By Jo-ann Fortune
The patterns of British designer Sheila Bownas were utilised by the big high street brands in the 1950s and ‘60s – M&S, Liberty and Crown among them – but you’d be forgiven for not having heard of this prolific artist. As she wasn’t credited for her work, Sheila’s talent remained under the radar for decades, that is before Chelsea Cefai bought up her 200-strong collection of designs seven years ago and set about reintroducing the bold and beautiful patterns to the art and design world.
So far just 24 patterns have been brought back to life through prints and homewares – a number testament to the thought, care and attention that goes into each new product launch, which it’s clear are as personal to Chelsea as they are commercial.
The Sheila Bownas Archive: more designs reissued
Since featuring in MidCentury issue 05 in 2013, Chelsea has been busy reissuing more of the designs from the archive, including one of our favourites to date – the limited edition Otto. This striking placement print has elements of atomic and almost tribal influences and the cool mid-century palette of steel blue, concrete grey and olive yellow perfectly complements that fresh feeling inherent in stylish 1950s living spaces.
Creating a collection around this focal piece, Chelsea has collaborated with Parlour Furniture to introduce a daybed sofa seemingly straight from the same era – a furniture first for The Sheila Bownas Archive – as well as coordinated cushions and table lamps by designer Zoe Darlington. The minimalist three-cushion design features another Sheila Bownas pattern, Edwin, which has been laser-cut into the walnut frame, as well as appearing on the upholstery. This piece, Chelsea says, “brings together both present day craft and mid-century design heritage.”
The Sheila Bownas Archive: limited edition prints
As Sheila only numbered her prints, it falls to Chelsea as guardian of the collection to name them. The names are chosen from the list of registered birth names between 1920 and 1960, “I found this process worked well and I simply start with the question ‘male or female?’”, Chelsea explains, bringing to life the sense of personality she sees in the bold designs.
“We don’t know the exact date of each design, but we can put them in an approximate year order. Otto came before Gilbert, but both were designed during the early to mid 1950s. For me these prints clearly show how in tune Sheila was with the futuristic styles of post-war art and design.” If Otto is Fifties fresh, the earthy purple tones of Gilbert will add warmth to a plush Sixties-inspired space. But the one thing both have in common is the curiosity all good mid-century prints inspire, the deconstructed organic motifs and space age influences offering up something new each time they’re admired.
Chelsea is a perfectionist. Her prints are produced on high quality heavy paper that has an almost handmade quality to it, they are embossed with the Sheila Bownas Archive mark and come with a limited edition certificate of authenticity. These are more than just wall decoration – each one is a collector’s item.
The Sheila Bownas Archive: the limited edition box set
Noticing that people would often purchase Sheila’s prints in pairs and in similar shades, Chelsea also introduced a limited edition box set that includes the more recently released designs Audrey and Iris with four staple favourites – Pip, Cecil, Ernest and Peggy. Celebrating Sheila’s exploration of colour and clean edges, the geometric patterns revive the mood of the 1950s and ’60s, and it’s incredible how fresh they still look today.
“When I look through the Bownas archive, there are so many designs that would sit happily in a present day interior. Generally, I think homeowners are more accepting of bold pattern and colour and the surface designs of the mid 20th century still feel thoroughly modern”, says Chelsea. “Through improved digital printing methods, archives also have the opportunity to reintroduce new colour-ways, making the original designs more adaptable to current trends.”
With this design flexibility and Sheila’s eye for clever repeats, I ask Chelsea if we can look forward to Bownas Archive wallpaper in the near future. “I have considered it and hope to explore the idea further”, she answers, before offering an exciting invitation to potential partners, “As most manufacturers have a minimum print run, I’d prefer to collaborate with an established wallpaper brand that can offer distribution.”
The Sheila Bownas Archive: A personal picture
Between product development and launches, Chelsea Cefai has also continued to research Sheila’s life in preparation for an upcoming exhibition. “Part of that process brought me together with Sheila’s family for the first time and it was a real pleasure to visit the village of Linton in the Yorkshire Dales, where she grew up, and meet with so many relatives who kindly shared their own private collections and stories about Sheila.”
“I discovered more gems and so many designs. One particular pattern stood out, which seemed to reflect elements of the village and the little townships within the parish, and with the family’s kind permission it will be reintroduced in 2015 by the Sheila Bownas Archive, to celebrate what would have been her 90th year.”
Alongside the legacy of work discovered by friends and family when Sheila died in 2007, aged 82, written records have also helped Chelsea piece together the story of this talented, yet very private, artist. “Researching Sheila’s life and work has been an ongoing pleasure and I admire her sheer determination to succeed and become self sufficient as a freelance designer during the 1950s and ’60s. Her collection of letters reveals that she tried for years to secure a permanent position but kept coming up against the sexism that existed in male-dominated design studios.”
In a letter from 1959, Sheila is told by Crown Wallpaper, ‘Thank you for your letter enclosing your design… I have decided to retain this design so would you please let us have your invoice? With reference to your desire to obtain a position in our studio, the Director feels that should an appointment be made at all, a male designer would be preferable…’. Here is an independent female designer, whose patterns were readily taken up by the leading names in interior decorating in the mid-20th century, but who never really gained the public recognition she deserved. Well, not until now anyway.
The first Sheila Bownas exhibition, curated by Chelsea Cefai, will be held in Yorkshire in June 2015 as part of the Grassington Festival.
For information about purchasing prints and fabrics, go to Sheila Bownas Archive
For information on upholstered furniture, check out Parlour Furniture
For lampshades, check out the Zoe Darlington collection
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