Material girl: Celebrating a century of Lucienne Day

Lucienne Day with her 1990 Aspects of the Sun silk mosaic wall hagning, made for the new John Lewis store at Kingston. It is still on display.

Lucienne Day with her 1990 Aspects of the Sun silk mosaic wall hagning, made for the new John Lewis store at Kingston. It is still on display.

  • Lucienne Day would have been 100 this year. Sharon Dale talks to her daughter Paula about centenary events and growing up with British design royalty.
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As a young, unknown designer, Lucienne Day, marched into Manchester textile mills and touted for business strictly on her terms with the male-dominated hierarchy. It was a gutsy approach in the undeniably sexist 1940s but then Désirée Lucienne Lisbeth Dulcie Day, née Conradi, was always courageous and unconventional. Evidence of this is clear from her designs. Even now, her ground-breaking Calyx fabric, which featured at the Festival of Britain in 1951, looks bold, fresh and exciting.

“The manufacturers usually bought designs outright but she insisted on licensing them instead, which gave her control of how they were reproduced,” says her daughter, Paula Day. “I think some of her confidence in dealing with the industrialists came from being introduced to some of her father’s business contacts who visited the family home. It probably stood her in good stead.”

Lucienne Day
Lucienne's Calyx, which featured in the 1951 Festival of Britain, sparked a design revolution. It is still available today and made by Classic Textiles

Lucienne Day Lucienne's Calyx, which featured in the 1951 Festival of Britain, sparked a design revolution. It is still available today and made by Classic Textiles

Lucienne also realised that image was important when presenting her portfolio, so her clothes and make-up reflected how fashion forward she was. “Her father was Belgian so she looked very European and she was very glamorous,” says Paula. “My parents were pioneering about managing their image. They knew that it mattered.”

Lucienne’s textile designs were wildly adventurous and inspired by modern art. They were also technically perfect, paying close attention to colourways and pattern repeats, a skill she learned at the Royal College of Art.

Born and brought up in Surrey, her ability was obvious from a young age. Encouraged by an enthusiastic art teacher, she went to art college and then to the RCA in 1937 to specialise in textiles. It was there she met her future husband, furniture designer Robin Day, a working-class boy from High Wycombe.

The couple married two years later, creating what was to become one of the world’s most famous and debonair design duos. Their brilliance was underpinned by hard work. They shared the same studio on the ground floor of their Chelsea town house, encouraging each other though rarely collaborating.

Paula remembers: “My father did furniture, my mother did textiles and they had back-to-back drawing boards so they worked facing each other. It wasn’t all wafting about creating marvellous designs. They had clients and they had deadlines so they would be in the studio doing office hours working mostly in silence.”

Both were driven by a desire to make their designs affordable, and this was epitomised by Robin’s 1963 polypropylene moulded stacking chair. It is still in production and millions of them populate schools, canteens, hospitals and homes.

Although she created prints for wallpaper, porcelain and carpets, Lucienne worked mainly on fabric designs and her big breakthrough came when Calyx, a daring abstract, was launched at the Festival of Britain.

In honour of her centenary, which is being celebrated nationwide under the banner Lucienne Day 100, Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery is staging Lucienne Day: A Sense of Growth. The exhibition opens in the spring and is a collaboration between the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation and the Gallery’s GROW project, which promotes the benefits of horticulture on mental wellbeing. It features plant-inspired fabrics from the archive, Lucienne’s gardening implements and images of her garden along with a tea towel designed by members of GROW.

The Home store at Salts Mill in Saltaire is also planning a tribute. Co-owner Patricia Silver, a former textile and fashion designer, has collected Lucienne Day products for many years and her collection will be on display at the store from early summer. It will showcase original mid-century fabrics, including Pat’s favourite Graphica print and the porcelain that Lucienne designed for Rosenthal. “Her designs were a breath of fresh air in the 1950s and 60s and they still look modern and new today,” says Pat.

Lucienne gave up her career in industrial design in the mid-1970s and began to create one-off silk mosaic wall hangings. Her 1990 Aspects of the Sun, made for the new John Lewis store in Kingston, is still on display. Several hundred wall hangings were commissioned, but Paula knows the whereabouts of only about 40 of them and would dearly like to hear from anyone who has one.

While she adored and cared for her parents until the end – Lucienne died in January 2010 aged 93, and Robin in November the same year aged 95 – Paula never expected to take responsibility for their work. What prompted her to get involved was when less than a year after her father died, Leeds-based company Loft Furniture tried to register “Robin Day” as its own trademark without consulting his family or executors.

With help from a lawyer specialising in intellectual property rights, she is working to stop Loft selling products it describes as “Robin Day’s Polo and Leo designs”. She has also established the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation, which owns the intellectual property rights to the couple’s designs. It aims to protect the Day legacy, promote appreciation of their contribution to the nation’s design heritage, be an educational resource and provide opportunities for promising textile and furniture design students.

Lucienne’s fabrics are still manufactured by Classic Textiles and sold through John Lewis, while Twenty Twenty One produces her range of linen tea towels. In honour of Lucienne Day 100, new productions of her 1950s designs Lapis and Silver Birch will soon be on sale at John Lewis, along with cushions in a variety of prints. There is also a poster featuring 100 of her designs, available from Twenty Twenty One and The Home at Salts Mill.

“I never thought I’d be doing all this but it has made me realise I should record my memories of my parents. It’s something I feel I must do,” says Paula.

For more details of the foundation, Lucienne Day 100 events and where to buy the Day designs visit robinandluciennedayfoundation.org/LD100/

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