Living Union, a company who are making it their business to bring the work of long-forgotten mid-century textile designer Robert Stewart back into production, will be launching their first products this month at Home, London. Here at MidCentury, we were keen to find out more and tracked down Siobhan Di Rienzo, the force behind the enterprise.
Photographs courtesy of Living Union
Mid-century textile design and Living Union
Living Union has been born out of a love of mid-century textile design. Company Founder Siobhan Di Rienzo explains, “I have a real passion for vintage fabrics and have long collected Stig Linberg and Lucienne Day. Around a year ago I was trying to source some cushions for the shop, but just couldn’t find what I wanted. That’s when I decided to manufacture some myself. I wanted a collection with heritage so contacted the Classic Textiles department at Glasgow School of Art, who hold a key British mid-century pattern archive, to see if they fancied collaborating with me. “To be honest I didn’t think they’d come back to me, but within 24 hours they got in touch to say that they’d been contemplating doing a project like this for some time but the right partner, with the relevant retail experience, hadn’t yet emerged.”
Siobhan flew to Glasgow to see the mid-century textile design archive for herself. “As soon as I saw the Robert Stewart collection, I knew that I wanted to start with his work. The timing was perfect, as his widow and children were keen to get Robert’s work out to a wider audience. There had been a Robert Stewart exhibition in Dunoon in 2013 and his children were in the process of setting up the Robert Stewart Foundation.”
Mid-century textile design: Robert Stewart and Lucienne Day
Robert Stewart came from Glasgow and worked as a designer between 1956 and 1995. He worked solely with textiles for roughly six years, before branching out into other media. Robert Stewart’s family invited Siobhan to their house, where she was told about the understanding that existed between Robert Stewart and textile designer Lucienne Day; Robert would design for Liberty and Lucienne for Heal’s. Because Liberty never mass-produced Robert’s work in the way Heal’s did Lucienne’s, he perhaps missed out on some of the public recognition he deserved.
Mid-century textile design: the reproduction of Robert Stewart patterns
The family has now granted Living Union the rights to reproduce the mid-century textile designs of Robert Stewart – in fact Siobhan has been given permission to manufacture pieces that he created in very small numbers, the prototypes for which are still displayed in his home. This includes two stunning wall hangings dating from 1953. Each design will be produced as a limited edition of just 75. She tells me, “I couldn’t believe the extent of his catalogue.”
Living Union has concentrated on producing six different designs to start with, four of which have been printed onto tea towels and four onto cushion covers. Siobhan explains, “Everything is manufactured in the UK. Glasgow School of Art do all the printing – they do all the digital structuring for the patterns. We’ve gone back through the archives and printed some patterns in colour ways that haven’t been produced for 50 or 60 years.”
There’s something to suit every budget and Siobhan explains that a great deal of care went into pricing, “Robert Stewart’s family were keen to make his work accessible to everyone and I kept this in mind when pricing the pieces”. The packaging presents each product as a collector’s piece – designed by graphic design agency Studio Makgill, it’s a work of art in itself. Siobhan says, “It is important for me to get the heritage and history of Robert Stewart over to customers.”
Mid-century textiles and the search for a British identity
As Co-founder of design store The Lollipop Shoppe, Siobhan is no newcomer to the retail industry. She describes how this new venture came about, “Textiles is a passion of mine and I’ve gone off and done this on my own, it’s entirely independent of my other business; however it was born out of a need that I spotted as a retailer. There aren’t many British companies that produce a range of textiles and home wares – instead we all buy into Scandinavian designs, from brands like Ferm Living and Marimekko.”
Mid-century textile design: more to come from Living Union
Siobhan has also commissioned work from contemporary designers to complement the Robert Stewart pieces in the Living Union collection. She says “It’s an eclectic mix, but I think it’ll work”. And this is just the beginning – Siobhan hints that Living Union intends to explore the work of other long-forgotten British mid-century textile designers in the Glasgow School of Art catalogue like Lana McKinnon and Sylvia Chalmers. She adds, “As the collection grows, I’ll also add more designs from the immense Robert Stewart catalogue, which includes ceramics as well as textiles.”
Robert Stewart’s textiles and an interview with his family feature in our print magazine, MidCentury 08
Find out more about the Living Union collection here.
To view the Robert Stewart archive held at the Glasgow School of Art, go to Classic Textiles
Visit Siobhan’s retail outlet Lollipop Shoppe here
For stories from the Glasgow School of Art archive, click here
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