Pattern Artists - Sonia Delaunay
I am a total pattern addict, and often I'll bring into my teaching practise talks on how patterns in textiles used to read like words. They would express life stories handed down from ancestors, preserving cultural traditions. My Master's thesis was called 'Fabric language, the text in the textile' - but will spare you this theory for now!
Recently I have been thinking about the work of a textile designer, how nowadays it's mostly anonymous. Textile designers use the same principles as a fine artist, understanding colour theory, composition, proportion, scale. But rather than these designs getting pinned to a wall for scrutiny, a textile pattern is designed to duplicate itself endlessly, so the basic image gets lost in a sea of repeats.
These patterns take on a form of vocabulary, an expression of personality and taste. So with this thought in mind, I want to start to write a series of blogs based on some of my favourite textile design hero's.
I am kicking off with Sonia Delaunay. She has had and continues to have, a significant influence on my textile practice. Here is a bit of a summary of her life and work and why I find her so inspiring. Although her artistic career spanned well into the 1970s, I am going to focus on her early career.
She was born Sonia Illinitchna Stern to a Ukrainian Jewish family.
At the age of seven, she went to live with her wealthy Maternal Uncle and his wife, in St Petersburg, Russia, who offered her a more privileged and cultured upbringing. (she was eventually officially adopted by them, at the age of 15)
Nevertheless, her childhood memories of Ukraine remained with her, and she often referred back to the 'pure' colour and bright costumes of the Ukrainian peasant weddings.
Sonia's and Roberts Art was part of the first wave of abstraction, in the early 1900s, they started moving away from pictorial form. Instead, it became about creating rhythm, motion and depth through overlapping areas of saturated hues. The concept of Simultanism is that it brings contrasting colours together that enhance one another, giving them higher intensity and vibrance.
Sonia also explored this relationship of colours through time-based mediums like poetry, dance, music and cinema. She would wear her Simultaneous patchwork outfits to high society openings and events, fashioning herself like a living sculpture.
"About 1911, I had the idea of making for my son, who had just been born, a blanket composed of bits of fabric like those I had seen in the houses of Russian peasants. When it was finished, the arrangement of the pieces of material seemed to me to evoke cubist conceptions, and we then tried to apply the same process to other objects and paintings." Sonia Delaunay (2)
For Sonia, working in textiles could be seen as a way of defining her artistic difference from her husband, Robert, and it also linked her to her Russian roots, especially that of folk art.
Sonia created a simultaneous environment through her patchwork art. In the couple's apartment, colours would dance together in the form of cushions, book covers and lampshades, creating a kind of homely theatre of aesthetic experimentation.
Sonia pursued her artistic mission without distinguishing between fine and applied arts; she possessed flexibility in her work, that allowed her to switch from one technique to another, achieving a sense of vitality, freshness and experimenting with the language of colour, in every creation.
The Russian revolution, in 1917, marked a significant turning point in Sonia's artistic career. She no longer got the financial support from her wealthy family. And began her business 'Casa Sonia' a boutique selling fashion and decorative household items and managed to earn enough money for the family to live.
In 1923 a firm in Lyons ordered some fabric designs from Sonia. "I have done fifty designs", she said, 'relationships of colour using pure geometrical forms with rhythm. As far as I'm concerned, they were and remain colour scales - really a purified version of our concept of painting. It has involved a great deal of research and study. The rhythm is based on numbers, for colour can be measured by the number of vibrations". This is a completely new concept, one which opens infinite horizons...' (3)
Sonia's designs were applied to women's dresses, automobiles and posters, and her research and discoveries has had a significant impact on contemporary painting.
in 1925 Sonia opened her fashion house, 'Sonia Delaunay' and registered 'Simultane' as a brand name in France, setting up a boutique in Paris.
Metz and Co Collaboration.
Metz and Co were a small luxury department store for textiles, interior design, applied arts and fashion in Amsterdam. During the early '20s the astute owner, Joseph de Leeuw, (who had also acquired Liberties in London), commissioned fabrics and furniture designs from international artists and architects for his own, exclusive production. (These included, Marcel Bruer, Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Paule Marrot, Josef Hoffmann) Alongside Gerrit Rietveld and the painter Bart van der Leck, Sonia's contribution marked the Metz style. Sonia's mix of great designs, strong personality and friendship accompanied Metz and Co for years.
For me, Sonia's accomplishment is that her textile designs created from 1922 - 1930 will never go out of style. So how do they have such permanence and durability? I believe we value the innate sense of rhythm and free spirit in her designs, and depth of research into colour relationships. There is also so much integrity in the value and simplicity in geometric forms.
I like the idea that Sonia Delaunay fused her art with the ongoing stream of everyday life in her textile designs, and this was somehow her legacy.
Sonia’s textile designs had an element different from those of past decorative designers. Her prints had a painterly quality to them. Sonia thought like a painter; therefore, she designed her fabrics using form and balance and colour.
Everything is feeling; everything is real. Colour brings me joy'. (Sonia Delaunay)
Credits: Tate Publishing, Sonia Delaunay.
(1.) Guillaume Apollinaire, quoted in Nous irons jusqu'au soleil, pg 34.
(2.) A quote extracted from the Tate Moderns website, Exhibitions and Events, 'who is Sonia Delaunay' (tate.org.uk)
(3) Extracted from the book, 'Sonia Delaunay, fashion and fabrics', by Jacques Damase, pg 57.