Design: Daub, splatter, drip and dribble

Jackson Pollock's action paintings had an electrifying effect on post-war designers. Will the arrival this month of a major new exhibition at London's Tate Gallery cause similar creative shock waves second time around? By Lesley Jackson

When Sir Leigh Ashton, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was confronted by his first Jackson Pollock painting in 1948, his reaction was: "It would make a most enchanting silk." Designers themselves were equally quick to appreciate the decorative potential of action painting, and initially it was the design fraternity rather than the art world which responded most positively to what Alexander Eliot dismissed in Time magazine as "the shlosh-and-spatter school of post-war art".

In his landmark article on Pollock published in Life magazine on 8 August 1949, Arnold Newman wrote: "Recently, a formidably highbrow New York critic hailed the brood- ing, puzzled-looking man shown above as a major artist of our time... Others believe that Jackson Pollock produces nothing more than interesting, if inexplicable, decoration. Still others condemn his pictures as degenerate, and find them as unpalatable as yesterday's macaroni."

While art critics argued fruitlessly over whether it was art, decoration or, indeed, yesterday's macaroni, designers responded in a more immediate way to Pollock's energy and dynamism. His work had a huge impact in Italy, for example, when it was showcased at the Venice Biennale in 1950, prompting Lucio Fontana to create a huge scribbly neon-lighting installation - the three-dimensional equivalent of an action painting - at the Milan Triennale the following year.

In Britain, Zika and Lida Ascher, who produced artist-designed dress fabrics and scarves, were the first to get in on the act, commissioning an abstract expressionist fabric from Gerald Wilde in 1947, which captured all the excitement of "Jack the Dripper", just as his work was breaking onto the international scene. Hot on their heels came the Preston-based firm of Horrockses, makers of printed cotton frocks, who abandoned floral patterns in favour of Pollock-inspired scribbles and dots. "Dot Dash" was the evocative name of a fabric made by Marchington in 1954, while over in Denmark, the artist Aagaard Andersen created an irreverent homage to Pollock in the form of two "action textiles", "Doodlepoint" and "Doodledash".

During the 1950s, it was perfectly commonplace for artists to create designs for the textile industry, as the title of an exhibition called "Paintings into Textiles", held at the ICA in 1953, bears witness. The exhibition featured abstract paintings by leading artists such as Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Gear, Donald Hamilton-Fraser and Louis Le Broquy, many of which were subsequently put into production by the progressive Lancashire textile firm, David Whitehead. Paule Vezelay, who designed a number of fabrics for the equally forward-looking Heals, commented in 1959 that "the whole standard of textile design has been raised in the most interesting way by the introduction of designs inspired by paintings. They have ceased to be something purely commercial and have formed a bridge between commercial art and fine art." Vezelay appreciated the important propaganda role of design in popularising the avant-garde. Of her own textiles she said: "Many people would be bewildered by the same design if it were an oil painting and shown in an art gallery".

Eddie Pond, a textile designer who trained at the Royal College of Art from 1955 to 1958, experienced the Pollock phenomenon at first hand. "Designers found a new god in Jackson Pollock and action painting," he recalls. "Doreen Dyall's desk at the RCA sat in a sea of encrusted varnish and paint, whilst other students dribbled and splashed paint all round." Dyall was one of many Pollock-inspired young pattern designers, including Fay Hillier, Dorothy Carr and Nicola Wood, who enthusiastically collaborated with textile and wallpaper manufacturers on leaving college, while aspiring young action painters such as Cliff Holden and Harold Cohen were just as keen to join the fun. In the go-ahead firm of Heal Fabrics they found an enlightened patron, and thus it was that their daubed, spattered, dripped and dribbled patterns created a new school of textural abstract design.

Pollock-mania reached its peak in Britain between 1956-59, following a series of major exhibitions devoted to abstract expressionism at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Tate. The silversmith Robert Welch was so fired up after seeing Pollock's paintings in 1958 that he designed a stunning seven-light candelabrum, its spindly knobbly legs suggesting dribbles of paint. Many other designers have testified to the electrifying impact of abstract expressionism on their work, including the American textile artist Jack Lenor Larsen, and the Finnish glass designer Timo Sarpaneva. Sarpaneva underwent a late but dramatic conversion. During the early 1950s he had been the coolest of all the designers in the Scandinavian Modern school, but in 1964 he abandoned this Brancusi-esque detachment to create what can only be described as "action glass". Inspired by "Jackson Pollock's spontaneous paintings of massed densely coloured lines", Sarpaneva responded with his craggy, charred Finlandia sculptures, shaped in wooden moulds set on fire by the incandescent glass.

Glass may sound an unlikely medium for abstract expressionism, but molten glass, like paint, is a fluid material, and back in the 1950s, Pollock's dynamic methods inspired designers in several countries to adopt a freer and more painterly approach to glass. Vicke Lindstrand in Sweden and Max Verboeket in Holland both created three-dimensional action paintings by suspending random streaks of colour in a matrix of clear glass. Arne Jon Jutrem went further still, inciting the normally restrained glassmakers at the Hadeland factory in Norway to pour trails of enamel at random onto the surface of his glass. Pollock's legacy can also be detected in the irregular lumpy vessels with streaky colouring created by firms such as Whitefriars and Leerdam during the 1960s. Indeed, it could be argued that it was Pollock, indirectly, who was responsible for triggering off the studio glass movement. His iconoclastic approach to painting inspired a generation of independent young glass artists - including the legendary Dale Chihuly - to use glass in a spontaneous way and to push it to the limit as a creative medium.

"Any number of PhD theses await being written about the influence of Cubism, of Tachism, of Op or Pop art on fabrics and wallpaper," wrote Ernst Gombrich in 1979, "and about the decreasing time lag with which these inventions are taken up and spread throughout industry." Will the return of Jackson Pollock to London in 1999 prompt another explosion, and if so, now we have no textile industry to mention, what form will it take?

The Jackson Pollock exhibition is at the Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1 from 11 March to 6 June (0171-887 8000). The designer Paul Smith has created a limited-edition T-shirt to accompany the exhibition, available from the Tate Gallery shop, price pounds 35, proceeds to the Tate

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