The Fabrics of the Design & Modern Contemporary Sale

The Fabrics of the Design & Modern Contemporary Sale

The relationship between art, craft and design, is historically complex, particularly in the realm of textiles. The early twentieth century heralded a shift in the perception of the boundaries between high and low art. The Bauhaus Movement, founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, rejected the division, seeking to integrate craft and art. Since then, the division between high and low art has been challenged and re-imagined by successive generations of artists and makers. One of the few contexts in which the divide between ‘fine’ art and ‘applied’ art still persists is the auction industry. For this reason, Design Sales, such as Chiswick Auctions’ Design Modern & Contemporary Sale, which took place on the 15th September 2021, provide a unique opportunity to fully appreciate the radicalism of an artist like John Piper, a respected English Modernist, working alongside a company like Sanderson to mass produce fabric in the mid-twentieth century. ‘Stones of Bath’, one of a series of five fabric designs produced by John Piper for Sanderson in honour of the company’s 1960 centenary celebration, was sold as Lot 172 in the recent Design Sale.


John Piper (1903-1992), studied at the Royal College of Art from 1928 to 1929, and was invited to join the Seven and Five Society of Modern Artists as a result of his work as an art critic. This invitation, and Piper’s work as both an artist and critic established him as a key player in English Modernism. Consequently, when Piper turned his attention to the applied arts, it took his contemporaries by surprise. The fabrics that were produced by Sanderson democratised Piper’s work, bringing it into the homes of ordinary people. Textile dealer Meg Andrews describes the fabrics produced by Sanderson as demonstrating ‘the unique potential of screen printing, with its ability to capture the quality of brush-stroked colour’. The painterly quality of screen-printing, which influenced textile design in the 1950s and 1960s, can also be seen in the work of Robert Debiève (1926-1994). Le Remailleur de Filets, a French cubist silkscreen tapestry circa 1950s by Debiève, was Lot 87 in the Design Modern & Contemporary Sale. The tapestry sold for £2500 (inc buyer’s premium), setting an auction record for the artist.


Robert Debiève was the lesser-known cousin of the artists Raymond and Michele Debiève, and is best known for his paintings and printed tapestries, which were manufactured by Corot in Paris. The translation of Debiève’s designs into tapestries is a good example of why Piper described the process of textile design as ‘delegated art’. Delegated art is the process whereby an artist trusts a craft person to execute a design on behalf of the original artist. In the case of Piper, he trusted Sanderson, an Islington based company founded by Arthur Sanderson in 1860, to execute his designs. Sanderson manufactured its wallpapers and fabrics in their factory in Chiswick, which was built in 1897, and was extended by the architect Charles Voysey in 1902. The extension is now a Grade II listed building known as Voysey House, and is just a fifteen minute walk from Chiswick Auctions. It is therefore fitting that the fabric produced by Piper came to Chiswick to be sold, so near to the site of the company’s first factory.


These textiles, both produced by painters using the medium of screen-print, form a stark contrast with the third textile offered in the Design & Modern Contemporary Sale, a Scandinavian flatweave needlework tapestry, decorated with geometric floral sprays in green, orange and yellow thread to an ivory ground, that was also produced in the mid twentieth century. The item was sold as Lot 132 for £150 hammer. The tapestry is a typical traditional Scandinavian design, where colourful motifs of animals or flowers repeat against clean, pale backgrounds. Whilst the textile is different to the work of Piper and Debiève, it acts as a reminder of the history of crafts and folk art that influenced textiles produced by artists in the mid-twentieth century, whether that is the long running relationship between John Piper and West Dean, or the influence of traditional Scandinavian repeated designs on the now highly sought after MMF Rugs.



 Our next Design Auction is taking place on Thursday, 27 January at 10am.


Mary Gatenby

Junior Cataloguer and Sale Coordinator
Interiors, Homes & Antiques