Imprint’s longtime color columnist, Jude Stewart, is writing a new series on patterns in design. Previously, she asked whether ornament is really a crime and spoke to the founders of a London-based “pattern consultancy.”
As part of my new series on pattern, I spoke recently with Sarah Moore, the textile curator of Philadelphia University’s Design Center. Moore is the driving force behind the Design Center’s smashing Tumblr, which has been named a top Tumblr pick for design. She aims to digitize and share 9,000 pattern swatches from the Design Center’s collection, via Tumblr as well as upcoming iPhone and iPad apps, thanks to a grant by the Barra Foundation. (That’s out of 200,000 total patterns housed at the Design Center’s archives, concentrating on Philadelphia and Manchester designs from the 1880s to 1910s.)
What forces animated the imagination of pattern designers in the Gilded Age? When Moore paws through the collection, what storylines does she recognize that the rest of us miss? These are some of the questions I asked in her our conversation—and Moore didn’t disappoint, taking me through a fascinating tour of her personal favorites. Here are the highlights, with Moore’s commentary:
Our Tumblr started last February. We have 200,000 fabric swatches in our archive, so I want the world to see them—I’m so enamored of their variety, their unexpectedness. Tumblr’s a great format for posting a variety of objects. They’re easy to digitize because the swatch cards are flat.
To walk you through some of my favorites, let’s start with the pattern of hands doing sign language, which dates to 1882. This was very popular on our blog.
It prompted me to ask: when was American Sign Language invented? Turns out ASL was introduced by the Association for the Deaf in 1880, in Ohio. Folks were advocating for deaf culture a lot at that time, so this pattern must be an outgrowth of that.
This pattern we dubbed the grumpy-man print. It’s from England, 1883, and resembles many period caricatures of [politician] William Gladstone. Whether it’s satirical or not is hard to tell. Cotton prints like these would’ve been used for aprons or homewear, dresses for middle to lower-class women, possibly children’s wear. This one is roller printed and hand-engraved. I’m always impressed by the detail of the engraving.
I’m really drawn to the conversational prints, like the dogs on big-wheel bicycles of that period. [Ed: That image opens the post. I’m delighted to inform you that this style of bicycle was known as a “penny-farthing,” because they resemble penny and farthing coins side by side.]
I always wonder: Why did the designer make this design decision? Like this strange one of toys and people together, all jumbled and small-scale. It includes what looks like a man wearing a jet-pack. Were rockets popular during that time ? You’ll also see sailboats in there and magicians.
We have a bunch of patterns that are cellular-looking in quality. Lots of middle-class people purchased microscopes and looked at slides during that time. They were simply fascinated by science. It’s very curious how microscopes influenced design during that period. Quite a few I’ve seen going through drawers have this fractal or crystalline quality, and interesting repeats as well.
You can really tell the difference between the American and European patterns from the period. As we were scanning cards, you can see much more complexity there are in the French and European prints.
I feel like I think in patterns all the time. We’re scanning with four interns every day. I can recognize a company by the colors: Oh, this is definitely by Schwabe. Almost individual designers’ hands you can recognize. Our upcoming iPhone and iPad apps will use visual search recognition, so you can pull up info about who made each pattern. It’ll be the first time that’s been applied to textiles.
Back then designers had to meet a quota of new designs per week. That’s why you get these mundane designs, like nails or screw hooks; that’s why they were so inventive. They were really pushing that Victorian spirit to collect, and everyone had a big interest in industry. Department store buyers also bought unfinished fabrics [to resell], and industrially employed people were earning good money and wanting to spend it. I especially like the warthogs jumping over sewing pins. Whatever inspired someone to draw that?
Here are some patterns of weaponry: dynamite, bullets, cannons. Corporations today do so much research into what people might buy. [Back then] manufacturers would just put designs out there.
Another take on industrialization were trompe l’oeil patterns. They’d try to replicate ikat or warp prints that would be expensive to produce fully; instead they’d just print the fabric to look like that—for instance, this false lace.
We do work with design teams within the Philadelphia region to re-use these designs. Urban Outfitters is based here, so they come in every six months or so to collaborate with us. This Free People dress uses an 1880 print from our collection of badminton birdies flying through the air. It’s a personal favorite for me.
There was lots of inventiveness happening at that time, and lots of artistry going into the industry. These designers were hand-drawing dozens of designs weekly and mechanizing them afterwards. When I first took my interns through the archive, one of them said: I’ll never think I had a unique design idea after seeing this.
DK Holland’s Design Issues explores how graphic design communicates with, rubs up against, and sometimes stumbles around the “real” world.