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By Josiah M. Hesse
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As regular readers of this column know, I have a special place in my heart for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Sure, it's far away and in the heart of a town known for its right-wing religious zealots. But there's so much art history associated with Colorado Springs that it helps to break up the political fog.
The Broadmoor Academy and its successor, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School, made the place the center of the art world in the Rockies from the 1910s to the 1960s. Evidence of this is still visible in the CSFAC's original structure. A masterpiece of the highest order, it was completed in 1936 when the Denver Art Museum was still housed in a remodeled garage near the Civic Center and in a derelict mansion a few blocks away. The greatest accomplishment of its designer, New Mexico's John Gaw Meem, the CSFAC translates traditional Pueblo-style architecture into the language of '30s modernism.
The summer before last, David Owen Tryba completed an enormous and stunningly sensitive addition to Meem's creation, intelligently responding to the details and forms of the original building without overwhelming or negatively affecting it ("Happy Endings," August 2, 2007).
A few weeks ago, I went to see the Walt Kuhn/Edie Winograde shows there ("Myth America," November 26) with the thought that I would also write a brief notice on the other exhibition, Designing Women: Art and the Modern Interior From Postwar Britain. But the minute I entered the gallery, I knew I'd have to scuttle my plans and devote a full-blown review to Women — not just because it's surprisingly large, but because the quality of what's included might make you think that you've been transported to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York or, maybe more to the point, the Victoria and Albert Memorial in London.
The genesis for the show dates back to the late 1990s, when, among their many art interests, Denverites Jill Wiltse and Kirk Brown began to discover British production textiles designed in the 1950s. Driven by a passion to assemble a large array of them, Wiltse and Brown avidly sought out more and more examples — most purchased in London with the advice of experts Richard Chamberlain and Geoffrey Rayner.
The British fabrics were typically found in the form of curtains and bedspreads, and they needed to be disassembled and conserved, an elaborate process involving professionals in both England and Denver. The decision to exhibit the material at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center was the result of a happy accident. Wiltse and Brown's personal curator, Shanna Shelby, was the registrar at the Museo de las Américas, where the CSFAC's Tariana Navas-Nieves also used to work. So it was a conversation between friends that ultimately led to the possibility of this exhibit.
As Wiltse and Brown collected, they began to fully understand how significant post-war British design was in helping the country recover from WWII, as well as the essential place of textile design in the movement. And the field was essentially wide open for serious collectors, since the better-known fare of American design and the more valuable French and Italian design dominated specialty galleries and auction rooms. This is how the pair was able to put together, in a relatively short period of time, a world-class collection that is downright encyclopedic in terms of certain key designers.
Always looking for the best, Wiltse and Brown zeroed in on the three key players: Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag and Marian Mahler. Needless to say, they bought everything they could find, and there are separate sections of the show devoted to each. Three other women, Paule Vézelay, Mary Warren and Mary White, are also featured, but to a much more limited extent. For Day, Mahler and Groag, a photo enlargement of a portrait and a biographic text block were placed on a blown-up rendition of one of their signature designs. These walls were created by exhibition designer Laurel Swab, who also laid out the show, but many of the ideas she used originated with Wiltse and Brown and were inspired by other textile shows. An example is the ingenious, multi-part plastic and magnet hanging system meant to hold the fabrics without damaging them.
The star of the show is Day, who has a much wider fame than Mahler and Groag. Her husband is renowned furniture designer Robin Day (the Days, in their nineties, are still alive). She broke onto the international design scene at the 1951 Festival of Britain, a watershed event in the development of modernism in England leading to what has been dubbed the "New Look." There she exhibited a fabric pattern called "Calyx," made of screen-printed rayon manufactured by Heal Fabrics. It was a radical design for the time, made up of a pattern of cup or bell-like shapes linked by lines, sort of like a flattened rendition of a Calder mobile. The design is bold, but the colors are subtle and limited to a few shades. Typically, a manufacturer like Heal would commission a design and then have marketing people select the color schemes used for the fabrics, hoping to represent the prevailing taste of their customers. But Day would have none of that, and she retained the power with "Calyx" and with all her subsequent work for the company to select the colorways herself. Many of Day's designs have a relationship to the work of other artists, which connects them to the main currents of modernism in her era.
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