Jaqueline Groag’s Mid-Century Style at Spun: Q&A with the Curator

The past two weeks the Sew News team has been sharing our impressions of the fantastic exhibit Spun: Adventures in Textiles at the Denver Art Museum. One of the exhibits that I found most inspiring as a garment sewist was Pattern Play: The Contemporary Designs of Jacqueline Groag, which focuses on the work of mid-century textile designer Jacqueline Groag. Here’s a look at the exhibit, which features both finished samples of dresses in her fabrics as well as her original artwork. (Thanks to the DAM for providing images, © Jaime Kripke.)

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One of the reasons that Pattern Play inspired me was that Groag’s artwork was available to designers and  sewists of the 1950s to interpret into clothing, home décor and other pieces to use in everyday life. This was my first time seeing Groag’s designs, but the bright colors and motifs immediately made me want to sew a dress of my own. The playful, exuberant elements are just as compelling 60 years later. It reminds me of the way that we can use beautiful textiles to elevate functional objects. Here’s a close-up on three dresses sewn in Groag’s fabric:

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After checking out Spun, I had the fantastic opportunity to ask the curator of Pattern Play, Darrin Alfred (Associate Curator of Architecture, Design & Graphics), a few questions about Jaqueline Groag and her work. Darrin provided great context and insight into the significance of her designs and how they reflected and pushed forward the style of the 1950s:

Q: How did you decide to focus on Jacqueline Groag’s designs?

DA: The exhibition is drawn almost entirely from a vast collection of post-World War II British textiles assembled by Jill A. Wiltse and H. Kirk Brown III. When I begin discussing my department’s contribution to Spun, it only seemed natural to approach Jill and Kirk. Their remarkable collection, which is housed in Denver, features the groundbreaking work of British women designers, most notably Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag, and Marian Mahler. Groag was perhaps one of the most influential and versatile of these women designers. Not only was I personally drawn to Groag’s avant-garde and naively charming patterns, but few designers moved as easily from abstract design to the representational, and produced as equally good work in both disciplines. Perhaps most notably, the Wiltse-Brown Collection illustrates Groag’s creative process through a brilliant selection of her original drawings and collages. I knew we could present Groag’s patterns in a variety of formats and scales, from furnishing textiles and laminates to dress fabrics and the initial studies on paper, to create a dynamic presentation of her work.

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Q: How do Groag’s designs reflect the social and cultural trends of her era?

DA: If Britain lagged behind Italy, Scandinavia, or the United States in many fields of design during the 1950s, this could not be said of its contribution to textile design. The art of textile design changed radically after World War II as Britain was transformed from a country devastated by war into an optimistic consumer society. A renewed appetite for decoration and color flourished throughout Britain and the energy and innovation seen in the work of designers such as Jacqueline Groag established Britain as world leaders in this field. Inspired by abstract art, architecture, and science, these designers (supported by forward-looking manufacturers like David Whitehead), pioneered a progressive Contemporary style. Characterized by an imaginative use of color, innovative materials, and dynamic pattern, the new look was a dramatic contrast to the dreary, monochromatic world of the war years. Adventurous young consumers were infected with the fervor for Contemporary design during the early post-war period and embraced the lively patterns and creative designs. You can view a 1953 magazine advertisement in the exhibition that touts David Whitehead’s Contemporary Prints, vibrant patterns designed by “brilliant young artists.” With postwar advances in textile production, including roller- or machine-printing and inexpensive artificial fabrics like rayon, British textile manufacturers were able to offer bold and colorful designs to a new generation at affordable prices.

Q: Why was it important to include examples of Groag’s original works on paper?

DA: The drawings allow visitors to explore how Groag built up her patterns. There is an interest in how things are made today that makes this emphasis on process highly topical. An underlying grid pattern, an approach found in many of Groag’s designs, is apparent in many of the drawings and textiles. The grid was a favorite structure of Groag’s and the works on paper reveal many of the advantages the grid offers. It serves not only as an armature for color blocking but for exploring pattern, color relationships, and rhythm. Unlike the other designers in the Wiltse-Brown Collection, we could exhibit Groag’s imaginative works on paper alongside her lively, bold mass produced designs, providing a rare glimpse into her creative process.

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Q: How does the Pattern Play exhibit fit into the overall vision for Spun?

DA: It’s a truly unique contribution to this campus wide exhibition. And while the exhibition doesn’t necessarily pull from the museum’s collection of architecture, design and graphics, it highlights a significant treasure found right in our own backyard.

Thank you so much to Darrin Alfred for providing this background on the exhibit! It’s fascinating to see how Groag was able to capture the newness and excitement of her era, and Pattern Play is an absolute must-see if you’re a fan of mid-Century art and style. It’s also such a unique chance to see the process behind the finished designs. Here’s another look at one of the dresses (captured by our Creative Director Sue) where you can pick up on all of the dimension and detail in the design:

detail Jaqueline Groags Mid Century Style at Spun: Q&A with the Curator

For more information on Spun and Pattern Play, visit the Denver Art Museum website and check out all of the cool related events that will be happening all summer. And if you’re in the Denver area, Darrin Alfred will be presenting a gallery talk about Pattern Play on June 21. Pattern Play is one among many amazing dimensions of Spun, which is nothing less than stunning, so don’t miss the chance to see this amazing treasure of textiles throughout history and throughout the world!

 Jaqueline Groags Mid Century Style at Spun: Q&A with the Curator
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