Curator's Choice: In her own words... Zoë Hendon of the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (MoDA) discusses the appeal of a design for a 1930s dress fabric, which featured in the museum’s recent Petal Power exhibition.
"This is a design for a printed voile by Madeleine Lawrence, one of the designers who worked for the Silver Studio in the 1930s. The design features pink and purple poppies on a pale background.
It would have been intended for summer dresses and the pretty summery colours on a pale ground give it a floaty, airy feel – ideal for the kind of dress you’d want to wear for a garden party.
The taupe silhouettes of flowers in this design are clever because they serve a dual purpose. They add a bit of interest to an otherwise open design, and they also break up the surface of what would have been intended to be a semi-translucent and lightweight fabric.
I think the process of designing patterns for fabrics is fascinating. Designers who worked for the Silver Studio had to be good at drawing flowers that were recognisable, but which also worked as repeating patterns. They certainly weren’t given much room to explore their own creativity; there were strict requirements as to the scale, colour and detail of each design.
The Silver Studio was a commercial design studio, so the priority was to produce designs for fabrics which would please their customers – manufacturers and retailers. Clients included companies like Liberty & Co. Liberty-type floral prints are really familiar to everyone, but it’s easy to forget that someone had to design each one in the first place.
Silver Studio designers worked to precise instructions, with no detail too small for attention. Each design was the result of a combination of aesthetic and technical considerations – in other words, a design had to both look attractive, and be capable of being produced cost effectively.
Professional designers were expected to be both artistically creative and to understand the possibilities and limitations of the roller-printing process. For example, the number of colours used in a design directly affected the cost of production, so designers had to be clever at creating effective patterns with limited numbers of colours.
MoDA’s Petal Power exhibition focussed on the working lives of the Silver Studio’s female designers, all of whom were required to work at home.
The Studio employed male designers too, but they worked in the Studio itself. The fact that the women worked at home meant that design instructions, comments and criticisms were sent by post – and have survived in the archive. (Similar conversations would have taken place with the male designers in person, so didn’t get written down).
The correspondence between Rex Silver (head of the Silver Studio) and his female employees Madeleine Lawrence, Winifred Mold, and others tell us a lot about the process of designing, altering and refining a pattern for market.
It’s hard to imagine the lives of the designers who worked for the Studio; we know very little about any of them, other than their names, dates and the evidence of their work itself. The women designers who worked for the Studio between the wars were part of the first generation of women who were able to make a living as professional designers.
They got paid very little, only about two pounds for a 48 hour week, which was much less than a shop assistant of the same period. However, being a designer was at least a way of earning an independent living: only one of the female designers we featured seems to have been married, and this was a generation for whom the First World War had meant a shortage of marriageable men, so there were more single women who had to work to support themselves.
I think this design, and the many others like it which survive in the Silver Studio collection, are fascinating because they appeal on so many levels. It’s a beautifully painted thing in its own right. It demonstrates a high level of skill and technical competence in the understanding of how it would need to work as a printed fabric.
It also tells us a lot about the fashions for floral frocks in the interwar period. And it provides us with a fascinating glimpse of the working lives of a generation of female designers whose contribution to textile history has often been overlooked."
The Petal Power book is now available. Please visit MoDA’s blog for details of how to order.
If you are interested in finding out more about showing the Petal Power exhibition at your venue please see the blog, and contact Sara at Expositionis in the first instance.