Mitzi Cunliffe

Sculptor and designer
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The Independent Online

Mitzi Solomon, sculptor and designer: born New York 1 January 1918; married 1949 Marcus Cunliffe (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1971); died Oxford 30 December 2006.

Mitzi Cunliffe's most famous work is the coveted "mask" designed for the British Academy of Film and Television Awards in 1955. But her greatest achievement was as a sculptor for architecture, to which she devoted the most active years of a long career.

She was born Mitzi Solomon in New York, and studied there with the Art Students League of New York in 1930-33 and at Columbia University from 1935-40, training as a teacher as well as an artist. She spent a year at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, and it was seeing the medieval sculpture at Chartres Cathedral that determined her career. "I knew then that was the kind of work in which I wanted to be involved", she later wrote.

She turned to stone-carving, and although most of her early work in New York comprised rather romantic free-standing figures she did meet Le Corbusier, in 1946, who gave her one of his first engravings. But more immediately significant in this period was her meeting with the English historian Marcus Cunliffe in New York in 1949. They married the same year and moved to Manchester, where he was a lecturer in American studies.

Despite this dislocation, and the arrival of three children in six years, Mitzi Cunliffe immediately set out on what were to be the busiest years of her career. Recognition came from two contributions to the Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank in London in 1951.

One was a sculpture for the site entrance, generally known as Root Bodied Forth, a pair of intertwined figures symbolically stepping from a tree and displaying the sense of movement for which her mature work is noted. The other was a pair of bronze handles for the Regatta Restaurant in the form of hands, commissioned by Misha Black, Director of the Design Research Unit, who recognised that her fascination for every aspect of design, from sculpture to textiles, ceramics and typography, matched his own.

A second set of door handles in 1952, for the School of Civic Design at Liverpool University, are in the form of knots and - with a relief in the main studio and Dove sculpture in the courtyard - happily survive.

All these works were created in the garage of the family home in Didsbury, and this northern base helped secure Cunliffe many commissions in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. A little pumping station at Heaton Park, Manchester, at the end of a pipeline bringing water from Haweswater in the Lake District, is the only post-1945 building to be listed entirely for its sculpture, a large relief by Cunliffe showing the journey taken by the water, in a carefully stylised form designed to be seen from below. There are further reliefs at Manchester and Leeds universities.

Cunliffe's favourite piece was a pierced screen in aluminium for the Red Rose Restaurant at Lewis's store in Liverpool, the largest of its kind in the world. When it was taken out, she was able to buy the piece and install it at the family's holiday home at Seillans in France. At the same time she was designing jewellery, textiles for David Whitehead Fabrics and Tootal Broadhurst, and ceramics and tiles for Pilkington's.

The Bafta mask, commissioned by Andrew Miller-Jones for the then Guild of Television Producers, is based on the traditional theatrical mask but the reverse has an electronic symbol round one eye and a screen symbol around the other, linking dramatic production and television technology. Such was Cunliffe's attention to every detail of design that her original included a revolving support to allow the mask to be easily turned.

In the 1960s Cunliffe turned from individual pieces towards mass production, with more abstract designs for casting in concrete, which she described as "sculpture by the yard", the title of an exhibition that toured widely in Britain and abroad. Examples of this work from 1963-66 are to be found as far apart as Dublin, Sunderland and Southampton.

Her last major architectural work was four panels for the Scottish Life House in Poultry, in the City of London, completed in 1970. (The building is currently being demolished but the panels have been preserved and will be remounted in the replacement structure.) The effort involved in these sculptures, created to meet an urgent deadline using power tools, was physically crippling, and, combined with her divorce a year later, prompted a career change. She turned to teaching, from 1971 to 1976 at the Thames Polytechnic (now South Bank University), where students found her an inspiration, and later in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal.

It was sad that such a dynamic and vivacious personality would be later crippled also by Alzheimer's disease, and her last years were spent quietly in Oxford. Cunliffe continued to work, however, and exhibited in 2001 in "Look Closer - See Me", a show dedicated to sufferers of this condition put together by medical researchers and the Art School at Oxford Brookes University. In 1999 a travelling scholarship in her name was established at the Ruskin School of Drawing, Oxford University.

Elain Harwood

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