This summer for the first time, the Design Museum at University of California, Davis will be open to visitors, luring them in with a "retro" exhibition of hand-printed textiles from the late 1950s to 1970s, plus a few examples of commercially printed textiles from the early '50s. The designs are all the work of internationally recognized designers Katherine Westphal and husband Ed Rossbach, both of whom are credited with pioneering new approaches and techniques in the field of fiber arts.
Some of the textiles are dated, and illustrate a progression in image, technique, dye and materials--a visual history of the change in ideas about textile printing, materials, and new technology. These hand-printed fabrics used the simplest of processes, borrowed from all over the world: block prints from India and Iran, batik from Indonesia, shibori from Japan, stencil and tie dye from Africa.
"In the '50s and '60s," says Westphal, "hand-printed textiles were thought of as exhibition pieces." At that time there were juried exhibitions of hand-printed textiles. Galleries required a three-yard length of both textile printers and hand weavers, for the sake of uniformity and ease of installation. There were regional exhibitions throughout the United States. The Richmond Art Center and the Rotunda gallery in the City of Paris department store in San Francisco featured yearly shows.
Selections from the 1950s are in large part designs for industry, commercial roller prints adapted from the dye-on-cloth repeat designs. In designing textiles for commercial purposes, Westphal and Rossbach produced design using many variations of hand-printing and drawing (one-and-a-half repeat) on small pieces of cloth, which were then produced by Perspectives Inc. of New York.
"I wonder today what we thought we were doing," says Westphal, "designing for industry, or proving we could print or weave a textile that the layman could not distinguish from commercial yardage. Although we borrowed techniques from ethnic textiles, we persisted in imitating the commercial textiles."
Throughout the '50s and '60s, textile artists became "world travelers" as they learned, borrowed and mixed Japan and Indonesia, Africa and Italy.
"The three-yard length became less compelling," says Westphal. "Gradually, the textiles took on a new look--shaped, embellished, cut up, collaged, or stuffed. Textile artists thought of their work as art, not as a service for industry. The passion was in the process. It was an interaction of the individual spirit and the materials, cloth and dye. A connection between producer and product, an endless search for meaning and expression. As it becomes the center of one's thought process, questions arise. What will happen if I break the rules? The challenge is constant. What if...?"
"In the '70s, textiles became like paintings, influenced by ideas. A new aesthetic developed. It was a different time; the idea or process was the challenge."
Many of these textiles designed by the Rossbachs no longer exist, having been cut up and reassembled into "objects" or clothing. "A printed textile has to be something in a craft-oriented world," says Westphal.
"As time passes" she adds, "everything changes. We expect things to happen fast. Our lives are fractured, the computer designs for us. We look back and wonder how we had the time and patience to be involved with such a labor-intensive activity as hand printing a three yard length of fabric. It was a love affair with color patterns on cloth.
"Today as I look at these pieces from the past I wonder 'Why? What did I think I was doing? Why have I kept them? Some of them still speak to me, others are expendable. How do I shed these things which have become an albatross around my neck. Change is necessary, we look forward and we also look back."