PRINT September 1991


The pictures that follow, both gorgeous and utterly mundane, are textile designs—patterns made to be printed on fabric and eventually exhibited on people’s persons wherever there’s store-bought cloth. They have an audience, then, as vast as those of such popular image-producing media as television and the movies, which they long predate: the particular designs here may be creations of the cloth-printing industry, but the genres they conform to—dots and medallions, stripes and grids—are untraceably ancient.

Textile patterns are as widely seen as any images made, but the word “seen” needs to be qualified. For, paradoxically, this art is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible: wearing a picture, we subsume it into a personal style, a personal atmosphere. It is so consistently in view that it dodges the inspecting gaze we muster for museum or gallery work, and most often, in any case, it wasn’t made for that kind of attention in the first place. On top of that, the potentially endless repetition natural to pattern tends to obscure its images, or, rather, to create more images, vast allover fields from which the basic frame that some anonymous artist labored on looks out at us again and again, sometimes discreetly boxed off from its duplicates, sometimes, as with a stripe, absolutely continuous with them.

The patterns on these pages, chosen for Artforum by Joost Elffers and Susan Meller from their forthcoming book Textile Designs, aren’t here because they’re unusually beautiful, or historic. On the contrary, they’re ordinary—variations on motifs and ideas that have been part of the design vocabulary for centuries. Which isn’t to say that there are no period styles in textile design, or that fabric patterns don’t reflect the politics of their time and place. They all have yarns to be unraveled. But the artists who created these images had their own idea of invention: not the dream of something so far unimagined, but a twist in the familiar, a play in the inexhaustible field of what is already there.

Such images, as the dates of these samples show, manage to be both age-old and up-to-date. And when the ordinary, so commonplace as to be out of view, is brought into focus, it proves to have pictures in it.

Strictly speaking, this round device with its Greek-key border is a medallion, usually a rather formal motif common, for example, in neoclassical and Empire home-furnishing prints of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By combining it with faux-primitive animals on a faux-batik ground, the creator of this more recent design was shooting for quite a different market: the African colonies. In colonial days, cloth could be made and printed far more cheaply in the industrialized West than in most of the European countries’ various overseas territories, few of which were able to develop a modern textile industry. (India was the notable exception.) The export trade was a huge business, and to appeal to these regional markets, designers concocted their own ideas of the local taste—helped on by scouts on the scene who sent information back home. Cloth like this may feature genuine African motifs, then, though necessarily interpreted by a European hand.

Beginning somewhere in Bohemia and spreading rapidly throughout Europe and beyond, the polka dance was so popular in the 1840s that all kinds of things were named after it—from foodstuffs to fabric patterns—in the hope they would share its success. Only in the case of the polka dot, which remains a perennial in textile design (and is actually far older than the dance), did the scheme work. What defines these dots is their solid color—they are objects in themselves rather than round containers for a motif—and their layout, often in ordered grids, sometimes scattered randomly, but never, in any case, arranged to make up another shape. (Dots set in lines to draw a larger image are called dot patterns.) Polkas are proud, then—they have a lot of integrity for a dot.

Along with abstractions like dots and stripes, textile designers have always illustrated real creatures and things, in a group of patterns today called “conversational” in the trade. The objects shown may have symbolic meaning, or may appeal to the way people like to think of themselves, or to their affections. Or they may simply be visible and to hand. In the 1880s, when the industrial age was young and full of self-love, what was to hand was hardware and tools. These chunky objects rarely appear elsewhere in cloth except in the Constructivist prints of the ’20s, which had the ideological imperative of celebrating the worker.

Stripes appear early on in the history of cloth—when more than one color is incorporated in the loom’s warp, they become virtually a by-product of the weaving. Printed patterns, though, allow a flexibility of design and a range of color that would be most laborious to reproduce in the weave. These French provincial stripes, which echo the traditional peasant costume of the South of France (where their bright colors withstood the bleaching of the summer sun), were a French fashion craze in the 1810s and ’20s—a cheerful alternative to the more formal wear of the time.

Textile Designs will be published shortly by Harry N. Abrams, New York.