Book pictures 200 years of printed fabric patterns


October 20, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Susan Meller began collecting what she calls throwaway art in the 1970s. Passionate about old textiles, she went to farm sales and auctions to buy box lots of scraps and hopelessly damaged quilts. "I'd bring them home and put them in the dryer to get the dust out. I wouldn't wash them for fear they'd run, and then I'd spend hours with a razor liberating the pieces I liked and giving them a new life," said Meller over coffee recently.

Before she knew it, Ms. Meller had a large selection of three generations of printed quilting pieces. Soon she found herself traveling to Europe searching for the archives of defunct textile printers.

One day she took 500 of her swatches to Dan River, the textile firm, and they bought all 500 designs. A business was launched. Now Susan Meller's collection numbers over five million swatches and it is installed at the Design Library and Design Loft in Manhattan (1435 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10018). Designers in the home furnishings and fashion industries use her swatches as inspiration or reproduce them outright.

Ms. Meller's vast collections have been mined by Joost Elffers, the originator of the "Giftwrap by Artists" series, the collection of 17 books of gift wrap papers published by Abrams, with new ones introduced yearly since 1985.

Now, after four years of collaboration, Ms. Meller and Mr. Elffers have produced a book. "Textile Designs" (Abrams $65) is a large coffee-table swatch book with gorgeous color pictures of European and American printed fabric that is fun to leaf through.

The 1,823 color illustrations of two hundred years of patterns for printed fabrics are organized by motif, style, color, layout and period. The book is more than a readable short history of textile printing, or a source book for designers, or a key for dating quilts and costume. It is an artful game designed by a collector and an artist which makes one see everyday patterns previously overlooked.

The fun is in guessing when a particular print was made and guessing wrong most of the time. Take the plaids, laid out on a dozen pages with the captions at the top of the page dating them and telling where they were made. The ones that look most modern were made in France in the 1890s; the quaint one is not circa 1880s, but U.S.A. 1960. Under "opticals," try to find the one influenced by the contemporary Hungarian/French artist Victor Vaserely on the two pages of distorted images. Then look at the key at the top of the page and learn that most of them were printed in 1900, before Mr. Vaserely was born. Try the game with stripes, polka dots, houndstooth or foulards, wild flowers, roses, grasses or buds, and discover there is nothing new under the sun.

What you thought was designed in 1980 will nine times out of ten turn out to be from 1890 or 1920, and vice versa. All these prints speak across the ages. Ms. Meller and Mr. Elffers describe the way motifs repeat across the decades as a "recycling wheel which sets the motifs of textile design on a circular road of eternal design. It spins up images from every country and every age, revolves them in time and brings them back transformed to the top of the cycle, only to pull them under again and start the process over."

A swatch book in the textile trade is the annual or seasonal record of a textile mill's designs. Swatches are the random cuttings of fabrics, and put between covers of a book they serve as a kind of genealogical record, or a pattern dictionary.

Most swatch books are a random jumble of fragments, a running commentary on a single era. The swatch book Ms. Meller and Mr. Elffers have produced is organized according to the four families generally acknowledged by fabric designers: floral, geometric, conversational and ethnic; to which they have added a fifth, art movements and period styles, to include such distinctive designs as art deco, Biedermeier, fauve, Memphis, punk and weiner werkstatte.

Within the categories, patterns are arranged alphabetically, so it is not difficult to find them again. For example, "conversationals," which are novelty prints that depict real creatures or objects, excluding flowers but including scenes which can become a talking point, includes birds, bows, bubbles and buildings. Alphabetizing exotic or foreign designs in the ethnic section such as batik, chinoiserie, Hawaiian, Mexican and paisley, gives the book structure and at the same time creates a random quality found in any swatch book with various size pieces.

The book is primarily a visual treat but there are nuggets of useful information. At the top of a page of 1880s Silhouette

designs reminiscent of the patterns on inexpensive cameo glass, it is noted that Etienne de Silhouette was the French minister of finance for a short period in 1759. In the battle between the would-be cloth-printing industry and the established textile weavers, he was instrumental in having a ban on printed textiles repealed. His opponents circulated caricatures of him cut out of black paper. It is also said he made these cutouts as a hobby, and silhouettes have been called by his name ever since.

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