The Mid-Century Modern catalog is often reduced to Eames molded-fiberglass chairs, Noguchi coffee tables, and Nelson starburst clocks. But the era’s aesthetic also included textiles designed by the likes of Alexander Girard, Lucienne Day, and Angelo Testa. Indeed, textile design was such an important part of the movement that Knoll International added a textiles division in 1947, commissioning fabric designs and textured materials for its furniture by such designers as Astrid Sampe, Toni Prestini, Eszter Haraszty, Ross Littell, and Sheila Hicks.
Ray Eames, who along with her husband, Charles, designed many of the most iconic pieces of Mid-Century Modern furniture, dabbled in textiles, too, producing patterns such as “Cross Patch” and “Sea Things.” More often, though, when the couple wanted fabric for a piece, they turned to Alexander Girard who worked at Herman Miller, where he headed up the furniture firm’s textile division.
The dean of American textile designers at the time was probably Jack Lenor Larsen, whose hand-woven textiles imbued the modernist furnishing they covered with an instant sense of history and authenticity. Larsen eventually became known for the textiles he designed for Pan Am and Braniff. Pipsan Swanson designed fabrics for curtains and other furnishings in spaces designed by her father and and brother, architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Angelo Testa designed geometric patterns with generally subdued palettes for upholstery as well as rugs.
Meanwhile, in London, Lucienne Day was loosening things up, introducing lines, shapes from nature, and even figuration into her designs, which were influenced in part by the work of her counterparts in Scandinavian. One of Day’s earliest designs, “Calyx” from 1951, remains her most famous and sought-after textile. Another European, Marianne Straub, also got her start in the U.K., where she produced designs for draperies whose patterns appeared biomorphic but were actually taken from crystals.
The high-mindedness of Knoll, Miller, and the rest was just one influence on mid-century textiles. Particularly in America, the return of G.I.s from the South Pacific during World War II spawned an interest in all things tiki, which manifested itself most famously in tiki mugs. In textiles, the South Seas allure created fabrics with tropical themes, especially in a material called barkcloth, whose rough, almost pebbly surface was printed with flora such as flowering hibiscus and fauna such as pink flamingos. This exuberance soon made its way onto tablecloths and 1950s fashions.