In the introductory article, we went over the principles on which the Omega Workshops Ltd. were founded. I feel that the best way to trace development in the decorative arts is to explore how forming principles were practically applied. To that end, we’re going to use Bloomsbury and Omega styled interiors and objects as a point of reference to expand on the ideas of Roger Fry and co.
Design for a screen, 1911-1913, Wyndham Lewis, Omega Workshops, Pencil, watercolour and body colour.
These interiors and objects were experimental in their nature because the boundaries between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality were confused by such pioneering modernists. In conjunction with blurring the line between fine and decorative art, two-dimensional art was applied as the decorative scheme on three-dimensional wares. Those artists in play at the Omega workshops deftly moved from the ‘painterly idea’1 to the realised conception of this on an object, for example, in their treatment of screens. Wyndham Lewis’s design for a screen (1912-1913) shows how the panels of this fourfold standing piece were used as the basis for paintings which served as the overall painted decoration. Such decoration, in this case incorporating the abstracted bodies of circus performers, was as flat and patterned in bold colour choices as its equivalent in the formal painted art works which would’ve been hung on the wall. As an extended example of the avant-garde, the screen provided a suitable object for the application of graphic design, especially in the context of a large-scale canvas or painted surface.
‘The Blue Sheep’, Folding screen, 1915, Duncan Grant, Omega Workshops, Distemper on paper stretched over a wooden frame.
Artist-designer’s were able to handle utilitarian furniture in an artistic manner, Duncan Grant being another of those who took incentive from the mode of advanced French post-impressionist painting and covered a screen with an abstract painted vision. An interview from the Pall Mall Gazette in 1913 claimed ‘one of the essences of Post-Impressionism is a return to a more architectural and structural basis of design, and is therefore peculiarly adapted to the applied arts’2. Taking Post-Impressionism as the source, the Omega Workshop made this move in to the contemporary decorative arts. Naylor confirms this manner when she writes that:
Omega created the sensation of living and moving “within in the picture” – the picture, in this case, being literally painted on existing objects3.
Commenting on Fry’s relationship with design, principled by the deconstruction of three-dimensionality and radical reinvention of the picture plane, Herbert Read notes that such objects alter perceptions of their own structure4. Not only this, but Omega’s experimentalism stretched to the decorative use of colour, indeed Grant’s screen takes on a radically non-naturalistic scheme of vivid blue sheep on a clashing orange-red ground.
The Artist’s Studio in Charleston, formerly the home of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, the Bloomsbury Group, early 20th century.
The effect of these elements, unified in an interior, provided a dynamic, forward-thinking contrast to traditional Edwardian schemes. I would argue that the Omega output lent itself wholly to large scale decoration and artistic experimentation within the realms of a harmonious interior scheme. Charleston5, home to members of the Bloomsbury Group firmly grounds the decorative style of Omega workers Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell within a domestic context, Nuala Hancock comments on how a rhythm and completeness was created as Bell’s patterning ‘created a sense of contextual animation and felt motivity’6
Colour scheme for the interior of the Cadena Cafe, Roger Eliot Fry, Omega Workshops, 1914, Courtauld Gallery.
A commission to decorate the Cadena Café, Westbourne Grove, London in 1914 allowed the Omega Workshop to take on a space and ornament it in the Omega fashion, bringing in furnishings that were diverse, vibrant, eclectic and spread across a range of forms. For example the room featured a mix of fabrics, objects and mural painting all in colourful geometric or abstract pattern. This invigorated the setting, in a bid to prove that the pure arts could govern walls, floors, ceilings and ready-made furniture. Isabelle Anscombe suggested ‘the Cadena Café showed little concern for the three-dimensional occupation of the space, relying on a coherence of flat, painterly surfaces in murals and fabrics’7.
‘Amenophis’, Furnishing fabric, Maromme, France (printed), 1913, Roger Fry, Omega Workshops, Printed linen.
These themes and play with patterns and colour ways were far-reaching across the Omega spectrum: in particular, the development of British textiles benefited greatly from Omega’s graphic design. Abstract forms and modern art were married with bold design, incorporating the iconography of cubism, fauvism and post-impressionism into printed materials for wear and upholstery. These textiles were designed by the artist, leading the field of contemporary home grown design, the fabric ‘Amenophis’, for example is sourced from Roger Fry’s oil painting of 1912 titled ‘Still Life with Eggs and Books’. In these ways, the Omega Workshop engaged with a ‘total’8 form of art as a fully expressive mode, creating a body of surface decorating prints which set the scope for new fashions and trends.
(Stay tuned for further exploration of this gorgeously aesthetic movement in British Design History)
1‘Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of The Omega Workshops 1913-19’, The Couetald Gallery: Archive [n.d], http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/what-on/exhibitions-displays/archive/beyondbloomsbury-designs-of-the-omega-workshops-1913-19 [accessed 2017].
2V. Rosner, The Cambridge Companion to the Bloomsbury Group (Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 8.
3G. Naylor, ‘Reviewed Works: The Omega Workshops by Judith Collins; The De Stijl Environment by Nancy Troy’, Design Issues, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1985, pp. 85-88.
4M. Kaname, ‘Design for Whose Sake? The Case of the Omega Workshops’, Design Discourse, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2005, p. 5.
5‘Charleston: The Bloomsbury Home of Art & Ideas’, charleston.org.uk [n.d.], http://www.charleston.org.uk [accessed 2017].
6N. Hancock, Charleston and Monk’s House: The Intimate House Museums of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p. 48.
7Kaname, ‘Deign for Whose Sake?’, p. 4.
8D. Roberts, The Total Work of Art in European Modernism (Cornell University Press, 2011), p. 138.