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Mid-century art world embraced the marriage of architecture and textiles

Features | September 1, 2017 | By:

Visitors to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1956 exhibition “Textiles U.S.A.” were greeted at the entrance with a “jungle of black and yellow polyethylene ropes swaying” from ceiling to floor to push through to reach the interior displays of more than 185 examples of industrial fabrics. A New York Times art critic described the experience as dazzling the senses: “Like doubting pilgrims in a chapel of relics, we must touch and see in order to believe.” All photos courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1956, all of New York City’s art world was abuzz about a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It wasn’t the retrospective about the French Impressionist painter Henri Matisse, whose works had newly arrived in New York from Paris (a show that originated at the French National Museum of Modern Art), but it was in fact all about fabric. American fabric. American industrial fabric (and fashion and home decorative fabrics, too).

It was a time of major changes in art and perception, with New York serving as the hub of most artistic creation and display in America. At the August 29 debut of “Textiles U.S.A,” the Museum of Modern Art was only 27 years old—the only major institution in New York devoted to modern art in all its forms, including architecture and industrial design. Frank Lloyd Wright’s inverted spiral ziggurat for The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was in construction, but still three years away from opening. Abstract expressionist artists like Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock had come into their own after World War II, and Dada artists like Marcel Duchamp and Pop artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were questioning the very meaning of art at its foundation.

Designing with textiles

Given these challenges to what had traditionally constituted art, it isn’t surprising that the MoMA curators found the recent introduction of synthetic textiles attractive as a subject for serious examination, with all of their saturated colors and new textures. A New York Times art critic, on reviewing the Textiles U.S.A. show, asked, “Just what has this exhibition, 90 percent machine-produced and principally directed to the industrial market, got to do with ‘art’?” He went on to applaud the curators for bringing many exciting textiles and patterns to the public’s attention in what he described as “one of the most lavish and imaginative exhibitions ever installed here, and the first to be devoted exclusively to American fabric design.”

“In presenting such an exhibition,” he continued, “the Museum of Modern Art recognizes the obvious fact that the field of industrial design increasingly attracts genuinely gifted young men and women who years ago would have been sitting solitary, irresolute and bored in front of an unfinished canvas.”

Some of those gifted young men and women included Alexander Girard, architect and textile designer from New Mexico for the Herman Miller Furniture Co. upholstery fabrics; Florence Knoll for the Knoll Planning Unit upholstery fabrics; Marc Chagall, the Russian-French modernist artist, designing printed fabrics for wall coverings; and Jack Lenor Larsen, for his own furnishings company as well as for the U.S. Rubber Co. for a line of upholstery fabric called “Trilok,” a combination of linen, mohair, viscose, cotton and polyethylene. The exhibition catalog described this construction as “double weave with alternating stripes in yellow, white and green.”

MoMA dedicated its entire first floor and the museum’s open-air garden terrace to the show, overseen through a glass wall from the main exhibition gallery. A press release from the museum described the terrace portion of the show: “An awning of Herculite, a Fortisan mesh laminated between clear plastic, runs the length of the terrace … At the other end of the terrace, two regulation air force parachutes are hung from the awning, one of magenta Day-Glo ribbons, the other of white and orange nylon.”

Running the length of the outdoor terrace at MoMA, and sheltered by a lean-to canopy of Herculite fabric, were several examples of industrial textiles on display, including two regulation air force parachutes hung from the canopy, one (far end in photo) a ribbon deceleration parachute in magenta Day-Glo nylon, the other (foreground) a 30-ft. diameter white and orange nylon.
Function with style

Longtime IFAI member Sy Hyman, now retired CEO of Herculite, well remembers the excitement and importance of the MoMA exhibition to the specialty fabrics industry: “During that early period of Herculite company formation we developed a clear, strong and waterproof, high light transmission (artificial and sun) laminate. It served as a fabric upgrade to opaque, moisture seep-through cotton duck,” common at the time, he says. It was a new textile being promoted to national utilities as a shelter material for telephone linemen. “The folks at MoMA were so excited about the properties of this fabric, they ordered a huge extended canopy covering a large portion of their garden exhibit,” Hyman adds. As Burlington Fabrics Corp. was the main supplier of woven scrim to Herculite, and was also a MoMA sponsor to the Textiles U.S.A. show, Hyman suspects the company probably brought this new industrial fabric to the attention of the museum curators.

Selection of the 190 fabrics chosen for display was accomplished by a small team of reviewers led by newly appointed, 31-year-old director of the museum’s architecture and design department, Arthur Drexler. Sorting through more than 3,500 entries of fabrics with Drexler were 11 jury members including Rene d’Harnoncourt, director of MoMA; legendary architect and the museum’s first director of the architecture and design department, Philip C. Johnson; William C. Segal, editor of American Fabrics Magazine, co-sponsor of the exhibition; Anni Albers, textile designer formerly with the Bauhaus faculty during the 1930s; and Mary Lewis, fashion director for the department store giant, Sears. American Fabrics Magazine devoted the entire fall 1956 issue of the magazine to the show.

Commenting on the industrial section of the exhibition, Drexler said: “Many industrial fabrics inadvertently heighten properties familiar to us in other materials. The blond opulence of loosely plaited tire cord, though it is always hidden within layers of rubber, rivals fabrics used for formal gowns. Day-Glo, a chemical treatment, makes color reflect with a new clanging, eye-splitting luminosity. Often such fabrics are eligible for other uses: the manufacturer of a sludge filter, resembling homespun, disposed of some extra yardage to a men’s tailor. Industrial fabrics rarely, if ever, are designed for aesthetic effect, yet they seem beautiful largely because they share the precision, delicacy, pronounced texture and exact repetition of detail characteristic of 20th century machine art.” Drexler was quoted in a newspaper review of the show as calling the rayon lining of auto tires the “Marilyn Monroe of fabrics.” “This stuff is incredible,” he said, “It sways, it ripples, it’s the most luscious material you’ve ever seen.”
The memory of the opening of that landmark exhibition is still vivid in Hyman’s memory: “Ironically, there occurred a heavy rainstorm during the opening night, where the unique outdoor Herculite structure provided protection to the important evening museum attendees. This feature was duly noted by the New York Times art editor in his review.” “We assume that the fabrics ‘work,’” wrote Stuart Preston in the September 2, 1956, Times, “and were indeed grateful, on the exhibition’s wet opening night, that the awning of Herculite, a nylon mesh laminated between clear plastic, kept the rain off the terrace.”

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, consultant to architects and designers, writes frequently about architecture, design and textiles for Fabric Architecture, Advanced Textiles Source, Specialty Fabrics Review and other international journals.

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