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An Introduction to Modern Textiles

If the design world feels like an endless parade of products, then the gnashing maws of industrial production assuredly underpin it all. Take a look at how leading manufacturers make what they make, with a special eye on how to clean up what is often a messy act.

textile, art

An Introduction to Modern Textiles: Kit out your furniture in luxurious silk or no-frills leather,; textiles can add just as much dimension to room as art, and can be equally collectible.

The life of the modern textile might rightly be said to have begun with the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the cotton gin, power loom, and roller printing machine. But it would be generations before the concurrence of design and commerce fully flowered in the middle of the 20th century.

Though cozy flannels, tasteful tartans, and cotton prints depicting George Washington and Ben Franklin in political discourse have undeniablecharm, textile design realized a fuller exuberance around the time that Charles Eames famously instructed designers and consumers alike to “take your pleasure seriously.” The Eameses did just that in connecting the dots of both formal play and industrial might in patterns both random and precise. Contemporary Alexander Girard’s textiles boast brilliantly colored prints and woven geometrics, and Verner Panton’s optical extravaganzas surely justify his own dictum: “Beautiful can be ugly. Ugly can be beautiful.”

Not that modern textiles were about pleasure entirely. With all its new energy and optimism, postwar design put a high value on fabrics that were architectural, inexpensive, and colorful without being decorative in a sentimental manner. So just as bright printed fabrics from modernist hotbeds Sweden and Finland held sway, so too did the engineering and science of the war years, which would be redirected to design and consumer goods.

As America’s postwar boom embraced European modernism, designers like Florence Knoll married elegant geometrics with machine-made fabrics. At the more austere end of the spectrum was weaver Anni Albers, who took a more sculptural approach in
her abstract, multidimensional textiles and who was certain that “the less we, as designers, exhibit in our work our personal traits…and idiosyncrasies—–in short, our individuality—–the more balanced the form we arrive at will be. It is better that the material speaks than that we speak.”

Perhaps the most vital innovation in modern textile design came not in content or form but in use. Fabric was embraced to help give shape to open-plan living, gird the expansive plate-glass windows that were suddenly ubiquitous, and add warmth to new halls of concrete and stone.

Though we’ve now wandered through the 1970s (“ the beige decade,” as it was called by textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen), when natural hues all too often resulted in a monotonous drabness, contemporary designers take their pleasures as seriously as their mid-century predecessors while reflecting some of the same visual perspectives. Artist Maira Kalman’s “Story of My Life” pattern is a spirited rebuke to Albers’s dictum regarding the dangers of one’s peculiarities and idiosyncrasies; it is an impressionistic catalog of pen-and-ink pictographs of ladders, birds’ nests, dancers, and wedding cakes.

Illustrative whimsy aside, contemporary textiles continue to take their cues from the annals of industry. Marcel Wanders worked with the Aerospace Engineering Laboratory at Delft University of Technology on the carbon-aramid netting for his Knotted chair, while yarns using photoluminescent pigments are finding their way into textiles for interiors. Lest one be tempted to think the story is all about such techno-synthetics, we have also seen the rise of small-batch fabrics and a return to craft. Contemporary textiles made of natural materials, such as bamboo, linen, and alpaca, highlight innovative construction and a lavish surface touch. The innate beauty of the yarns is the message here. Albers would have approved.
 

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    Sew Awesome

    “Who we are arises directly from what our bodies can do,” writes Richard Sennett in his recent book, The Craftsman. In his spirited defense of how making material things can enlarge one’s life, Sennett reevaluates the place of the handmade in the digital age. Certainly in design we are familiar with the idea that touch is often a necessary antidote to high tech, and that the ether of the electronic world has honed our appetite for the tactile and material. Heather Bush agrees. A designer at Carnegie Fabrics, she considers ways in which to apply craft technique to hard-use textiles. She was also willing to rethink the notion that handwork is exclusively about limited production, high costs, and the imprint of individuality. Tuned in to the embroidery that was so ubiquitous in fashion a few years back, Bush decided it had a place in high-performance wall coverings and upholstery.

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    The Wrong Impression

    Going for the hand touch isn’t exactly foolproof. An easy way to miss: embossed wall coverings. Lincrusta was originally invented in 1877 as a kind of textile-linoleum hybrid by linoleum progenitor Frederick Walton, and was made with gelled linseed oil backed by a heavy canvas. It functioned as a kind of molded linoleum and was offered up as an economic alternative to hand-carved plaster. It continues to be used today, not only as a wall covering but for all manner of decorative borders, dados, and friezes, the subtle sense of dimension suggesting wood, pressed tin, or even leather.
     

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    Shine and Rise

    The catalog of smart textiles for the future is teeming with cognitive intelligence—fabrics that serve as interactive surfaces or are embedded with sheets of tiny microprocessors, little solar batteries, or antimicrobial properties. But these materials may miss the point. The textile arts, after all, have their origins in comfort—rugs that keep our feet off the cold floor, curtains and wall hangings that keep out the draft, quilts that keep us cozy at night. What may have more value, both stylistically and holistically, is not so much a conventionally smart textile, but one that has emotional intelligence—kind of an electric blanket for the soul.

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    Tech Styles

    Matilda McQuaid is the head of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s Textiles Department:

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