Post-War British Textiles from Lucienne Day, Marian Mahler and Jacqueline Groag

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.

Day created her designs by drawing, which explains why she often simply used a black line set on dyed fabric. In a pattern like "Chequers," which looks like a soft and whimsical Frank Lloyd Wright, Day has established a geometric pattern of black lines that sometimes terminate in little cartoonish flower heads laid on a richly colored background of cotton satin. Another device she used was laying the black line pattern over grids of circles, squares or stripes.

Whereas Day threw away most of these drawings as she was finished with them, Groag's preliminary collages and drawings still exist, and Wiltse and Brown were able to acquire many of them. In that way, they have been able to illustrate her creative process from sketch to fabric. Groag worked for many companies, including American ones, but she's best remembered for her pieces made by David Whitehead, Ltd. Though Day often created for the fairly expensive screen-print method, nearly everything Groag did was in the cheaper roller-print technique. In addition, her patterns were much denser than Day's and tended not to have any directional orientation. Often a pattern is defined by an all-over arrangement of little squares, circles or other simple shapes.

Groag was an immigrant to Britain, having come from Austria, where she had been a student of secessionist designer and architect Josef Hoffmann at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule. You can really see that Viennese influence in her work, as in the several untitled swatches covered with linear labyrinths of meandering black lines on monochrome fields that can sometimes depict figures or other recognizable things. Though the origins of this approach lie in '20s and '30s vanguard design, Groag seemed to constantly update the look of her fabrics through color choices and by tweaking the style toward the expressionist end.

Mahler was also an Austrian immigrant and a former protegé of Hoffmann's, and her style, like Groag's, comes directly out of the secessionist movement of the early twentieth century. However, Mahler is more clearly constructivist, and in that way more purely modernist in her preference for geometric decoration over things in nature. Day may be the superstar of this trio of designers, but Mahler is clearly the most advanced and most closely aligned with other European currents in fabric design.

In addition to fabrics, Mahler designed related works in wallpaper, carpeting and even plastic laminate kitchen countertops, among a slew of other things. She was discovered by noted interior design executive John Murray, of Whitehead, who knew that her work would strike a chord with an upwardly mobile young crowd looking for inexpensive but high-style designs to enliven their residences.

I can't say enough about how interesting, thoughtful, intelligently laid out and beautiful Designing Women is. I wasn't surprised to learn that curators from various museums in Britain as well as from the Cooper-Hewitt, the Wolfsonian and even the Museum of Modern Art have made their way to Colorado Springs to see it. Suffice it to say, it wouldn't kill you to exert a fraction of that effort to do the same.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia