Perhaps you saw the televised BBC adaption Life in Squares or perhaps you encountered one of its members through the literary and artistic channels of early 20th century Bohemianism: the infamous Bloomsbury Group were a collective of artists, philosophers, writers and intellectuals active at the exciting time of early British Modernism (by which I refer to the artistic and literary movement at the turn of the century).
The Omega Workshops Ltd. was set up in July 1913 as an off-shoot of the grassroots Bloomsbury Group: with critic Roger Fry at the helm, along with artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell seated as directors, the Omega brand (as it were) worked towards the same aesthetic and artistic aims of the group’s activity, with a focus on the all-encompassing visual arts. This moved artists central in the design, production and selling of works under the Omega brand with a rich interplay of life and art that was highly experimental in the given context.
Roger Fry told a journalist in 1913 that ‘it is time that the spirit of fun was introduced into furniture and into fabrics. We have suffered too long from the dull and stupidly serious’1 by which he referred to the perceived drudgery of late-Victorian and Edwardian furnishings. The Omega Workshop was founded on a radically modern aesthetic, sourced from the abstract forms of contemporary art movements, a mode vigorously promoted by Fry in the early twentieth century. To take a leaf from Fry’s book, the Post-Impressionist Exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 which he held at the Grafton Gallery in London2 featured Manet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso – opening the British art world to the experimental breakthroughs of its European neighbours.
With Fry fronting the Omega Workshop, the purpose of the project was to incorporate the invigorating elements of these paintings into the decorative arts as a twin concern. Indeed, as an art critic Fry was supportive of the recent developments in art which placed “pure art”3 at the helm of design, by which I refer to the manifestations of harmonious colour, line and form in the works of the Post-Impressionists. Painterly representation had here given way to decorative effect and Fry felt that this could naturally be paired with home decoration, marrying together pure art and design within the decorative arts sphere.
This was elaborated on in a 1917 essay titled “The Artist as Decorator”4 where Fry stated that the artist, by the very nature of their work with colour and ideas, was most suited to the skilful (and informed) decoration of interiors. These particular developments of the artist in painting were transposed onto a range of products and the output of the Omega Workshop reads as a new translation of the decorative arts, transferred from the principles of contemporary painting.
(Stay tuned for further exploration of this gorgeously aesthetic movement in British Design History)
1 R. Cork, Art Beyond the Gallery in Early 20th Century England (Yale University Press, 1985), p. 1 139.
2 P. Meecham and J. Sheldon, Modern Art: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2013), p. 293.
3 A. Levi and R. Smith, Art Education: A Critical Necessity (University of Illinois Press, 1991), p. 97.
4 R. Fry, A Roger Fry Reader (University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 185.