Hetta and Ben Nicholson modelling ‘Henrietta Street’ by Kissing Fish. All photographs courtesy of Ben Nicholson.
Having featured stories of re-discovered designs – and designers – from the 1950s and ’60s, we were thrilled to come across a new textile design company, Kissing Fish. Having happened upon a frayed portfolio containing dozens of mid-century pattern designs, husband and wife Ben and Hetta Nicholson have put four of their favourites into production. Originally created by Ben’s uncle, Michael Nicholson, while studying at Brighton College of Art in the mid-1950s, the patterns are so of the time, and yet in the range of appealing colours selected by Ben and Hetta, they feel as fresh and vibrant as the day they were drafted.
So, did this talented designer ever go on to produce patterns commercially? Apparently not. After college, Michael Nicholson landed himself a job with Conran Contracts and went on to work as a freelance photographer, specialising in furniture and interiors. Among his clients were many of the key design retailers of the time – Habitat, Herman Miller and Hille – and his photographs were published in the interiors magazines and lifestyle books of the 1970s and ’80s. He in fact had a wonderful collection of mid-century furniture himself – some of the 1974 Habitat catalogue was shot in his house – and every inch of wall space was covered in an ever-changing collection of Modern art, among them works by David Hockney, Georges Braque, Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson and Keith Vaughan.
We were eager to catch up with Ben Nicholson to find out more about the Kissing Fish project…
Chair upholstered in ‘Boston Place’ fabric, with cushion in the ‘Lower Thames’ design.
How did you come across the designs and how many are there altogether?
My brother and I were clearing our uncle’s small terraced house in Marylebone, and a lot of the contents were being chucked in a skip; I was pulling interesting things out and putting them in the back of my car! The portfolio containing these designs was one of the rescued items. There are more than 50 designs in the portfolio, however probably only 30 or so are ‘useable’, as some work was unfinished.
Swatches of ‘Boston Place’ fabric in four colour ways, with the original designs on card.
How did you choose which designs to put into production?
We chose four designs as our initial production, as they were the ones that we could imagine using in our house, rather selfishly! They are also designs that were relatively simple to produce and we didn’t want to overcomplicate things early on. Although one or two designs just display a single motif, most of them were conceived with a repeat in mind, so they are well suited to fabric and wallpaper.
‘Henrietta Street’ fabric during screen printing.
What printing technique do you use and where is the fabric produced?
Our fabric is all produced in the UK. We use a London printer to screen print ‘Henrietta Street’ onto a wonderful bespoke Scottish linen union, and all the other designs are printed in a mill in Lancashire, as they do not suit ‘flat’ screen printing. The mill worked with us to create a print finish that was a little more natural and bespoke, using a cutting edge digital print facility. We found that printing just one colour resulted in a very flat effect, so they invented a ‘texture’ made up of two colours that gave a more natural ‘ink squeezed through the cloth’ aesthetic. Although initially reticent, we are now convinced that digital is the way ahead; the consistency is unrivalled and it is easy to produce relatively short runs. With both printing methods, we are able to make up colourways to order; in fact two of the colourways in our current range were chosen by our clients!
‘Lower Thames’ fabric in rust, with the original design on card.
How did you select the colourways?
Choosing the colours was the hardest thing; we tried to keep them true to the essence of the original designs, while adapting them so they are more likely to sit better in contemporary homes. We didn’t research what was currently on trend, but we looked through Michael’s other designs and tried to stick to his palette as far as possible, discounting some rather ill looking salmon pinks and sludgy browns! For some designs, we chose a more neutral colour way, as we knew that many people would want the 1950s style but not necessarily the 1950s colour.
Can we expect to see more fabrics in the future?
You can certainly expect more designs, we have two more current in sampling and as the business grows, we will expand the range. There are also some lovely weave designs in the archive that will hopefully see the light of day, depending on the success of the prints!
Portrait of Michael Nicholson.
Take a look at the full range of Kissing Fish fabrics here
Find out the discovery of the Sheila Bownas Archive of mid-century patterns here, another re-discovery from the mid-century – there’s more on this, with full images, in our print magazine, MidCentury issue 05