Calyx, Heal’s Fabrics (1951) reissued by Classic Textiles (2003)
In post-war Britain, a young Lucienne Day made her name in design conveying the buoyant national mood through jubilant, modernist textiles. These patterns have now come to define mid-century print design and remain wildly popular, and are being celebrated for her centenary today. Paula Day, Lucienne and Robin Day’s daughter and director of the foundation dedicated to her parents’ legacy, believes Lucienne’s enduring influence can be compared with that of William Morris.
“The design of the 1950s and 1960s are of course very fashionable, but my mother’s work is ‘timeless’ in the same way as that of William Morris – it’s classic,” Paula tells It’s Nice That. “Most of today’s retro-style patterns look feeble in comparison. I think people recognise the startling power and originality of her work.”
Lucienne was born on 5 January 1917 and grew up in Croydon, south London. She studied at Croydon School of Art and the RCA in the late 30s, where she met her husband, furniture designer Robin Day – who himself was already establishing his impact British cultural history. For her RCA diploma show, Lucienne hand-block printed and screen printed bold repeats, which were displayed on a stand designed by Robin, with one of his chair designs upholstered with her Bushmen design. Though their work would often complement each others at exhibitions and on products in future, the couple’s careers maintained strong trajectories all on their own.
Lucienne was a resolute modernist, and looked to inject some excitement to the staid world of textiles while remaining relatable with her visual references, explains Paula. “She was influenced by modern artists such as Paul Klee, Joan Miró and Alexander Calder,” Paula adds. “From her student days drawing objects at the V&A Museum, she was inspired by the world’s great decorative traditions. And of course, plant forms recur throughout her work.”
One of her most famous textiles, Calyx, was originally shown at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and is considered her breakthrough design. Then an emerging star in textiles, Lucienne collaborated with Heal’s to create Calyx, a stylised floral design mixing muted and acid colours, that represented a radical new aesthetic in pattern design. The designer said later that Heals’ fabrics director Tom Worthington was uncertain of the pattern, and “would produce it for me but only pay me half the fee of 20 guineas because he was certain he wouldn’t sell a yard”. She went on to produce around 70 patterns for the brand over 20 years, and Calyx remains in production.
From there, her patterns evolved but an underlying theme remained: the ability to abstract familiar imagery for a contemporary, increasingly design-savvy audience.
“Her style was constantly evolving,” says Paula, “as she responded to, but never just followed, changes in fashion and explored new artwork techniques. For example, many of her earlier 1950s designs, such as Dandelion Clocks or Trio, are based on quirky motifs drawn with a fine black line on a plain coloured background.
“By the late 1950s, she was experimenting with a monoprint technique which involved drawing on an acetate sheet, which was then applied to a background built up of coloured tissue paper collage, resulting in an interesting smudged-ink texture, as in Cadenza and Night and Day,” says Paula. “And her large-scale architectural designs of the mid-1970s, for example Apex and Lucienne, led to her invention of the new textile medium of ‘silk mosaics’, which involved creating strong abstract patterns from one-centimetre squares of richly coloured silk."
When quizzed on her favourite of her mother’s designs, Paula says it’s an impossible choice, but one is Night and Day, a tea towel she designed for Irish linen manufacturer Thomas Somerset in 1961.
“I think she has perfectly judged the balance between the ‘moon’ half of the design – the black ink monoprint drawing of an owl is as strong and distinctive as a Thomas Bewick wood cut – and the little bits of textured paper round the sun, which hint at its rays. The division of the design into two separate halves is bold and could have been crude, but in her skilled hands it works perfectly.
“I have always thought of the piece as symbolising the relationship between my two parents. After all, one of them was a Day!”
Over her 60-year career, Lucienne worked with countless big-name brands including Liberty, John Lewis, Cole & Son and Rosenthal, designing fabrics, wallpapers, carpets, homeware and ceramics. To each, she brought her unique flair for colour, line, form and composition, creating a recognisable style that feels fresh decades later. Among her accolades, she was notably the first woman to be made master of Royal Designers for Industry in 1987, and awarded an OBE in 2004. She died in 2010 aged 93.
In celebration of Lucienne’s centenary, the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation has released 100 images of her work across the century, including many that have not been seen before, many of which you can explore below. These also feature on a Lucienne Day 100 poster designed by Studio Fernando Gutierrez, available from twentytwentyone. The foundation will also be holding exhibitions, events and awards throughout 2017.