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Modern Textiles

( Originally Published 1930 )

JUST before the Great War certain enthusiasts were bringing us textiles from the school of art that had its most productive center in Vienna. Perhaps because it was cheaper for experimentation these fabrics depended on printing for their ornament rather than on weave. They were in the class of cretonne or chintz, and thus within the reach of the modest buyer, or the experimental user.

In their way they were startling. It was as though the "Nude Descending a Stair" had gone from the walls of the first modernist painting exhibition to establish a factory for decorative textiles—and these were the result of her peculiar psyche. Colors were crude, de-signs were eccentric, unfinished, like a child's work under the kindergartner. Some of us laughed with the pleasure of being tickled with a straw, others were filled with impatience and snorted in anger. But no one could see these new designs applied to their own home furnishings, for they seemed actually to insult the classic modes. More than that, they ignominiously drew much of their composition on the old lines, distorting them yet resembling, and that offense seemed worst of all.

Then certain daring ones took up the Viennese idea of black and white, eschewing entirely the much criticized color schemes, and, thus limited to form and contrast, produced some original and stirring rooms. Silver took the place of white in the best of these, stripes of silver on black velvet, for draperies, silvered walls, black carpets and so on.

The new mode came also from Paris, where young men in revolt against eternal copying were finding joy in experiment and in gleefully upsetting the mannered brushes and pens of the past. We remember Paul Poiret's experiments in color for women's dress. The department of the fine arts felt the same urge and so we saw strange canvases by Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, but these being out of the province of a book on textiles we respectfully turn from them.

And now today what have we? A well-established department of modernist decorative art with its own list of creators, its own type of patrons. No longer can it be ignored as a passing eccentricity. Moreover it steadily hammers with pretty tappings on the old ideas of taste whether one will or no. Everywhere one turns there are evidences. Shop windows are full of strange trifles, piquant and interesting, which one does not re-sent. Such an object as a cigarette box cut from solid onyx with no ornament whatever, nor hinge nor handle, depending for beauty on its simple solid form of well-studied proportion, forces one to feel that a box of the old style with metal stand and binding is tawdry in comparison, though both styles are displayed together.

And speaking of shops, it is within their alluring doors one finds some of the best results of modernist effort. The effect is never startling, that special claim for notice being past with decorators of the first rank. The shop window gives evidence of the sort of thing found within, by the style of its curtaining and its back-ground. Some new textile is bound to be used, not startling but expressing tasteful restraint and elegance.

Again the theater has announced itself an upholder of the ever-growing style called modernistic. The drop curtain has for some time been insidiously instilling into our minds the idea that the old type of painted or embroidered "drop" is less suited to our hours of entertainment than one that delicately suggests, that piques the imagination instead of killing it.

Plays of modern life, of old problems oddly solved by hard young persons, smart, unemotional, scientific, such plays are not set among the fluffy curves of the rococo but in the glass, steel, wood and textiles of severe outline with which modern art and life are but complemented. And the most conservative of the beauty-lovers will see beauty here because here is also fitness.

Thus against our will we are awakened to the merit of what we at first resented or visited with our ridicule. There is still much to disapprove. Only a true artist can play with the new toy. It is more exacting than the old, for each problem grows into an education, each room to decorate becomes an adventure.

Textiles for the new manner are a stimulating department of the whole. Those of the time before the war declared themselves too much in their style of ornament and arresting color. Cheapness of manufacture mattered greatly. Therefore printing instead of weaving carried the ornament. Heavy cottons and even jute, or a mixture of the two, distinguished the weave. Linen was rarely used, nor silk except of very light quality.

The situation now has changed. It is the weave which carries the ornament in most important fabrics for decoration of rooms of elegance. Artists of con-sequence design these textiles, which are patented to prevent their being copied and thrown liberally upon the market. Paul Rodier has composed a design of shaded discs in two or three sizes which he calls "The Mechanical World." At once you see the wheels go 'round, whether of motor-cars or factories, or the disc of a victrola revolves. And this suggestive stuff is woven in but two shades of gray-brown, the magic of the weave suggesting more tones.

Rodier has another textile in the same neutral colors, a design which fills the width from selvedge to selvedge, with undulating wave lines at the bottom on which rides a ship, its full sail tossing among round clouds which fill the heavens.

The former textile is for curtains or for furniture covering; the other to be hung as a panel on the wall behind a sofa or a bed's head, or wherever the softening effect of decorated wall cloth is needed. Such designs are well used when applied to screens, each width making a panel of distinction, suggesting hand work of some individual kind. These textiles, be it noted, are never self-assertive, even such designs as those just cited. The day for that is past. The present attempt is to induce calm in the room with the once-sought note-of-color effected by a lacquer or highly polished metal like nickel or pewter as a part of a piece of furniture.

Hunt Dietrich with his vivid drawing of animals has inspired many a modernist fabric, as is seen in the attenuated gazelle that is woven as flat as his sheet-iron silhouettes. Robert Chanler's use of fish as decorative motives for painting has been appropriated by a textile mill which gives, by weaving in multicolor, a fish design which is scarce a design, only a suggestion. And this manner of treatment breathes a charm which complete realism would fail to impart and makes the singular subject a pleasant one with which to live.

Raoul Dufy contributes generous leaf designs for silk weaving which retain his characteristics. These and many others are in three-dimensional drawing.

The flat unshaded figure is favored by the stencilers for obvious reasons of technique. Stenciled silks of thin texture, and voiles of cotton, silk or rayon are freely used in dressing windows and for lamp-shades. The manner of making these patterns strongly resembles the toilsome process of the early chintz or cretonne printers in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Clever inventors banished these after years of experiment, and the industrial world felt that a new sun had arisen with the invention of printing from plates and then from cylinders. Now the stencilers of the new mode go back to the hand-block, stamped with painstaking care.

There is in Paris a woman whose silks are much sought. Her method is to sit before a length of white silk and begin to paint on it any outline that occurs to her, discs, blocks, points, half-moons, anything at all that fills the space. One rule she follows that there shall be no background, that all shall be figures or part of figures, also that every imaginable clear color shall be used, but in high key. She keeps herself at the task until something like a harmony of line and color is produced in a space a yard or so in length. Then she hands the silk to her aids who cut stencils and repeat the design after the hand-block and painting process.

Exclusiveness is a high desideratum in such of the new fabrics. This artist's inventions are never duplicated. One length of silk and one only is stenciled or hand-blocked, never to be repeated. To employ this silk in a way to show its beauty and its bewildering design it should be hung against the light. It then has the gay harmony of the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. Its fields of color although bright are kept too small to dominate, hence there is no clash with other colors in the room. At night the thin silk all covered with design passes for a heavier hanging.

The school at Vienna which produces this silk sends out many others in the new style. Artists from Paris work at these and add their talent and ingenuity of design. But it is noticeable that decorators on this side of the water incline to moderation, and prefer large fields of subdued color to a confusion of tints and sharply defined ornament. Schemes for rooms are composed with the admirable intent of conferring calm upon the occupant, calm and quiet being rarities in modern life. A room typical has a floor of jade-green lac on which is thrown a rug of black lightly broken with an eccentric line of gray, walls and ceiling are silvered, curtains are of chartreuse gauze, and lighting flows from shafts of frosted glass, applied to corners. When the problem comes of a covering for furniture, recourse must be had to the woven patterns in rayon and cotton where the rayon threads carry the design against a grayish ground and shine like silver to carry on the effect of the walls.

Furniture itself being pronounced and striking, bibelots the same, all forms, in fact, being in startling contrast to those with which we are familiar, the inclination is to keep all upholstered furniture low in tone, avoiding sharp design. Curtains and wall hangings however give abundant welcome to the figured textiles. To meet the need for solid colors and meet it with intelligence and originality we find special textiles resembling the old but with the peculiar difference that marks the modernistic.

Pile fabrics such as velvets are not the suave, even weave of the ages, but take on the roughened look of fustian, low in gloss and sometimes with the warp threads showing in contrasting color. Other long-piled velvets, glossier than these, are crushed to give variety by breaking up the fields of light and shadow that characterize the velvet proper. Plain old satins are not disdained as seats and cushions in chairs where all else is covered with a damask.

The new treatment of walls calls for new style textiles to hang upon them—not in full curtaining as of old, for such a manner would be too soft, too reminiscent of sentiment and emotion, but in panels of decoration. Fancy a room lined with a light wood in the natural color as it glows under a finish of wax, marked off into panels by bands of steel or nickel combined with black; or fancy a room whose walls are covered with twenty-inch stripes of cork in three shades, or one whose walls are covered with silver leaf or pale gilt roughly applied, and you can see the need of some softener like a textile panel. Our human bodies are made of such tender stuff, so easily bruised, that the instinct favors some soft refuge—even though it be only for the vision to rest upon.

And so come the modernistic panels to supply a milder decoration than glass or metal. We have already. noted the effects of Rodier in this direction. Dufy's brocade designs are sufficiently decorative and large in scale to serve. But the most characteristic are the hangings made as a painting is made, through the creative genius of an artist. Foremost among these, leaving out painting, are the tapestries.

But except for the old tapestry technique in the weave, the cartoons resemble not at all the tapestry with which we are familiar—with the single exception of a large-warped, rough hanging reminiscent of the poorer specimens from ancient Peru.

As the eye sees first the picture in a tapestry and as the weave is similar in all, it is in the cartoon that the modern differs from the masters of the past. Here one finds the new school of drawing in the joy of unconvention. Maximilian Wenceslaus of the Viennese school dares human figures of strange new movement, and Jean Lucat of Paris indicates in two square yards of slight detail the salient points of all Algeria, Atlas Mountains, blue sea and cruel desert with amazing vegetation.

Needless to say, these tapestries, whether of geometric design or more thoughtful drawing, are not executed with the old-time beauty of weave. Indeed the lover of old Arras and Brussels work would hesitate to call them tapestries at all. But it is doubtless felt that the coarseness of the weave and the roughness of the wool in modern work gives an informality of texture appropriate to modern decoration. At least it defies the old convention in still one more department of textiles.

The use of pictures having grown rarer and rarer on walls of all but galleries, the textile is intended to take their place. They are hung wherever the wall looks barest, but always in harmony with the architecture of the room. Modern mantels having lost their shelves, and consequently their row of ornaments, the textile panel is happily displayed upon the chimney breast. It hangs above the sofa and adds to the coziness of that friendly piece of furniture, and hangs behind the head-board of a bed. Apropos, it makes a most attractive coverlet, especially for the couch bed which is sure to be found in some room of an apartment.

Screens are so often painted, so often silvered or gilded with a gay little motive to break the large field, that few are left for textiles to cover. But should the softer effect be desired the woven panel comes in play, the stencil supplemented with the brush, and here may be used many of the large designs that only repeat themselves once in every yard. Many of the rayon fabrics are used for curtains, heavy stuffs in golden beige or warm taupe which carry the design in weaving only. The gloss of this wonder-thread makes its own variations of light and shade.

It might be said of modernistic prints that those most easily used are timid in color though not in design. The high key is preferred where many colors are introduced, and thus all blend easily with each other and with the various objects in the room. Others avoid all colors save shades of beige, gray and the various neutrals that waver between the two, warm with a reddish cast or olive with slight green.

When an exception is made and the figures stand out boldly, the print is used more for cushions than for entire sets of furniture. A sofa of crushed velvet in gray is interestingly enlivened with a big cushion of orange figures well covering a ground of black.

The new printed textiles are dangerous playthings for the amateur. They are not the simple toys they look. Each one has an individuality most self-assertive. It has moreover a captious quarrelsome nature that relishes disagreement with its neighbor. These traits are not revealed until the amateur has the hangings in the home. They are not composed at hazard; each one is the result of concentrated thought and of thorough sympathy with the spirit of the new decoration; and only the professional has the instinct for style that directs a harmonious arrangement.

We have spoken of stenciled heavy fabrics. These are made exclusively for the especial place they occupy. Often they carry arresting motives and colors, but as they are used only as panels or screens their presence is but discreetly stimulating.

The matter of ornament has occupied most of the pages of this book, not so much its forms as the history of other times which has crystallized into these particular compositions. Race growth, social customs, religious worship and development, all are composed into designs which have been used throughout the ages. What of these strange unreadable mixtures that are given us as today's expression and which we are expected to substitute for the old? They are said to express the spirit of our times. I wonder if they do, or if they do not express only the hasty sequence of novelty which arises from youth's constant demand. This remark, please note, applies not to the movement as a whole but to its ornament alone.

Continuing with prints lest the more alluring be left out, there is offered us wide choice of beauty in printed voiles, chiffon, mousseline de soie, and other gauzy fabrics. Their obvious use is curtains or lamp-shades where the light filters through and makes all color diaphanous. New schemes of lighting aim at the indirect ray. A room, they say, should be as full of light as is a fishbowl and with no more evidence of its source. All persons over twenty-five hail the in-direct lighting with enthusiasm because it casts no shadows on a tired face, and the methods of introducing it are curiously beautiful.

But there still remain those who like the luminous refuge of a shaded lamp especially accompanied by a book, and therefore the new style leaves us this ancient household god. Here in the lamp's 'shade is found use for new patterns in printed silk and gauzes. The finely pleated shade is gone, the shapes have altered, all trimmings are absent, but the new designs and plain transparent weaves without design make a more than happy change.

Unflattering it is to our vanity, but we must confess that the most beautiful and interesting of all new decorative printed textiles are those composed in Europe, with especial emphasis on Paris and Vienna. But this condition will not forever prevail. Our designers are becoming aware that science and an inexorable principle of strength and even of mathematics under-lies the new movement, and according to this they create. And as for ornament that deals with figures, human and animal, the artist who designs best for the style modernistic is he who is longest steeped in the ancient.

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