As today marks the centenary of the birth of Lucienne Day 1917-2010 we’ve gathered some material from The Robin & Lucienne Day Foundation archive, to look back over Day’s work. Mention Lucienne Day and what follows inevitably is ‘Calyx’, the fabric designed for her husband Robin’s dining room in the Homes and Garden Pavilion at the Festival of Britain. The success of ‘Calyx’ – including a Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale and its recognition by the American Institute of Decorators – ranked Lucienne among internationally known designers and is hailed as the launch-pad for her career. Yet ‘Calyx’ is rather like Van Gogh’s ear: a tiny detail, and a distraction from the entire story. The designer herself was to say in the 1990s, when the trendy world went retro, that another query about ‘Calyx’ might just be one too many. Far more impressive than the success of a single design was Lucienne’s understanding of the marketplace. Having studied at Croydon School of Art, she entered the Royal College of Art in 1937, at the age of 20. By 1940 she had received her DesRCA, mounted a noted degree show, and married Robin. During the following decade, at first as a teacher and then as a designer of dress fabrics, she observed and learned, disliking the fact that her Belgian maiden name (she was born Désirée Lucienne Conradi), opened the doors of British buyers prejudiced against indigenous designers, and that dress fabric designers’ colourations often bore little resemblance to the final cloth. Furnishing fabric designers, on the other hand, could provide high quality design for the masses. This matched her ideals, which were played out with Heal Fabrics Limited over a period of 20 years. Only the fifth woman to be elected to the RSA’s Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry, Lucienne wore her success lightly. She had a gracious reserve that belied the international requests for her services on juries as well as for her designs, which included fabrics for Edinburgh Weavers, carpets for Royal Wilton, wallpapers for Crown and patterns for Rosenthal porcelain. She brought to these tasks her knowledge of European abstract painting and her love of drawing from nature. As her compositions moved from juxtapositions of solids and linear marks, through textural essays to the bold geometrics of the 1960s, her ability to suggest organic movement and weightless mass remained. Highly disciplined whether composing with pen, ink and gouache, or through mono-printing and collage, that same discipline determined her move away from designs for mass-production in the early 1970s, when she found little empathy with the trend towards countrified florals.
The creation of ‘silk mosaics’, her large abstract panels, emerged while she was design adviser to John Lewis. This was a role she shared with her husband – one of their rare collaborations. Composed of tiny squares of patchworked silk, the mosaics have had far less exposure than her designs for consumer goods. Nevertheless, those in public spaces – such as ‘Window’, commissioned for the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in 1986 – attest to her sustained eye for colour and texture. The RDI Faculty’s first female Master from 1987-1989, Lucienne also became the first Honorary President of the Textile Society, serving from 1992-2002. Until not long ago she also chose the winner of the Society’s Lucienne Day Award, instituted in 1993 for a graduate who demonstrated excellence in contemporary textile design and, now, a lasting tribute to her distinguished career. This is an extract from Mary Schoeser's article in the Romance issue of Selvedge.