As a textile artist and designer, Elaine Lipson has spent much of her life exploring creative mediums and the fine arts. Born in Canada, Elaine has found a home (many, in fact) in the United States and spent time living in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco before settling in Colorado where she currently has a studio in Boulder. Elaine has an appreciation for the work that we do here at Alabama Chanin and The School of Making, and we’ve found great synergy in each other’s interests in the textile arts. Given her comprehensive design and writing background, we are excited to welcome her as a contributing writer for the Journal, where she will examine and feature some very special books from both her and Natalie’s libraries and beyond.
From Elaine: I know I’m not alone in finding immense satisfaction and joy in discovering books, both new and old, that contain a wealth of design and textile knowledge. As an editor, artist, maker, and textile explorer (I like the term “textilian” coined by Victoria Z. Rivers, author of The Shining Cloth), I was thrilled when Natalie Chanin invited me to write for the Journal about some favorite volumes I’ve collected over the years. This is the first of what we hope will be an enjoyable series. These books remind me that we’re all connected by our instinct to decorate, design, and communicate through cloth, our search for beauty, and our imaginations.”
Though many people now have an appreciation for textile design and surface design and find it easy to learn and experiment with these arts, it wasn’t always so. Textile design was something you had to go to a city with a major textile center or art school to learn; designs were painted and put into repeat for production by hand, rather than by computer. Surface design—dyeing, block printing, batik and, other methods—required materials, tools, and skills that weren’t readily available outside of art schools and art centers.
The burgeoning textile and surface design maker culture we know today emerged from seeds planted in the 1950s and 1960s; the mid-century era was fertile ground for now-iconic organic, modern forms and a handmade aesthetic that was reflected not only in textiles but in furniture, publications, clothing, and more. Design as a sophisticated form of communication and expression, different from art and craft but integrating both, took hold.
Design on Fabrics* by Meda Parker Johnston and Glen Kaufman (Reinhold Publishing, 1967), is one of several books from the era that is still available today and provides a rich resource on theory and methods of surface design. Johnston was an assistant professor of textile design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and taught at Cranbrook Academy; Kaufman, her co-author, was a weaver and head of the textile design department at the University of Georgia in Athens. Part textbook, part how-to, their book thoroughly explores a range of surface design techniques and roots their modern design philosophy in centuries of human impulse to decorate.
The book is rich with photographs, almost all in black and white. Johnston reminds us that “It is possible to plan a design almost to finality without the introduction of color.” Looking at the included fabrics and patterns in grayscale forces us to focus on the design instead of the color, and consider what makes the fundamental elements successful—or not.
Johnston and Kaufman break down the elements of line, shape, color, texture and space as considerations for the designer. They also discuss concepts like rhythm and how an understanding of the concept can help the maker create more complex and rich designs.
The book’s concepts are illustrated via instructions for multiple design experiments made with cut paper, followed by chapters on block printing, screen printing (including stencil cutting), painting and other direct applications, batik and other resists, and tie-dye, or pleated, wrapped, tied, and stitched resist methods. These methods are followed by a chapter on dyes and pigments; it’s here that we recommend that readers explore updated information. Safety and environmental concerns of dyes, pigments, and chemicals in the studio weren’t commonly addressed at the time of this book’s publishing in the way they are today (although the instructions for creating a DIY steamer, steam cabinet, and printing table could be used as effectively today as 50 years ago).
If you are interested in surface design, mid-century design, or just love vintage textile books, this study of decorative textile history, design principles, and application methods would make an informative, interesting addition to your library. Combine the techniques introduced in this book with your modern design sensibilities to expand your viewpoint and your creative processes.
*This review refers to the original 1967 edition; a later 1977 edition is currently available.