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Heal Fabrics Ltd. Screen-Printed Cottons

British, 1962–72

The textile industry in postwar Britain enjoyed an enormous commercial and critical success, due in large part to the collaboration between the industry and avant-garde artists as well as up-and-coming young designers. Following the enforced inactivity of the war years, a surge of creativity characterized British pattern design especially for printed fabrics that were both influential and in demand internationally.

Among the leading producers of cutting-edge textiles was Heal Fabrics, founded in 1941 under the name Heal’s Wholesale and Export as a subsidiary of Heal & Son, the well-known nineteenth-century London furniture and furnishings store. A converter rather than a manufacturer, Heal’s acquired patterns from freelance designers which were then printed by commission. Already acknowledged as an innovator in the industry in the late 1940s, the company’s reputation was firmly secured at the Festival of Britain in 1951 where it featured Lucienne Day’s Calyx, a radical, abstract organic design that made a significant impact on what was referred to as the “Contemporary” style in the 1950s. By the 1960s, one third of Heal’s production was sold overseas, and in 1964, in response to the enthusiastic reception of its fabrics in Germany, a subsidiary, Heal Textil, was established in Stuttgart.

The group of screen-printed cottons illustrated here is part of a large collection of Heal’s textiles and promotional material that belonged to Evelyn Redgrave, who began designing for Heal’s in 1969 while a student at Hornsey College of Art and became one of the firm’s directors in 1974. Dating primarily from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, the fabrics exemplify the inventive and dynamic patterns that characterized Heal’s output during the period and the aesthetically diverse designers sought out by Tom Worthington, the company’s visionary managing director from 1948 to 1971. Rather than choosing designs around a specific theme or in a particular style, Worthington drew on a large—up to eighty designers in the 1960s—and impressive roster of talent to create consistently unified annual collections that were frequently heralded in publications such as The Ambasssador and Design. Each year, he viewed as many as 11,000 designs, eventually selecting about seventy to eighty; put into production in March, the collections were launched in November. In July 1965, Design credited Heal’s furnishing fabrics with having had a “revolutionary affect on textiles in the middle of the century” and identified Worthington as “the most brilliant and dynamic impresario/converter in the business,” who was responsible for discovering gifted young designers. Many of those whose work forms this collection were trained at leading art schools such as the Royal College of Art and Hornsey College of Art, and later went on to teach in these and other institutions.

The designers represented here include Redgrave, Barbara Brown, Doreen Dyall, Howard Carter, D. Van Golden, Mary White, and Zandra Rhodes, several of whom were cited in Design as contributing to Heal’s prominence in the field. White’s Cottage Garden (ca. 1958–60) displays the irregular arrangement of stylized natural motifs typical of “Contemporary” fabrics. Worthington’s interest in translating modern art into textiles is evident in Carter’s award-winning Sunflower (1962), based on one of his paintings and illustrating the popularity for monumental florals in the early 1960s; D. Van Golden’s Rhythm (ca. 1962–65), promoted by Heal’s at a trade fair with a model wearing a dress made of the fabric and standing in front of the painting; and John Plumb’s Chiricahua (ca. 1960–65), also developed from a painting. The influence of Pop and Op Art is conveyed in Doreen Dyall’s playful Doll’s House (1962) and Puffing Billy (ca. 1962); Zandra Rhodes’ whimsically irreverent Top Brass (1964); Barbara Brown’s powerfully graphic Expansion (1966), Frequency (1969) and Gyration (1971); and the tonal gradations of Redgrave’s Cascade (1972) and Harlequin (ca. 1972). These often large-scale abstract and geometric designs in bright colors and bold combinations were perfectly suited to the minimalism of contemporary architecture and interiors where they would have made a strong statement. The range of patterns attests to the flexibility of screen printing which allowed for a greater degree of experimentation and freedom than block or roller printing. Introduced in the 1930s, screen printing became widespread after the war and particularly with the development of mechanized flatbed printing in the 1960s.

The majority of the forty cottons in this collection were produced by Heal’s; a few were manufactured by Tarian, a textile design firm established by Redgrave in 1977. In addition to the furnishing fabrics, Redgrave’s archive includes press releases, black-and-white and color photographs of Heal’s stands at trade fairs, information sheets on the designs, swatches, and tear sheets and reprints of articles from The Ambassador and Household Textiles International. Together these materials constitute an impressive record of Heal’s importance in the history of twentieth-century British design.

Provenance: Ex-collection Evelyn Redgrave
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