In the past 150 years, successive generations of British artists have been at the forefront of printed textile design. William Morris’s floral patterns, which have come to epitomise the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts style, are still admired today. In the 1930s English socialite, Lady Sybil Colefax went into partnership with John Fowler and the two became leading designers of English country house fabrics. In the postwar era Lucienne Day was highly regarded for her avant garde designs.
In the 1980s Celia Birtwell – muse of David Hockney and former wife of the fashion designer Ossie Clark – took on the mantle. Having begun her career in the fashion industry in 1984, Birtwell opened an interiors shop in Westbourne Park, London and it was not long before her designs appeared in private houses and upmarket hotels.
Now considered something of a grande dame among British textile designers, Birtwell is exhibiting at this year’s Decorex International, the 34th annual interiors and design show at Royal Hospital Chelsea, after an 11-year absence. Her return coincides with the publication of a new “scrapbook” about her life and has provided an opportunity to launch a new collection of fabrics. “Decorex was so brilliant for me for 10 years,” says Birtwell, “but all my summers were consumed by fretting about it. We didn’t need it for a while but we thought what a good time to do it again.”
Birtwell’s latest designs include Gloriana (a bouquet pattern inspired by a trip to Mexico) and Sugar Plum (a big pom pom spot with a distinctly Birtwellesque rose in the middle). She is also relaunching Grand Punchinella, designed by Hockney (originally as part of the set for a French opera) and first used in one of her early 1980s collections. “He did the original design for me 25 years ago,” says Birtwell, “but it was a very small scale. I said I think we should do it on a grand scale and simplify it. And they do look very handsome on natural linen.”
Bella Clark, managing director of the company and Birtwell’s daughter-in-law, says Birtwell injects “a lot of humour” into her designs. Another draw of her textile designs is their strong artistic nature.
Around a fifth of the 249 exhibitors at Decorex are showing furnishing fabrics and textiles, and among them is a new generation of British artists and designers whose printed textiles recall the styles and techniques of their predecessors. Louise Body will be showing her textiles collection at Decorex for the second time this year. Body worked as an artist before turning to fabrics and wallpaper several years ago, after teaching herself to screen print. Her latest collection of fabrics, Still Life, features drawings of trailing leaves, glass vases and honesty plants.
Like Birtwell, Body draws her designs by hand or uses photographs she has taken before scanning them in to a computer and laying the patterns out digitally. “Wallpaper has become more like having art in your home,” says Body, “and maybe that is why drawing and painting have come back in and filtered through into fabrics.”
Body admires designers such as Lucienne Day and Eric Ravilious, but also cites Angie Lewin, a contemporary British textile designer, whose work is inspired by the Norfolk coast and Scottish Highlands, as a modern example of how to incorporate fine art into textile design. Lewin and her husband founded St Jude’s textile company in 2005 with the aim of allowing artists to have more control over their designs in the manufacturing process.
Lindsay Alker will also be showing her collection of hand-screened fabrics and wallpapers. Like Birtwell, she began in fashion before focusing on her own collection of fabrics. The Arts and Crafts movement is referenced in some of her designs, such as Battle Great Wood, which features stags leaping across linen: “I’ve loved the quality of William Morris designs and the Arts and Crafts designs and then I’ve just picked up some very simple geometrics to accent those quite bold and strong designs and also to make them very contemporary.”
● Decorex International 2011 runs from September 25-28 at Royal Hospital Chelsea. www.decorex.com
● Lindsay Alker www.lindsayalker.com
● Louise Body www.louisebody.com
● Celia Birtwell www.celiabirtwell.com
● St Jude’s www.stjudesfabrics.co.uk