An in-depth study.
Lucienne Day, nee Désirée Lucienne Conradi, was born 5th January 1917 in Coulsden, Surrey, to a Belgian father and English Mother. The youngest of four children, the others all being boys, she enjoyed a wealthy start to life in a large house with servants and a gardener.
From age 12 to 17 she attended boarding school showing an aptitude for English and art. Then at aged 20 she enrolled in the Royal College of Art and remained there for 4 years studying printed textiles. It was here that she received her excellent grounding in colour theory which served to be the basis of her design successes later in life. During her final year she met the talented furniture designer, Robin Day, and they were married within 2 years.
At an early age she developed an interest in Modernism and interior design. She had a passion for plants and often used flowers and greenery as inspiration in her printed textiles.
Emerging from her studies in the midst of WWII she was faced with the reality of restrictions and austerity measures, with many textiles manufacturers having been forced to either close or change direction by manufacturing war materials. Both she and Robin turned their attention to teaching during this period and were employed at Beckenham School of Art.
After the war the mood in Britain was hopeful, positive and, as austerity measures relaxed, there was a growing feeling of optimism with the public eager to encourage new designers, colours and commodities that signalled the new world. Gone was the chunky pre-war Victorian furniture and florid prints. Gone, too, was the drabness of the previous decade during the hardship of war. The public were looking for brighter, bolder statements which portrayed the buoyant feeling of the time.
Into this new era stepped Lucienne Day, now in her late 20s, with a fresh artistic outlook and a drive for design experimentation. Her aim was to design textiles for interiors but restrictions on furnishings remained in place long after they were relaxed for dress fabrics, so she adapted her thinking and prepared artworks suitable for this market. Frustrating though it was, for several years she continued producing finished designs showcasing detailed pattern repeats. With her progressive and spirited approach to design, much of which incorporated witty or quirky characteristics, she came to the attention of numerous textile manufacturers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many of whom became clients and with whom she continued to work over a long period. Amongst these were Stevenson & Son, J H Birtwistle, Argand, Marks & Spencer, Horrockses and Cavendish Textile (a subsidiary of John Lewis Partnership).
During this time she continued to draw on her knowledge and love of plants to bring patterning to her work. As well as illustrations and other images she worked from specimens and often included birds, leaves, floral blooms, and ferns in her fabric designs. However, by the beginning of the 1950s her depictions had become less literal and portrayed a more stylized simplification with an emphasis on isolated plant components.
She and her husband, Robin, shared many similar design traits and clearly were influenced by each other. They encouraged and spurred the other on and, although independent and successful artists in their own right, worked collaboratively on occasion. The clean uncluttered linear patterns of Luciennes fabric designs complemented the functional pared-back ‘boxy’ style of many of Robins furniture pieces. At one stage Hille – a major client of Robins – who did not normally upholster their furniture, commissioned her to produce a patterned fabric for one of the chairs Robin had designed.
Additionally, as a member of the Society of Industrial Artists, and honorary secretary 1948 – 1953, Lucienne met many other leading designers. She was involved with organising member exhibitions which promoted the profiles of various designers as well as providing her with detailed knowledge and guidance on professional matters relating to her own career.
As the 1950s dawned restrictions on furniture design and production was finally lifted and Lucienne moved into patterning for furnishing fabrics and wallpapers, further abstracting her designs to suit.
At this time, partially to bolster the enthusiasm of the populace and partly to invigorate the economy, the Festival of Britain was announced. This was to be a huge affair incorporating many new buildings in and around London, up-to-the-minute design work in every field from architecture to interior design, furnishings and all the trappings that came with nationwide modernisation.
The Homes and Gardens Pavillion was an area where Robin Day was tasked to design furniture for three room settings. The brief was for space-saving furnishings with built-in storage facilities to house a range of items: books, sewing requirements, radios, gramophones, TVs and the like. To harmonize with these furnishings he commissioned Lucienne to design wallpapers and furnishing fabric to unify and complete the settings.
Lucienne produced three new wallpapers especially for this event, and this opportunity was also the catalyst that brought her wildly popular fabric design, Calyx, into being.
Of all her work at the Festival, it was Calyx that made the greatest impact on public taste, and that exerted the most dramatic and long-lasting effect on industrial design …… Calyx not only opened up the road to modern design for them (Heal’s) but electrified the whole of the British textile industry, as well as sending out shock waves abroad. (Ref A)
Calyx was so successful that it spawned many copies and variations on the theme by other designers around the world, many of which were produced on low-quality fabrics but, on the positive side, it also opened up the idea of ‘art’ designs in furnishing fabrics as opposed to some of the more traditional patterns gone before. Whilst designers were inspired by the work she was producing, she was looking at the surrealist painters and, it seems, the work of Paul Klee and Joan Miró, both of whom used strong vibrant colours in blocked patterning creating artworks with dynamism and movement. Later she was to discover and become a fan of Alexander Calder, a sculptor who became famous for his art-mobiles. Some of Lucienne Days spidery markings, uniting coloured motifs may indicate an influence of Calder. See Perpetua (image 3 above, top right).
She was not alone in producing large, semi and full-abstract patterns and others worked along similar lines. An exhibition in 2012 at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, entitled Designing Women: Post-war British textiles, showcased work not only by Lucienne Day but also Jacqueline Groag and Marian Mahler. The similarities in style and patterning between the three is striking and the exhibition write-up states that these women were pivotal in the artistic revolution of the 1950s. Others of the time include Paule Vézelay and Mary Warren, both of whom produced many fabrics for major manufacturers.
Although Lucienne Day was never actually employed by Heals Wholesale & Export Ltd, that is to say that she was never an employee, she was regarded by them as their star designer and over a period of 25 years she produced around 70 designs. She had an excellent working relationship with the company whilst maintaining her independence. She was commissioned by other companies to design for them alongside her work for Heals and this eventually led to certain restrictions as Heals were less than enthusiastic with her offering her services to their competitors. From this time forward she restricted her furnishing fabric designs to them whilst designing for other areas of manufacturing elsewhere. Her range encompassed wallpapers, dress fabrics, ceramics, table linen, bedding and carpets.
As the 1950s rolled on she became more interested in contemporary architecture – and why wouldn’t she, being married to a furniture maker and major contributor to new public building interiors? She looked at criss-crossing structures, overlaid blocks, repetitive shapes of colour and stripes. Her design, Graphica (image 3 above, bottom image), based on electrical pylons is an indication of the change in direction she was gradually taking. The samples below show total abstraction with no hint of her earlier stylized floral motifs and recognisable features.
Fabrics were not her only work to be in great demand. Her wallpaper designs were commissioned both within England and abroad. With her lively imagination and grand ideas she seemed to be opening up endless possibilities, and progressive manufacturers of the day were astute enough to read the market and see the interest in modern design. Initial designs were fairly exclusive but were soon picked up by firms for mass-production, enabling these wallpapers to be widely available. Due to continued rebuilding, since the war, architects became a good source to generate both large and continuous orders. Luciennes wallpaper patterns were simpler than her fabrics, more muted and used a reduced colour palette. Her view was that these hangings were to enhance the living space not dominate or overwhelm it.
Lucienne continued to develop and evolve her practice and by the 1960s her designs had a much bolder and freer appearance and the precise, neat fabrics from a decade before were well in the past. Her colour choices continued to engage and she still enjoyed pattern blocks, sometimes overlaid with other imagery but in a much looser format than previously. In 1961 she and her husband were commissioned by BOAC to consult re the decoration of aircraft interiors as well as designing in-flight food trays. Robin, with his specialization in seating, took these on whilst Lucienne concentrated on colours and textiles.
Moving towards the 1970s saw them both working successfully on many fronts including designing for retail including John Lewis Partnership and Waitrose. Waitrose in particular, being a food chain in new premises, provided a lot of scope for design control and the chance to create a recognisable brand presence. They continued to consult for these companies until 1987.
After 25 years of working with Heal’s, in the mid-1970s Lucienne withdrew from industrial design. Times had changed, there was a slump in Britain, many of her contemporaries had either retired or changed direction and management within Heal’s and other companies she worked with had retired. She moved into a different design discipline and created silk mosaics, her largest and most ambitious being for the John Lewis department store at Kingston-upon Thames. Entitled Aspects of the Sun and created in 1990 it was a six part hanging displayed in the café area.
Désirée Lucienne Day passed away 30th January 2010.
Below left is my interpretation of her 1950 artwork design for dress fabric for Argand Ltd. Below right is my fabric appliqué and stitched sample based on Dandelion Clocks by British designer Fiona Howard which I feel has a Lucienne Day aura to it.
A : Lesley Jackson, Robin & Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Contemporary Design, Published by Octopus Publishing Group, Endeavour House, London, 2001, revised edition 2011. Page 44.
Lesley Jackson, Robin & Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Contemporary Design, Published by Octopus Publishing Group, Endeavour House, London, 2001, revised edition 2011.
1. http://www.pallant.org.uk/exhibitions1/past-exhibitions1/2011/robin-and-lucienne-day/robin-and-lucienne-day/lucienne-day. Lucienne Day, London, 1997 Photograph by Anne-Katrin Purkiss.
2. Lesley Jackson, Robin & Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Contemporary Design, Published by Octopus Publishing Group, Endeavour House, London, 2001, revised edition 2011. Page 2. ISBN 978-1-84533-634-9. Robin and Lucienne Day, 1956 – sitting by the fireplace in their home in Chelsea.
3. Lesley Jackson, Robin & Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Contemporary Design, Published by Octopus Publishing Group, Endeavour House, London, 2001, revised edition 2011. Pages 81, 84 & 85.
5. Lesley Jackson, Robin & Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Contemporary Design, Published by Octopus Publishing Group, Endeavour House, London, 2001, revised edition 2011. Pages 37 & 38 (text).
6. Lesley Jackson, Robin & Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Contemporary Design, Published by Octopus Publishing Group, Endeavour House, London, 2001, revised edition 2011. Pages 85, 86, 87 & 88.