This year marks the centenary birth of the virtuoso British textile designer. Here, Jason Mowen looks back at her phenomenal career.

IT COULD BE SAID THAT BRITISH MODERN was born in the summer of 1951 during the Festival of Britain, a grand ‘Best of ’ celebration staged by the Labour government to herald an end to the grim austerity of the postwar period. The Festival provided a much-needed platform to a new generation of British artists and designers; with its nucleus on London’s South Bank, specially erected buildings and installations such as the rocket-like Skylon enthralled eight million visitors who, for the first time in more than a decade, were given a glimpse into an optimistic future. Although conservative leader Winston Churchill — who considered the Festival nothing more than socialist propaganda — ordered the South Bank site levelled after it closed later that year, something had shifted in the collective consciousness of the British people: tired of looking back, they were sold on Modernism.

One of the most significant names to emerge from the Festival was textile designer, Lucienne Day. Born in 1917 to an affluent Anglo-Belgian family in Surrey, Day showed great artistic promise as a child and in 1937 won a place at the Royal College of Art, focussing on printed textiles. It was at a college dance in 1940 that she met her future husband, esteemed British furniture designer Robin Day. “I doubt very much, if I hadn’t met Robin, whether I would have gone on with the same determination,” she later remarked. “Robin has helped me follow my own ideas. He has provided a sort of ‘climate’, an atmosphere of originality and exploration.”

The Festival of Britain marked a major turning point in Lucienne Day’s career and like her husband, who designed the seating for the Royal Festival Hall (now Grade I listed and the only building from the South Bank site to survive) she took full advantage of the creative opportunities it offered to up-and-coming designers. Her early work for Cole & Son and John Line was showcased in the
Homes and Gardens Pavilion, but it was Calyx, her breakthrough textile design for Heal’s that made the greatest impact. Drawing inspiration from artists Joan Miró and Paul Klee, Calyx was based on plant life (the word refers to the outer covering of a flower) but success at the Festival not only galvanised Day’s alliance with Heal’s (she would create 70 fabrics for the firm over the next two decades), it changed the course of British textile design. Most significantly, she and her husband were now regarded on equal footing as designers — an enormous accomplishment for a woman at that time.

Day’s designs would gradually become more linear throughout the 1950s and then larger and more architectural in the ’60s, as she made use of blocks, zigzags and stripes of colour. And while the designs themselves gave the impression of spontaneity, the process was long. “When I start a design I literally begin with a blank piece of paper,” she said. “Sometimes I sit in front of it for a long time. It isn’t an easy process.”

Alongside Heal’s, she also designed fashion and furnishing textiles for Edinburgh Weavers, John Lewis and Liberty; airplane interiors, alongside her husband, for BOAC (British Airways); and wallpaper, carpets and ceramics, for domestic and international manufacturers such as German company Rosenthal. And with the shifting sands of style, ever adapting, she stepped back from design in the ’70s to create magnificent, one-off ‘silk mosaic’ tapestries. This year is the centenary of Lucienne Day’s birth (she died in 2010, aged 93) and to celebrate her life and work, the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation has organised a year-long programme of exhibitions and events at such creative institutions as the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester and the Glasgow School of Art. It is a fitting tribute to this rare and talented designer’s great legacy.