Photographs courtesy of the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation
By Andrew Casey
Lucienne Day is best known today for her pioneering textile designs from the 1950s and ’60s, particularly her iconic ‘Calyx’ pattern, which was shown at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Working chiefly for the London store Heal’s, her work was unified by a deep-rooted belief that good design should be mass-produced for the many and not just for the few. However, what many do not know is that, following her retirement in the mid-1970s, Lucienne Day moved away from commercial pattern design to create one-off decorative silk mosaics.
Lucienne Day: constructing the mosaics
These exclusive works were labour intensive: some of the larger mosaics included over 6,000 individual patches of shot silk. Cut into tiny pieces, each piece was sewn by hand onto rectangular pieces of card that resembled Roman strip mosaics. It was Lucienne Day’s assistants who actually constructed the mosaics, working from her numbered and painted pieces of card. Day defined her role in an interview for The Independent in 1993: “I’m a designer”, she insisted, “not a maker. I employ others to make the mosaics.”
‘The Three Daughters of Mexico’, 1992, photograph courtesy of Royal College of Art Collection
Lucienne Day: new recognition
Influenced by the work of both textile designer Alexander Girard and artist Josef Albers, Lucienne Day approached this new challenge with the same pioneering zeal she had had many decades earlier as a young freelance designer. After building up a body of work, Day organised her first silk mosaic exhibition at Oxfordshire’s Prescote Gallery, in 1979. Its success prompted another show at the National Theatre in London, at which three-quarters of the works were sold. To gain additional media coverage, Day organised a special viewing at her home and invited editors from magazines like Vogue and Harpers & Queen.
Her larger-scale mosaics, commissioned for public spaces, are perhaps the most awe-inspiring. They often comprised several smaller parts that linked together to form a larger composition, such as ‘The Three Daughters of Mexico’ (1992), created using three equally sized panels. ‘Aspects of the Sun’ was made up of five differently sized panels; it took two years to complete and was installed at the John Lewis store in Kingston upon Thames in 1990.
Photograph courtesy of the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation
Lucienne Day: one-off collectables
Several examples of her work were purchased by public bodies, including the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The British Department of Environment commissioned a silk mosaic for the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in London alongside work by several other artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi. For this, she created ‘The Window’, currently on display in the British Embassy in Kiev. And in 2009, one of her silk mosaics ‘Golden Tangram’ was used on a limited edition cover of Wallpaper magazine.
In an interview for The Scotsman in 2003, Lucienne Day said of this last creative flourish, “I am very proud and pleased that I was able to change direction… It was a big step to take from designs which were comparatively inexpensive, and made in hundreds of yards, to very elitist one-offs. One could have thought, ‘she’s absolutely changed her attitude’, though, in fact, I hadn’t… But I felt I had done that an awful long time, and why couldn’t I please myself for a bit?”
Read the full article and see additional photographs in MidCentury issue 07
Find out about the work of the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation