design: tea towels of lucienne day


photos by: the sweet and tart


last summer i visited the Textile Museum in Washington, DC to see the exhibit: “Art by the Yard: Women Design Mid-Century Britain”.  it was a fascinating exhibit, featuring works by Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag and Marian Mahler, all influenced by artists like Alexander Calder and Joan Miro, and all designing in the mid 1900′s.  they brought good, contemporary design to the masses in the form of textiles, from bolts of home decor fabrics destined for curtains, upholstery, and throw pillows, to simple kitchen linens like a tea towel.  a small room in the exhibit was devoted to the tea towels of Lucienne Day.  given that i’m in the tea towel business* myself, i was instantly charmed by the whimsical humor and light sketch touch that came through in her illustrations.

from the exhibit:

“A tea towel is a linen cloth to be used for drying fine dishes and cutlery, covering warm food to prevent heat loss, or covering a tea tray before serving guests.  In the 1950′s tea towels were a lighthearted reflection of a homemaker’s decorating taste.  In England, tea towels remain so popular that they often are sold as souvenirs and gift items.  Lucienne Day enjoyed the cheerful subjects and simple format of tea towels and took pleasure in the freedom of designing them without the concern of the repeat pattern…”

* i’m constantly asked what a tea towel really IS, and so it was nice to see that i was on the right track, at least.  although, it does appear that original tea towels were exclusively linen (to ensure that the drying of tea time dishes and china was a lint free affair), while mine are of the 100% cotton variety.

tea towels were a fun side note to this exhibit of textile design, but what was more impressive was the broader idea of bringing GOOD, contemporary design to the masses.  these women seemed to be following the tenets of William Morris’ “art for the people” and the belief that everything in a household (even the tea towels!) should be functional, beautiful and well-designed.  while William Morris also believed in the craftmanship of the product, the mass production of Lucienne Day’s work with Heal’s Fabrics of England allowed more consumers to display her designs in their homes.  and perhaps this is what i am most interested in… what is the role of the craftsman in today’s consumer world?  companies like Target have contracted traditional artisans and mass produced their designs… other mass producers have co-opted them, producing lines in China for a fraction of what artisans are selling them for online and in small boutiques.  at the same time, the DIY movement in our country is stronger than ever, promoting artisan skills.  when is mass okay (ie, bringing GOOD design to the masses who otherwise couldn’t afford direct artisan goods)?  when is it corrupting the value of true hand-made, originally designed work?


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