Lucienne Day: Textile designer whose work brightened up Fifties Britain

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The Independent Online

It is rare for a textile designer to achieve a high public profile. Lucienne Day, whose vibrant printed patterns revitalised British homes during the 1950s, was the exception.

Treated as a design superstar by her principal client, Heal's, her name was emblazoned on the selvedge of their fabrics, and her solo exhibition at the store in 1958 was promoted as a major media event. Lucienne Day became a household name during the 1950s, her house featured in the glossies, and her views solicited by the design press, the nationals and women's magazines.

Désirée Lucienne Conradi was born in Coulsden, Surrey in 1917, and raised in Croydon from the age of two. She was half-Belgian, her father, Felix Conradi, having come to London in the early 1900s from Antwerp. Her mother, Dulcie, was English, and the couple had four children, Lucienne being the youngest and the only girl. The family was wealthy, and lived in a large house with servants and a gardener. Lucienne later employed a housekeeper of her own.

From 1929-34 she attended a convent boarding school in Worthing, where she excelled at English and art. From an early age she exuded the poise and confidence that distinguished her in her adult years. She flowered into a great beauty, with fine bone structure; always exquisitely dressed, she looked as glamorous as a movie star, retaining her fine looks into old age.

Her mother, who subscribed to The Studio, took great pride in the family home and garden. Although their tastes later diverged – her mother being rooted in the Edwardian era, Lucienne developing an early taste for Modernism – interior design and plants became Lucienne's two great passions in life, and she often drew on botany for inspiration in her work.

Lucienne discovered her métier for printed textiles at Croydon School of Art. She went on to the Royal College of Art from 1937-40, where, in her final year, she met the furniture designer Robin Day. They were married in 1942 and made a very striking couple. They were both extremely talented and shared a passionate commitment to modern design. Meeting each other embolded each of them and reinforced their determination to establish themselves as freelance designers when the war was over. In the meantime they set to work furnishing their flat at Markham Square in Chelsea in "make-do-and-mend modern", using furniture hand-made by Robin and fabrics printed by Lucienne for her RCA diploma show. The apartment acted as a dry run for the refurbishment of the Victorian house on Cheyne Walk that they bought in 1952, which was treated to a full-blown contemporary makeover.

Abandoning her wartime teaching jobs, Lucienne set up in private practice in 1946 and began selling designs to textile manufacturers, initially in the field of dress fabrics. Disliking the seasonal, fashion-led nature of this sector, and appalled by the rudeness of the buyers in the Manchester rag trade, Lucienne's aspiration was to establish herself as a designer of furnishing fabrics. A commission from the enlightened Alastair Morton at Edinburgh Weavers in 1948 provided just the break she needed, and with these fabrics she attracted the attention of the all-powerful Heal's.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 marked a turning point in Day's career. She seized the opportunity to showcase her talents, designing innovative textiles and wallpapers for the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. Calyx, the revolutionary art-inspired furnishing fabric she created for a room setting designed by Robin, caused a sensation with its striking colours and daring abstraction. This design opened up a new aesthetic that she explored for the rest of the decade. Widely copied, Calyx was sold in large quantities by Heal's, which had initially been sceptical about so radical a design. Calyx was a resounding success; it was shown at the Milan Triennale, won an American Institute of Decorators Award in the United States, and cemented her relationship with Heal's. Day enjoyed an excellent relationship with Tom Worthington, director of Heal Fabrics, and although never formally employed by the company, she was recognised as its star designer, creating more than 70 furnishing fabrics over 25 years. This work forms the core of her opus, and is remarkable for its brilliance and breadth.

Her patterns during the early- to mid-1950s were characterised by an energetic, spidery graphic style. The apparent casualness of her designs was misleading: seemingly simple, they were highly sophisticated, many being composed of multiple layers of pattern, stimulating both at a distance and close up. She developed an imaginative and original vocabulary, had an inspired eye for colour and displayed great mastery in her handling of pattern repeats. Whereas other textiles from the period now seem rather quirky and mannered, Lucienne's designs have an enduring freshness and verve. When a pylon-inspired pattern called Graphica was put back into production by Habitat in 1999 as part of their Twentieth Century Legends Collection, it still looked so strikingly modern that it was hard to believe it was 46 years old.

What is particularly impressive about Day's career as a textile designer is that she managed to sustain such a rigorously high standard over such a long period. During the late 1950s, responding to the fashion for floor-to-ceiling picture windows, her designs became more architectural and larger in scale. At this stage arboreal imagery replaced the earlier stylised leaves and flowers. During the 1960s she experimented with painterly textures, bold geometric abstracts and flat florals, using bright contrasting colours to dramatic effect.

During the 1950s she collaborated with textile companies including Liberty, Edinburgh Weavers, Cavendish Textiles (John Lewis) and British Celanese. Her six designs for British Celanese, printed on low-cost acetate rayon taffeta, were particularly joyful, winning paeans of praise. She also had fun designing tea towels for the Irish linen firm Thomas Somerset between 1959-69. These designs, such as the best-selling Too Many Cooks, were light-hearted and upbeat and won her one of several Design Centre Awards.

Day also designed an array of other furnishings and domestic accessories, including wallpapers, table linen, carpets and ceramics. The three ground-breaking "Contemporary" wallpapers she designed for the Festival of Britain were hand-printed by John Line and Cole & Son. Keen to reach a wider audience, Day subsequently created small machine-printed abstracts for the Wall Paper Manufacturers Ltd (better known as Crown), and the German company Rasch.

The Rasch designs were promoted as part of an international artists' range, while her Crown wallpapers were specifically targeted at architects and young couples setting up home. Architects particularly appreciated her work because of its rhythmic qualities and adventurous use of colour. Her wallpapers were much more recessive than her furnishing fabrics, with smaller, more easily digestible patterns and a deliberately restricted palette.

Carpets were another area of excellence. Her first design for Tomkinsons, a mosaic-like pattern called Tesserae, won a Design Centre Award in 1957. She later contributed to the Studio 3 range of Wilton carpets produced by I. & C. Steele for architects. As colour consultant to Royal Wilton she selected the colours for their Architects Range, and contributed a series of subtle geometric designs.

Today we are used to designers working internationally, but during the early post-war period this was much rarer; an indication of Lucienne Day's high standing is that she was sought after by French, German, Swedish and Norwegian manufacturers. Of all her foreign clients, however, the most prestigious was the German ceramics company Rosenthal. From 1957 onwards she designed a series of tableware patterns for Rosenthal, and later joined the elite panel of international artists and designers responsible for Rosenthal's Studio Line. In 1963, when she held her second solo exhibition, it was at the newly opened Rosenthal Studio House in Knightsbridge.

In 1954 Lucienne gave birth to her daughter, Paula, and went against convention in deciding not to give up her career. She worked from home, which made it easier to combine the roles of high-powered design professional and mother. Significantly, she never allowed the fact of being a woman to curtail her ambitions or compromise her dauntingly high standards. Professionalism, strong will and tireless determination were central to her character.

For almost 50 years, until they eventually moved to Chichester, Lucienne and Robin shared a studio on the ground floor of their five-storey Victorian house on Chelsea Embankment. Although mutually supportive and loyal, the Days were both fiercely independent, and resented their achievements being blurred. The healthy spark of rivalry that existed between them was still very much apparent in later years. They officially worked together only a couple of times: once for BOAC during the 1960s designing aircraft interiors; and another time for the John Lewis Partnership, for whom they acted as joint design consultants between 1962-87, shaping the Partnership's new house style

By the mid 1970s, however, the design climate in Britain was changing and there was less enthusiasm for the Days' fearless contemporary approach. Robin struggled on through the dark years of the recession, but in 1975, at 58, Lucienne withdrew from industrial design. Still in need of an avenue for her creativity, she developed the new medium of silk mosaic hangings. These rich, lustrous hangings were shown in exhibitions throughout the 1980s and 1990s at venues such as the National Theatre and the Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg. Her most important silk mosaic was a huge composite work called Aspects of the Sun, commissioned by Ahrends Burton and Koralek for the Kingston branch of John Lewis in 1991.

A major solo exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery in 1993 brought Lucienne Day back into the public eye. This was followed by a joint retrospective, "Robin and Lucienne Day – Pioneers of Contemporary Design", held at the Barbican Art Gallery in 2001, which juxtaposed her textiles, carpets, wallpapers, ceramics and table linen with Robin's furniture.

What the exhibition demonstrated was that Lucienne Day was a remarkable and outstanding all-round pattern designer, but it is for her joyful life-affirming printed textiles from the 1950s and 60s that she will be celebrated and remembered.

Désirée Lucienne Conradi, textile designer: born Coulsden, Surrey 5 January 1917; married 1942 Robin Day (one daughter); died 30 January 2010.

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