Lesley Jackson is an author of fourteen books on 20th Century design, including textiles and furniture. For the past several months, I have been looking at her book Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers: Visionary Textiles and Modern Art, which documents the history of the influential and innovative textile design company based in Carlisle, which commissioned designs from modern artists including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Elizabeth Frink and Ashley Havinden.
I met Lesley Jackson in Hebden Bridge to talk about her research on this particular book.
Lesley Jackson’s research and writing career grew from an exhibition, The New Look: Design in the Fifties, which she curated in 1991 at Manchester Art Gallery, for which she also wrote an accompanying book, published by Thames and Hudson. The exhibition explored International Design in the 1950s, including work by Carlo Mollino, Stig Lindberg, Henning Koppel, Robin and Lucienne Day, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. This exhibition opened up a lot of research avenues from which further she expanded her research and writing over the years.
I was interested to find out more about Lesley’s process for researching the book on Edinburgh Weavers. There was not one localised archive for the items, in fact many of the items were scattered across different collections in different parts of the country. It was a matter of tracking down locations for drawings, paper archive material, library research, as well as correspondence with Alison Morton, a weaver, who was Alastair Morton’s daughter. Lesley also went to visit Brackenfell, Alastair Mortons modernist home near Carlisle.
Edinburgh Weavers, like most non essential industries had to cease operations during World War II. Sadly, Marion Dorn, one of my favourite designers for them, also had to return to the USA during this period. Subsequently, her work had to adapt to the more conservative constraints of the American market, and I was never as keen on her work after she left the UK.
The book has two visual charts of the designers and organisations connected to Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers before the war and after. I talked with Lesley about the other attempts prior to the 1930s where artists had functional products. I am interested in historical examples of fine artists designing goods that have been manufactured and used. We discussed the Omega Workshops, a small scale enterprise initiated by Roger Fry, who worked with a range of artists, most notably Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, who carried on making interior objects and decorating long after the Omega disbanded.
I was interested in discussing the reasons why these initiatives ultimately ended. Omega, were artists foremost, and did not see themselves as an industrial operation. They also had a haphazard approach to production, and mainly had clientele in the upper echelons of society.
We also discussed The Bauhaus, and how this was primarily a community of artists and designers built around the idea of a educational college, training college, that part funded its running costs through commissions with the design industry. It had different specific focuses over time, being located in different buildings, and led by a series of directors.
Their focus in textiles, of course, was mostly in woven design. However they did produce a range of minimal print wallpapers, that are still produced today.
We talked about the fluidity between art and design in the 1930s, and Lesley attributed some of this modern movement to the growing awareness of Industrial Art through a range of Industrial Art exhibitions.
Edinburgh Weavers success using fine Artists to design their textiles, started with their initial initiative to design ‘Constructivist’ fabrics. This stemmed from a friendship with Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and then grew to include designs by Winifred Nicholson, Marianne Mahler and Marion Dorn.
This was not only happening within Edinburgh Weavers, it was a general atmosphere and approach to a range of companies, but their innovative designs did lead to being highly respected in the industry, winning a range of high end commissions including furnishings for BBC Broadcasting House in 1932.
World War II was a long disruptive break in their business but during the mid 1950s they returned to interior fabric by artists such as Elizabeth Frink, Lucienne Day, Victor Vasarely, William Scott until Alastair Morton’s death in 1963.
There is currently an Edinburgh Weavers trading in Bolton. The company is not a direct continuation of the original business, but adopted the name during the 1980s and focuses on producing textiles for Hotel chains.
We discussed the processes used by Edinburgh Weavers, and Lesley explained that the use of large scale screenprinting in the 1930s altered and expanded the design, scale and impact the designers could achieve.
We also talked about how there were fewer barriers between art and design during the post-war period, which stemmed from the structure of art schools where there was much more openess and exchange between disciplines. There was a lot of cross fertilisation between painting, textiles, sculpture, furniture etc. In the current academised climate of Higher Education, courses are very separate and have a defined identity.
We also discussed about the tendency in recent decades to reference period archives to produce designs. Lesley identified IKEA textiles as an interesting range of designs, as they commission contemporary Swedish designers.
Lesley talked about how there have been significant changes in the textile industry. Previously, every town had their own fabric shop and fabric stalls, as people would make their own clothes and curtains, however, now this is very uncommon as there is an abundance of cheap ready to wear clothing and ready-made curtains.
Edinburgh Weavers ceased production during the late 1960s following the premature death of its director Alastair Morton in 1963. I asked Lesley why she felt Edinburgh Weavers, and other companies of the period were so successful. She felt it was a mixture of factors, including risk taking and innovative leaders. She referenced companies that were idea driven, such as Heals, that had ranges of more experimental designs, as well as more mainstream designs, that came together within their business.
Thanks to Lesley for her generous time to discuss her research and thoughts on printed textile design.