers can be a little too ahead of their time and can only be appreciated with a little hindsight.

Fifty years on, which is more than enough time for hindsight to kick in, the textile design work commissioned by Tragardh, like Eklund's and the general output of Stobo, must be seen as some of the most inspirational and innovative work achieved during the 1950s. A decade which in itself was a period that was no stranger to inspirational and innovative design work from any number of disciplines.
Posted by John hopper at 18:07 3 comments Links to this post
Labels: 1950s, design, designer, fabrics, interiors, pattern, scandinavia, swedish, textile
Friday, 24 July 2009
Josep Maria Jujol and the Torre de la Creu

Josep Maria Jujol Torre de la Creu, Barcelona 1913

The Torre de la Creu, just outside Barcelona, was designed in 1913 by Josep Maria Jujol a former assistant of the Barcelona based architect Antoni Gaudi.

The building actually consists of two separate properties within the same structure. What is probably unique about the building is the way that it has taken the idea of the circle as its starting point, rather than the more traditional square or rectangle. The building is constructed using six intersecting circles as a floor plan. These circles then become the base of six cylinders which make up the bulk of the building. By varying the height of these cylinders, an uneven and asymmetrical roof line was easily and effectively achieved. The building was then split down the middle with a dividing wall to create the two properties.

The building is unique and even if the plans were repeated, no two buildings would be the same. There is an element of art in this form of structure that lends little to the idea of mass-produced housing or of the domestic setting being more like a machine than a dwelling. Jujol's organic housing, although based loosely within the Art Nouveau movement, has many similarities to the idea of the Art House, a domestic building that is created as a whole, both inside and out, as an individual construction that does not have to necessarily relate to any other building in its vicinity.

Jujol was part of the architectural school of Barcelona, led by Gaudi. While popular within the city and Catalonia generally, this sometimes extreme and certainly individual approach to architectural design did not travel well outside its core area, as many who were not familiar with with the style and particularly the history of Catalonia were often confused, so that the borrowing of specifically Spanish based Islamic and medieval decoration and architectural formulas meant little to outsiders. Consequently the style that became so closely associated with Gaudi and his small group of followers, is often considered to be insular and remote from the mainstream and international architectural movement of the twentieth century.

However, as regards the idea of organic and fluid building techniques and ideas towards the creative use of space within often dull domestic parameters, the Torre de la Creu building makes a contribution towards our understanding of what exactly it is to live in a home that is both individual and inspiring.

Posted by John hopper at 16:45 3 comments Links to this post
Labels: architect, architectural, architecture, art nouveau, barcelona, design, designer, spain
Thursday, 23 July 2009
Art Nouveau and Electric Lighting

Emile Galle Inkcaps cast iron and glass lamp 1902

There was an often bizarre assembly of electric lighting when, after initial experimentation and testing, the idea of the use of electricity to light domestic homes was first introduced.

In many cases electric lighting was seen firstly as a novelty, and at best a support for the prime lighting techniques of gas or oil. Bulbs were often of such a low wattage and had such a short life span that they couldn't hope to compete with other forms of lighting that had a much longer history of dependability. Also, electricity supplies were often intermittent and were fraught with a number of teething problems that many of the new companies supplying the technology, were ill prepared to deal with.

The early electric lamps shown here by Galle, Tiffany and Majorelle were all produced within a couple of years of the start of the new twentieth century. However, due to a lack of understanding of the new technology and a need to display electricity as a novelty rather than as a necessity, the function of the lamp has been submerged, thus producing a piece of equipment that has little practical use and is more closely affiliated with a piece of sculpture than with any form of practical lighting.

Louis Comfort Tiffany Pond Lily lamp 1900

A good example of the confusion and lack of understanding of the function of electricity in the home, was the impractical application of lamp shades. Rather than being clear, or at least lightly coloured, many were often made from opaque glass that was so heavily coloured or patterned, that there was little if any artificial light available for an interior, from an already feeble electric bulb.

This implies that the technology had arrived before the designer was fully aware of the constraints and foibles of that new technology. Admittedly electric lighting was very often packaged and presented to the public as an amusement. Many of the carnivals and funfairs of the period had venues that were lit by electricity. The technology may very well have been portrayed as the wonder of the age, but to many it was still very much a case of Yes, but what do we do with it?

As the century progressed and electricity became much more of a casual and everyday technology, manufacturers soon learnt to deal with the new opportunities and admittedly also the constraints of electricity, and much more practical applications, particularly in the form of lighting, were available for domestic use. However, the early Art Nouveau attempts to deal with the coming modern world are an interesting example of a the confusion that can be caused by a technology with no previous history and therefore no standards or guidelines. Misunderstandings between designers and the real applications of a future technology have been a fact of life of the twentieth century, as they will be of the twenty first.

No comments:

Post a Comment