Archive for the Rugs Category

First Impressions: The Art of Design

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Rugs, Textiles, Wallpaper, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Tile or panel design, W.T. Copeland & Sons, Ltd. (formerly Spode), c. 1880

As much as I love textiles and decorative objects, I am often just as attracted to the designer’s drawings, sketches and samples as to the finished pieces. The objects, no matter how beautiful, are immutable, fixed in the here and now. On paper, it is all possibility—often the line work is graceful and sinuous, the colors are rich and vibrant, and the patterns, free of prosaic form, veer toward the abstract. The flatness of the design is part of what I find so appealing. In two dimensions, the objects are not subject to gravity, they represent that most fleeting thing—the creative impulse. They embody the alchemy of transformation, idea into image, captured in pencil, ink or watercolor.

Dagobert Peche Design for a coffeepot, c. 1920

Design for a Sèvres porcelain cup, Empire period, c. 1800

In some cases, as in the designs of James Leman, the delicious yellows and oranges that are so pleasing to the eye represent various shades of metallic thread— which however sumptuous and elegant in the finished textile, is a completely different visual experience. In Leman’s designs on paper, his lyrical line and masterful layering of abstracted botanical images are enhanced by the warm, saturated colors. As patterns, woven in metallic thread on a heavy silk fabric, they are breathtaking and grand, but no longer have the down to earth, fresh from the garden appeal that they have on paper.

James Leman, design for silk fabric, 1711

I love the annotations on many of these sketches—dates, yardages, cost calculations, style names and numbers—many are in the artist’s hand alongside the images. They are a decorative counterpoint to the design, often extremely graceful and engaging in themselves. You can also see marks and notations made by the printers, engravers, weavers and dyers—the artisans who actually executed the designs. The combination of the drawing and the notations provide a compelling history, tracing the evolution from design to finished product.

Design for candelabra, c. 1840-1873
Elkington & Co. Ltd.

Tin-plate molds, Shoolbred, Loveridge & Shoolbred of Wolverhampton

Tea pots, creamers and sugar bowls, Liberty archive, c. 1900-1912

These working sketches were executed on paper, and, at the time they were created, not considered precious pieces to be treated with great care. As a result, the paper is often yellowed and brittle, and you can see smudges, folds, creases and spills. On many of them you can still see the grids and guidelines—another interesting counterpoint to the pattern and design. I don’t see these designs as mere preliminaries, inferior to a perfect, finished object. To my eye, they are works of art in themselves.

William Morris, Watercolor design for Evenlode, 1883
(design for  cotton fabric, printed by indigo discharge)

William Morris, watercolor design for Redcar carpet, c. 1881-1885

William Morris & Co. wallpaper designs, c. 1860s

I’ve restricted myself to designs for decorative objects, tableware, textiles and wallpaper and resisted the temptation to include designs for furniture, architecture and fashion. I have also deliberately not juxtaposed the drawings with the finished objects made from the sketch, because for me these stand as complete works on their own.

Design for seven-piece coffee set, Sèvres, 1899

The designs below, drawn in pencil or pen and ink, are quite elegant and visually stunning. This page of designs for tea strainers is beautifully drawn, patterned and balanced—and could easily be taken for a contemporary abstract drawing.

Designs for tea strainers, c. 1900-1912
Pen and ink on ruled paper, Liberty, London

In a narrative vein, this delightful Rococo-style sketch of insect figures, for use as a decorative motif, is playful and lively.

Charles-Germain de Saint Aubin (1721-86), sketch for decorative motif

This Wiener Werkstätte floor lamp design has a figurative totem-like quality, and is drawn in a loose and graceful style. Dagobert Peche’s sketches always have a flowing, effortless hand-drawn quality—a wonderful contrast to the elegant formalism of the objects made from his designs.

Dagobert Peche, design for floor lamp, 1920

This sketch for a graceful carafe has a very different presence than the finished piece of heavily embossed silver. As an object, the carafe has weight, volume, shine and a beautifully textured surface. The drawing, flat and decorative, has a very different, wonderful combination of elements. There is a narrative feel to it—the intricate patterning, sensuous curves, twisted serpent handle and amusing squirrel seem to be telling a story.

Arabian shape Claret jug, c. 1880
Workshop drawings of Oomersee Mawjee & Sons, Kutch

This gorgeous ink and wash drawing of a cloche has so much presence and volume. The sculptural decorative element at the top is exquisitely rendered.

Cloche, French, eighteenth century

Much of the inspiration for decorative objects comes from nature, as these floral designs for textiles by Anna Maria Garthwaite illustrate so beautifully. These botanical patterns, which take on a seriousness and formality when woven in silk and brocade, are exuberant on the page.

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, detail, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design (possibly a copy of a French original) detail, 1733

Some of my favorite designs are for tea pots, tea cups and china patterns. They are drawn in flattened-out, foreshortened shapes to best show the designs—you can really appreciate the quality of line, pattern and detail. The decorative motifs are fanciful, lighthearted and graceful—exactly the qualities treasured in a piece of delicate porcelain.

Tea cup designs, Spode, c. 1846

Majolica design, Apple Blossom flower pot, Wedgewood, c. 1850-1860

Coffee and Tea Cups, Spode, c. 1840

Dagobert Peche, Design for a teapot, c. 1922

Textile designs are executed in both minimalist and very painterly styles. Often you will see only one piece of the design completed painted, with the repeats only sketched in. When the designs are for woven fabric or rugs, you sometimes see the graph paper grids they are sketched on.

Fabric designs from Lyons, France, 19th century

Textile design, factory of Jean-Michel Haussmann, Colmar, 1797

Dagobert Peche, design for tapestry fabric for Johann Backhausen & Söhne, 1912

Textile and wallpaper designs were often collected in sample books—some were for companies and/or designers to keep track of their patterns, others were used to market the fabrics. Sample books for textiles, very popular in the 18th century through the 20th century, provide a wealth of information about the history of pattern design, dyeing techniques and the technical means of production. Often they contain swatches of the actual fabrics, shown in the various available colorways.

Wallpaper and border designs, Manufacture Dufour, Paris, early 19th century

Designs for block print fabric, French,  early 19th century

In 2008, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum mounted an interesting exhibition, Multiple Choice: from Sample to Product, that featured sample books for tableware, textiles for interiors and fashion, wallpaper, even buttons. Seeing these lovely books, which contain such a rich visual history, was quite poignant—in the contemporary design world, with electronic formats taking precedence, the paper sample book is truly a thing of the past.

Among the sketches I’ve referenced in this post, many are by well-known designers, others are from an anonymous hand. Some designs were never turned into objects, others are still being manufactured today. But they all continue to live vibrantly on the page, their yellowed and tattered pages still emitting sparks of inspiration.

Wider Connections

The French Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

The English Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte, edited by Peter Noever

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Christian Bérard: Painter, Designer, Illustrator

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Drawing, Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Illustration, Music & Dance, Painting, Rugs, Textiles, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Christian Bérard, Self-portrait, 1948
Oil on canvas, 18″ x 24″
Private collection, Paris

Christian Bérard (1902-1949) was a prodigiously-talented artist, whose tremendous facility across different fields, and his status as the darling of fashionable society in the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, undermined his reputation as a serious painter. Bérard’s work confounded the critics because his work was unclassifiable—it existed outside the current theories of art, and he interchanged techniques and disciplines. Bérard’s ground-breaking set and costume designs, fashion and book illustrations, murals, decorative screens and interior designs all demonstrated a sensitive, fluid, graceful, elegant line.

Christian Bérard, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1932
Mural for Jean Cocteau’s flat, Paris

Christian Bérard, set for Margot, 1935
Margot’s Room at the Louvre, Act II, Scene 1
Gouache on paper

Bérard’s paintings, mostly portraits and self-portraits, added another dimension to his talent as a draughtsman. Painted with insight and great skill, in a neo-romantic, poetic style, they exhibit a deeply-felt humanism. His friend and partner of 20 years, Boris Kochno, remarked that when he was painting, Bérard’s usual childlike exuberance would vanish, and he would work with great concentration and intensity, seeming to take instruction from an unseen third party. Bérard often reused canvases, painting over work he was dissatisfied with—so one can occasionally glimpse ghost-like images, faint faces, emerging from some of his paintings.

Christian Bérard, Madame L., 1947
Oil on canvas, 32″ x 26″
Private Collection

Christian Bérard, Boris Kochno, 1930
Oil on cardboard, 43″ x 31″
Collection Boris Kochno

Christian Bérard, Emilio Terry, 1931
Oil on canvas, 36″ x 28″
Private collection, Paris

Born in Paris in 1902, Bérard was the son of the official architect of the city of Paris, André Bérard. His mother’s early death from tuberculosis was traumatic for the young Bérard. After his wife’s death, the elder Bérard married his secretary, who joined him in the constant disparaging and belittling of his son’s talents, friendships and spending habits. Perhaps Bérard’s life-long desire to please and give pleasure, and his susceptibility to flattery, was a reaction to this early and intense hostility from his family.

Christian Bérard, 1932
Photograph, Hoyningen-Huene

Bérard showed artistic talent at a young age. As a child he filled sketchbooks with drawings of ballets and circus performances that he attended with his parents. He also copied the couture gowns from his mother’s fashion magazines, which at that time were heavily influenced by the Orientalism of Léon Bakst’s sets for Diaghilev’s ballets. As a young man, he studied at the Académie Ranson with Edouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis and had his first gallery show in 1925. His early work was collected by Gertrude Stein, and he did portraits of his friends Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton and Horst P. Horst.

Christian Bérard, Jean Cocteau, 1928
Oil on canvas, 26″ x 21″
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Christian Bérard, Horst P. Horst, 1933/34
Oil on canvas, 31″ x 41″
Private collection, New York

Throughout his career, when he needed the income, Bérard continued to do illustrations for fashion and interior design magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Art et Style, Formes et Coleurs and Style en France. He had a great eye for fashion and style, and his work elevated the art of fashion illustration, updating a Watteau or Fragonard sensibility for women’s fashion to the styles of the 1930s and 40s. His work often inspired the couture collections of designers like Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and Nina Ricci. Bérard also did some interior decoration and textile design—painting murals and decorative screens, designing rugs—as well as a line of scarves for Ascher Silks, London.

Christian Bérard, illustration, beachwear for Schiaparelli, n.d.

Christian Bérard, Scarf designed for Ascher Silks, London

Christian Bérard, carpet design, c. 1940
Made by Maurice Lauer/Aubusson and Cogolin, reissued 1951

Bérard also continued to do illustrations for theater and ballet posters, music scores, and advertising throughout his life.

Christian Bérard, Sketch for an illustration of Gigi by Colette, n.d.
Pastel and gouache, 13″ x 8″

Christian Bérard, Poster for the Ballets des Champs-Elysées

Christian Bérard, Empress Josephine
Illustration for Queens of France by Jean Cocteau and Guillaume, 1949
Drypoint

Christian Berard, Illustration for score by Georges Auric, 1935
Gouache on paper

Christian Bérard was a large man, with fair hair, luminous blue eyes, and a rosy plump face that earned him the nickname Bébé, given to him by his friends because he resembled the baby in an advertisement for soap that was currently up all over Paris. Bérard’s appearance was often disheveled, he would stride into Maxim’s or other society nightspots in tattered paint-spattered smock and torn coveralls, with a large patterned scarf flung dramatically over his baggy workman’s jacket. Boris Kochno also recounts long walks through Paris at night—Bérard constantly noticing and pointing out glimpses of magical scenes, almost like a conjurer. Bérard never lost his childhood enjoyment of carnivals and street fairs and threw himself with great enthusiasm into the constant round of costume parties given by his friends. He excelled at spontaneously creating costumes from fabrics and items at hand.

Christian Bérard, sketch for Cyrano de Bergerac, 1938
Indian ink and gouache
Private collection

When agitated or absorbed in his work, Bérard could be very clumsy, and he could turn a well-ordered room into chaos in short order—leaving a wake of crumbled papers, overflowing ash trays, and stepped-on tubes of paint.  He was also extremely witty and charming—his spontaneity, kindness and charisma made him very popular in fashionable circles. He was always creating—while dining with friends, like New York society hostess Elsa Maxwell, Bérard would constantly be drawing on table cloths, napkins, menus—caricatures, stage sets, costumes. The waiters would hover and often quickly whisk them away, usually to sell to collectors.

Christian Bèrard, Program for Le Théàtre de la Mode, 1945

In 1930, Bérard designed his first theater set, for Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine at the Comédie-Française. Cocteau was a life-long friend, and the work that Bérard is perhaps most famous for, is his set and costume design for Cocteau’s film masterpiece, La Belle et la Bête. Unfortunately, Bérard also shared Cocteau’s vice, the smoking of opium, which lead to a life of drug addiction, repeated sanatorium cures, and contributed to his early death.

Christian Bérard, sketchess for sets for Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, 1946
Chalk and gouache on black paper
Private Collection

In 1931, Bérard joined the company of the Ballet Russes in Monte Carlo, working with choreographer George Balanchine on the ballet Cotillon. Balanchine had taken over for ballet impresario and founder of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. Balanchine continued in Diaghilev’s tradition of scouring the garrets of Montparnasse and Montmartre to find unknown choreographers, set designers or musicians to collaborate with. At first Balanchine declined to work with Bérard because he thought his work was already too well-known as an artist and illustrator, but the quality of Bérard’s work caused him to change his mind.

Christian Bérard, sketch for L’Ecole des Femmes, 1936
Horace’s Costume, Gouache

In the 1930s, Bérard did the sets and costumes for four ballets as well as many plays, such as Moliere’s L’Ecole des Femmes at the Théàtre de l’Athenée in 1936. He also worked with Jean Genet and Jean Giraudoux, among others. Bérard’s work was revolutionary and changed theater design forever—his set for L’Ecole consisted of a small garden, two flowerbeds and 5 chandeliers. He believed that  sets should serve and enhance the work, he was always subtracting elements, leaving just the essentials. His set for Léonid Massine’s ballet set to the music of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, was a masterpiece of delicate, weightless friezes. Except for the judicious use of deep red, Bérard eschewed bright colors, believing that pale, soft color better served the performances. To see Bérard working on a set was to see an outpouring of inventiveness. After Bérard’s death, Jean Cocteau said of working with his friend:

Christian Bérard was my right hand. Since he was left-handed, I had a special, clever, gracious, light right hand: a magical hand.
You may imagine the emptiness left by an artist who guessed all, and with the dilligence of an archeologist, conjured up naked beauty from the thin air where she resides. Bérard is dead, but that is no reason to stop following his instructions. I know what he would say about anything, in any circumstances. I listen to him and carry out his orders.

Christian Bérard in the studio at Fourques, 1940

Christian Berard died in 1949, while at work on the costumes and sets for Les Fourberies de Scapin at the Théàtre Marigny, working with friends director Louis Jouvet and actors Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud. After giving some final instructions, Bérard stood up and said: “Well, that’s that,” and collapsed from a cerebral embolism. Jean-Louis Barrault wrote:

If I had to chose only one among the many impressions of Christian Bérard that spring to mind, it would be one that soon became for him a profession of faith: the joy of living, to the extent of perishing from that joy…It is as if, while I think intensely of him, all of the Bérards leaping about me reply:

‘Love of life is based on suffering, anguish, nostalgia, sorrow and sadness…that’s true, but all that is the source of joy.’

Wider Connections

Christian Bérard’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Menil Collection, Houston and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas.

Christian Bérard, by Boris Kochno, with an introduction by John Russell. Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Winifred Gill and the Omega Workshops

Posted in Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Embroidery, Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Furniture, Rugs, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916
Pencil, ink and watercolor on paper
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

Winifred Gill (1891-1981) was one of the unsung heroines of the Omega Workshops. The task of  creating patterns or translating existing designs to be used on textiles, furniture and home furnishings fell largely to the women of the Omega Workshops—Gill, Jesse Etchells and Nina Hamnett among others. Artist Vanessa Bell also helped to produce some of the embroidery and other needlework, but because she was also one of the directors, not as much of the handwork fell to her.

Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops, c.1913

Duncan Grant, design for embroidered firescreen, c.1912
Embroidered by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Collection of Bryan Ferry

It is largely through Gill’s letters and taped recordings from the 1960s, that we know as much as we do about the day-to-day activities at the Omega—their production methods, anecdotes about specific projects and the personalities of the participants. (Gill’s archive was donated in 2009 to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, by her niece, Dr. Margaret Bennett.) Winifred Gill not only had artistic talent, she was intelligent and energetic, with a practical side that enabled her to also manage the business and handle sales.

The Omega Workshops Showroom, 1913

The Omega Workshops, started in 1913 by Roger Fry, was a modernist incarnation of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement that was the legacy of William Morris. Fry was an art critic and painter who wanted to move the British public past the traditions of Edwardian design. He embraced the contemporary European modernist movements—Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and the Futurists—while also cultivating a bit of a Japanese aesthetic, especially through the use of painted screens. The Omega Workshops’ expressive, colorful, bold and abstract designs were the forerunners of the British artist/designer movement that followed mid-century. In 1925, Paul Nash wrote:

The modern movement in textile design began with the establishment of the Omega Workshops.

Paul Nash, Cherry Orchard, 1930
Block-printed silk crêpe-de-chine, Cresta Silks Ltd.

Roger Fry had some experience in interior design prior to founding the Omega Workshops. Among other things, he had built and furnished his home at Durbins, painted a mural at his mother’s home in Cheyne Walk, and decorated the home of his friend, Hubert Crackenthorpe. His co-directors, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were also very actively engaged in the decorative arts, both for themselves and friends, including their home at Charleston.

Photograph of the drawing room at Charleston in the 1930s

Duncan Grant, Interior with the Artist’s Daughter, c. 1935-36
Oil on canvas
Collection of Dick Chapman and Ben Duncan

Fry chose to open the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square, London—then rather a shabby neighborhood—in a regular house, rather than a shop, in order to better integrate the work within a domestic setting. When the workshop ended in 1919, Fry wrote:

I have lost $2000 and five years of gratuitous hand work: I cannot waste more on a country that regards the attempt to create as a kind of Bolshevism.

Over the years, in addition to Fry, Bell and Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Paul Nash, Frederick Etchells and others contributed to the designs. Their clients included George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, E.M. Forster and Gertrude Stein—as well as Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell and others of the Bloomsbury set. Winifred Gill indicates in her letters that there was a lot of collaboration—Grant, Bell and others contributed designs which were stored away and later reworked into patterns for specific products by Gill, Hamnett and many of the other unheralded young women who did so much of the work.

Nina Hamnett and Winifred Gill in Omega fabrics
from The Illustrated London Herald, 1915
The British Library

Roger Fry, Portrait of Nina Hamnett, c. 1917
Oil on canvas
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London

Roger Fry, Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins, 1912
Private Collection

Part of Fry’s motivation in establishing the workshop was to find a way for young artists to make a living. At the time, Fry was accused of choosing the name Omega because the current usage of the word was “the last word,” meaning that he thought the workshop’s products were the last word in decorative art. But Winifred Gill wrote that Fry chose it because:

He was looking for something, some trademark, that had a name of its own that everybody knew. I think it was very effective because everyone could say Omega and remember it.

Omega also had a ready-made, recognizable symbol, Ω, and all the work of the Omega, produced anonymously, was marked with the Greek letter (and occasionally incorporated into designs.)

Roger Fry, Design for Cadena rug, 1914

Young artists would drop by the Omega, seeking employment, but often Fry politely turned them down—he liked to scout out artists for himself at art schools and exhibitions—and even artists who came highly recommended had to show a portfolio before being taken on. Gill wrote that some of the young artists, like Wyndham Lewis, broke with the Omega because they resented the anonymity of the work—they wanted to claim credit and recognition for their designs.

Omega Workshops, painted lamp bases, 1913

I seem to remember a long time painting the legs of tables. It had come as a surprise to me that black and white size paint would produce blue. When Venetian red was added, a warm mulberry colour resulted which I always connect with Vanessa. She was very fond of it, and we used it a good deal for background on our furniture. Trays too we painted. O yes, and endless candlesticks. When I remember Nina Hamnett at work it is always a candlestick she has in her hand.
Letter from Winifred Gill to Duncan Grant, 1966

Winifred Gill was invited by Roger Fry to join the workshop in 1913. Like Fry, she came from a Quaker family in Surrey, and was, at the time, working as an assistant to Fry’s sister Joan at her philanthropic foundation, as well as attending art classes at the Slade. Gill’s attraction to the Omega was not only for the artistic aspect and because she lauded the attempt to provide support for young artists, but because she also deeply believed in Fry’s pacifist social agenda. Gill played an essential role in running the workshop and beginning in 1915 she served as the workshop’s business manager. During her time at the Omega, Gill made woodcuts, paintings, designs for toys and household objects. In 1919, Gill designed some artificial flowers with Vanessa Bell on commission, to be used as part of a theater set.

Roger Fry, Still Life with Omega Flowers, 1919
Oil on canvas
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

Gill also designed marionettes with articulated joints which portrayed dancers and musicians. The marionettes were used in a 1917 production of War and Peace: A Dramatic Fantasia a pacifist play written by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson which was attended by W.B. Yeats, Arnold Bennett, G.B. Shaw and Lytton Strachey.

Winifred Gill with her clown puppet Joey, c.1920
The Bodleian, Oxford

The Omega Workshops came to an end in 1919, defeated by the effects of the war, the unreadiness of the British public to embrace new ideas and internal disagreements. However, thought it lasted only six years, the influence of the Omega carries on to the present day.

1946, Miller’s Galleries in Lewes held an exhibition of Omega Workshops products, displayed in a similar fashion to the arrangements at Fitzroy Square. At the time Winifred Gill wrote to Vanessa Bell about the possibility of an Omega room as a permanent fixture at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Vanessa Bell replied:

I hope it may happen for I thought the things at Miller’s in Lewes looked very good, especially the pottery…How long ago all that time seems—it was very strange having it revived for a while…

Painted version of Omega mark used on ceramics

Gunta Stölzl, Master Weaver of the Bauhaus

Posted in Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Rugs, Textiles, XC with tags , , , , , , , on October 31, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Gunta Stolzl,Slit Tapestry Red/Green

Gunta Stölzl, Slit Tapestry Red/Green, 1927/28
Cotton, silk, linen 150 x 110cm

Gunta Stölzl, an innovative and influential textile designer, began as a student at the Bauhaus in 1919 and was named the only female Bauhaus Master in 1927—by which time she had made the Weaving Workshop the most profitable workshop at the Bauhaus.

In a letter to the Museum of Modern Art when they acquired her piece Wandbehang Schwarz-Weiss, Stölzl wrote:

The Bauhaus period was, for all of us, like a chamber of unalienable pleasures.

Gunta StolzlGunta Stölzl

Born in Munich in 1897, Stölzl studied painting, ceramics and art history at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts & Crafts) in Munich from 1913-16. After serving as a Red Cross nurse from 1917-18 during World War I, Stölzl became aware of the Bauhaus, which was founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919. Like many of the female students, Stölzl was an accomplished visual artist attracted to the Bauhaus by the presence of painters Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger and others.

Kandinsky, Composition IVWassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1919
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

In the spring of 1920, Stölzl was accepted on a trial basis to the Bauhaus and enrolled in Johannes Itten’s Vorkurs (preliminary course).

Johannes IttenJohannes Itten, The Elements of Color

By the fall of that year she was awarded a full scholarship. Walter Gropius assigned painters to lead the workshops instead of craftsmen, which was in line with his ideas about elevating craft to the level of fine art, an approach that was very effective in attracting visually sophisticated students. The fundamental approach of the Bauhaus was to see things with fresh eyes, to discard old notions. Paul Klee called this approach “visual thinking.”

Paul KleePaul Klee, Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black, 1925
Oil on cardboard, 15″ x 15″
Kunstsammlung, Basel

This approach also contributed to a lot of collaboration and cross-pollination of visual ideas.

Stolzl Breuer ChairGunta Stölzl and Marcel Breuer, African Chair, 1921

Stolzl, 5ChoreGunta Stölzl, 5 Chöre (5 Choirs), 1928
Jacquard wall hanging Cotton, wool, rayon and silk
229 x 143 cm
Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Lübeck

Klee, PastoralPaul Klee, Pastoral, 1927
Tempera on canvas, mounted on wood, 69.3 x 52.4 cm
Museum of Modern Art, NY.

Gropius had founded the Bauhaus on the principle of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), where design, visual aesthetics and mastery of technique would come together. The admission policy espoused gender equality, but the reality was very different. Gropius was taken aback by how many women applied to the Bauhaus and quickly established a “Women’s Department” to channel the female students into the Weaving, Bookbinding and Pottery Workshops—and, with few exceptions, such as Florence Henri, this was what transpired. As it turned out, Gerhard Marcks, the head of the Pottery Workshop, did not want women in his department and the Bookbinding Workshop shut down in 1922. The result was that  the Weaving Workshop soon remained the sole option for many female Bauhaus students, who only had access to painting classes via the Weaving Workshop.

Anni AlbersAnni Albers, Wall hanging, triple-weave, 1926

When Gunta Stölzl joined the Weaving Workshop, it was languishing under the leadership of Georg Muche, the master of the Weaving Workshop from 1921-27, and Helene Börner—neither of whom had the skills to help the students advance their technique. Börner, who provided all the looms and equipment for the Weaving Workshop, had been trained as a Handarbeitslehrerin (home economics teacher) which garnered her little respect among the students. Stölzl soon took over the technical direction of the workshop. She was a person of tremendous enthusiasm and energy and she quickly understood the equipment and grasped the possibilities of weaving. She had an instinctive feel for the process, was passionate about experimenting with new materials and constantly explored new ideas in color and design and their applications for industrial design. In 1922 Stölzl studied dyeing techniques in Krefeld with fellow Bauhaus weaver Benita Otte and on their return established a dye facility at the Bauhaus. One of Stölzl’s students, Anni Albers, often said that Stölzl was an excellent teacher, “having almost an animal feeling for textiles.” Stölzl was appointed craft master of the Weaving Workshop in Dessau in 1925.

Benita OtteBenita Otte, Color studies, c.1925

Benita OtteBenita Otte,Wall hanging, 1923
Shown in Bauhaus Exhibition, Haus am Horn

In spite of the limitations placed on female students at the Bauhaus, many flourished there, particularly in the Weaving Workshop. At that time, women were often barred from traditional art academies, and, adapted to low expectations, found the Bauhaus relatively inclusive and the atmosphere exciting and inspiring. Stölzl, who was always pleased to talk about her days at the Bauhaus, later wrote about that time:

I believe that the most important of all was life itself. It was brimful with impressions, experiences, encounters and friendships which have lasted over decades.

Bauhaus LoomsWeaving Workshop at the Bauhaus, Weimar

Stölzl was inspired by Paul Klee’s passion for color and form and Kandinsky’s ideas about abstraction.  Kandinsky wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art:

The more abstract is form, the more clear and direct its appeal…The more an artist uses these abstracted forms, the deeper and more confidently will he advance into the kingdom of the abstract.

Exploring these principles, Stölzl guided the Weaving Workshop from personal, pictorial and decorative tapestry weaving to the production of innovative, abstract and geometric textiles for domestic and industrial use. In accordance with Bauhaus philosophy, textiles as art or a means of personal expression was discouraged, utility and simplicity were valued. Stölzl’s creative energies were devoted to developing new weave structures, the innovative use of synthetic fibers and exploring new dyeing techniques.

Gunta StolzlGunta Stölzl, Design for rug, 1926
Gouache on paper

In The Development of the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop, 1931, Stölzl said this about the Weimar years:

Gradually a change took place. We began to sense how pretentious these independent, unique pieces were: tablecloths, curtains, wall coverings. The richness of colour and form became too licentious for us; it did not adapt itself, it did not subordinate itself to living. We tried to become more simple, to discipline our means, to use these in a more straightforward and functional way. Thus we came to yard goods which could directly serve the room, the living problem. The watchword of the new epoch was models for industry.

Gunta StolzlGunta Stölzl, Upholstery fabric, c. 1925-30

For political reasons, Stölzl resigned from the Bauhaus in 1931 and moved to Switzerland where she founded a hand-weaving workshop in Zürich which she ran in one form or another until 1967.  At that time Stölzl disbanded the workshop, resumed tapestry weaving and pursued her own work until her death in 1983. Unfortunately many of the pieces she produced during the Bauhaus period are lost, but enough remain to assure her legacy. In 1976 she was given a solo show at the Bauhaus-Archive in Berlin and her work has been included in many retrospective shows about the Bauhaus.The Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted the exhibition, Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers, in 1990. The curator of the exhibition,  Matilda McQuaid wrote:

The textile designs of Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers are creative experiments in material, structure and color. Rejecting a nineteenth-century tradition of cloth-making that emphasized pictorial imagery, Stölzl and Albers altered the course of twentieth-century weaving by introducing new fibers and finishes and by revealing the fundamental woven structure, or the warp and weft, of the cloth.

A book about Stölzl’s life and work, with text and forward by her daughter, Monika Stadler, Gunta Stölzl: Bauhaus Master, has recently been published by The Museum of Modern Art. Also recommended reading: Women’s Work: Textile Art from the Bauhaus by Sigrid Wortmann Weltge.
Stölzl’s work can be seen in the upcoming exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity, November 8, 2009-January 25, 2010. An accompanying monograph, Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design by Ulrike Miller, will be available in November 2009.

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