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.