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Liberty fabrics and the avant-garde: The Futurists in Italy

Posted on 18 Apr 2023

In this extract from 'FuturLiberty', art historian Ester Coen explores a transformational moment in Liberty's history.

Gino Severini, Le Boulevard, 1910–11. Oil on canvas, 65 x 92.6 cm. Estorick Collection, London. © Estorick Collection/Bridgeman Images/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023.

Fabric and drapery, their patterns, colours and textures, have for centuries been as inspiring to artists as art is to designers. From the Arts and Crafts movement to the Vienna Secession, it was especially at the beginning of the twentieth century that this reciprocal exchange of ideas was evident in Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism.

In Britain, by the 1890s, the enterprising Arthur Lasenby Liberty had transformed his London-based department store of exotic orientalist objects into a revolutionary and far-reaching adventure in design. The applied arts became available to all, in every facet of daily life, from wallpaper to fabrics, ceramics to furniture. Craft became art, entering people’s homes and imagination also through advertisements in newspapers and magazines. William Morris (1834–1896) inspired an endless range of animal, botanical and floral motifs in natural colours and pure tones. And it was Morris who opposed the advance of industrial production through a reevaluation of craft’s artistic dimension, and who restored dignity to what had always been considered lesser arts. This wider integration of art into society signalled the beginning of the design and conception of objects and furnishings whose aesthetic, applied to function and economy, led to the creation of the Liberty style.

Yet these advances already contained the elements that would cause moments of rupture at two particular points in Liberty’s history. In the years immediately after World War II, as if in response to the dark atmosphere still looming over Europe, Bernard Nevill, Liberty’s chief designer in the early 1960s, broke away from the floral imagery that had been so popular in previous decades. When he returned to examine the Liberty designs afresh, he stepped beyond the sensitive, delicate lines of the early phase of the Arts and Crafts movement. He had a very specific aim: to break with tradition but to identify within the historical past the fault lines that transformed the vision of art and of the world.

Print impression and Bernard Nevill designed fabrics, c. 1966. Liberty Archive. © Liberty Retail Limited, 2023.

Nevill was drawn to the work of the group of British artists known as the Vorticists who, in the first decade of the twentieth century, intended to revolutionize the artistic forms of the past and remodel the universe for future generations. BLAST was the explosive title of their magazine, chosen to symbolize the charge detonating under the old paradigms and traditions.

The suggestions Nevill took from this avant-garde coincided with his own sensibility. His gaze focused on Vorticist works, extracting a polyrhythmic musicality from those images that he transformed into drawings of extraordinary modernity. His exploration of abstraction and colour led him to work with artists from that era immersed in the contemporary trends of fabrics, fashion and interior design. One example was Nevill’s fruitful collaboration with French artist Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979), with whom he had a close affinity; both were drawn to powerful prints that used colour on a two-dimensional surface to depict a non-figurative perception of reality.

Giacomo Balla, Bambina che corre sul balcone, 1912 Oil on canvas, 125 x 125 cm Museo del Novecento, Milan. © Museo del Novecento, Milan. Photo Luca Carrà/DACS 2023.

Now, over half a century later – at a time of severe crisis and deep uncertainty – Federico Forquet has become a new voice heading a team of talented people in the creation of a contemporary collection inspired by the same great period of the avant-garde. Just as Nevill chose Vorticism as the trigger for the revival of a famous brand in search of the new, so Forquet has turned to Futurism as a dynamic tendency brimming with proposals for the future.

Mary-Ann Dunkley and Adam Herbert from Liberty Fabrics working with Federico Forquet, 2022 Photograph by Guido Taroni. © Liberty Retail Limited, 2023.

For Forquet – a designer trained under Balenciaga, a highly innovative couturier known for his architectonic forms – the challenge today is that of a visionary at the intersection of art and knowledge. Similar to Nevill in the insatiable curiosity that leads him to explore cultures and worlds both near and far, arts and crafts from medieval times to an imagined future, Forquet traverses the world of interiors and garden design, driven by a passion for nature and beauty. There is a continuity between the two artists, whose relationship with Liberty revolves around its floral and botanical history and their own eclectic collecting. ‘[Forquet] is not a botanist or even an agriculturist although he knows how to combine rare plants with more humble ones, exotic essences and common shrubs, respecting the nature that surrounds him. He is all of this and much more, without forgetting he is a famous fashion designer,’ says art historian Alvar Gonzàlez-Palacios, capturing the intrinsic characteristics of Forquet as a man. Nevill was also extremely cultivated and accumulated in his homes the most disparate objects, creating his own personal ‘cabinet of curiosities’.

Discover the book


Liberty Fabrics and the Avant-Garde Ester Coen, Richard Cork, Federico Forquet, Gianfranco Maraniello, Tommaso Sacchi, Anna Buruma, Mary-Ann Dunkley, Andrea Petochi, Federico Forquet