"Pattern Play" Presents Postwar Fashion Whimsy at Phoenix Art Museum

Jacqueline Groag (Czeckoslovakian, 1903-1985) is the subject of the latest fashion exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum.
Jacqueline Groag (Czeckoslovakian, 1903-1985) is the subject of the latest fashion exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum.
Photo by John Garner, 1957

The gallery doesn't exactly say, "come and play," but the childhood desire haunts the dimly lit room. Thin, colorful fabrics hang from the walls displaying delightful everyday objects enmeshed in a combination of retro and whimsy.

Pattern Play: The Contemporary Designs of Jacqueline Groag hides in a second-floor gallery of the Phoenix Art Museum waiting, as its designer did, for recognition. Collectors Jill A. Wiltse and H. Kirk Brown III provide pieces from their collection that they say are representative of one of the most talented and influential textile artists of the modern era.

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Single fabrics hang on the walls, while 1950s-style dresses stand over short tables topped with illustrated plastic laminates reminiscent of '50s formica countertops. Magazines advertise the designs as drapes and curtains. On the fabric, geometric shapes frame everything from birds to pitchers; the familiar triangles, circles, and squares gather to create tiny people, houses and traffic lights in vibrant colors. The patterns rework the mundane into a wonderland of fantasy while the precise grid of repetition keeps them in check.

There's an air about this tiny exhibition hall that seems to speak of a world lost to time but still struggling to provide people with something to celebrate. But the real story behind this exhibition is the designer.

Jacqueline Groag rose to prestige as World War II came to an end. Her bright, playful patterns made their way to the British masses that were searching for a celebration of triumph over Germany.

Groag was born in Czechoslovakia in 1903. As the exhibit describes, Groag studied textile design and began designing for the Wiener Werkstatte in the 1920s and '30s in Vienna, Austria. The Wiener Werkstatte was a production company that brought together designers, artists and architects to inspire and create. Architect Josef Hoffman founded the collective, which included furniture maker Johann Niedermoser and ceramicist Michael Powolny among others. Throughout her schooling, Groag adopted the sharp lines and grid system characteristic of the Wiener Werkstatte to organize the composition in her textiles.

She married architect Jacques Groag, whose work greatly influenced her own designs. She began to combine the grid form with the figurative forms of the dolls to create whimsical patterns that seem to mirror the couple's wedded bliss.

Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design at the Phoenix Art Museum, says that the people of Britain wanted something fresh and new after the trauma and restrictions of the war.

"The hardships of World War II, the rationing, the limitations on the amount of fabric that could be used in a single ensemble were very limiting for people and they didn't have a lot of new clothes," Sewell says. "It was really a time that was ripe for the colorful designs that she was attracted to. It was a time where things really swung in the opposite direction to really celebrate the war being over. Cheerful colors were really a vital part of that recovery from an emotional and celebratory point of view."

Groag operated independently did not have her own label. But her designs were still widely celebrated and produced on a large scale so that everyone from the Queen to the everyday woman could access them.

"There was an emphasis on making good design available to all in the post-WWI era," Sewell writes in an email correspondence. "Like other mid-century modern designers, Groag's work was within reach of the middle classes."

 

Jacqueline Groag, (Czechoslovakian,1903-1985) "Paper Dolls" textile, 1967. Screen printed cotton manufactured by Jonelle Ltd. Lent by Jill A. Wiltse and H. Kirk Brown III.
Jacqueline Groag, (Czechoslovakian,1903-1985) "Paper Dolls" textile, 1967. Screen printed cotton manufactured by Jonelle Ltd. Lent by Jill A. Wiltse and H. Kirk Brown III.
Photo courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

This feeling of celebration is evident in the fabrics in "Pattern Play." One fabric entitled Paper Dolls is paired with its original sketch. It is a puzzle of triangles, squares, rectangles and circles that form a crowd of faceless men and women. The pattern is made up only of yellow pink and red colors and one can't help but think of the figures decorating the "It's a Small World After All" ride at Disneyland. The gathering of figures evokes the feeling of camaraderie and celebration, as if they have all come together for a parade or fantastic show -- perhaps a homecoming after the war.

Not only does Paper Dolls seem to be a recovery, but it also seems to be an escape. The pattern, as many others, evokes the simpler times of a childhood spent dressing up paper dolls.

According to Sewell, Groag operated under the theory that we all have a "developed creative age" at which "your creativity sort of crystalizes." For Groag, her creative age was 8.

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"So here is a grown woman who is channeling herself at age 8 in a really delightful way, it is very inspiring," Sewell says.

There is a sort of delicate and entertaining aspect to Groag's work that seeks to send viewers back to a time of complete fascination with everything that makes up our lives. Tiny toy birds, the construction of a house, traffic lights and the spring tulips are placed against bright backgrounds that draw the eye and offer a portal to yesteryears while tactfully avoiding the pit of kitsch. Her patterns present a mature dialogue through the lens of childhood simplicity and beauty.

Groag was able to infuse this in nearly all aspects of everyday life. Shanna Shelby, curator of Wiltse and Brown's collection based in Denver, Colorado, says that Groag's versatility is what made her a visionary in the textile field.

Not only was Groag innovative in her designs, but she was also one of the most versatile designers of her time period.

"One of the things that makes Jacqueline unique is that she designed for so many different areas," Shelby says. "She designed dress patterns, furnishing fabric, collages, drawings, furniture."

Shelby goes on to describe the importance of Groag's use of the plastic laminate, a sort of formica called Warerite, which can be produced cheaply and in many different colors.

"It's Jacqueline Groag playing with, not only design technique, but then in a different media altogether, which is so unique to the era," Shelby says.

Shelby says that the aim of the exhibition was to get a wholistic view of the designer, who

Jacqueline Groag, (Czech-born, 1903-1985) Dress (left),1946. Printed nylon. Dress (right), 1946. Printed "anti-shirk" nylon crepe, 1946. Target Gallery, London Photo by Ken Howie.
Jacqueline Groag, (Czech-born, 1903-1985) Dress (left),1946. Printed nylon. Dress (right), 1946. Printed "anti-shirk" nylon crepe, 1946. Target Gallery, London Photo by Ken Howie.
Photo courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

she was, and what she meant to postwar Britain. This is why the curators chose to include preliminary drawings alongside the fabrics and other designs presented in the exhibition. These drawings include designs for everything from greeting cards to carpet.

"She felt like she was an overall designer, so these drawings and sketches are really important for us to get a whole understanding of who she was as a designer," Shelby says. Groag received greater recognition with Queen Elizabeth wore one of her tulip-patterned dresses in 1956. One of her greatest accomplishments came when she was awarded the Royal Designer for Industry in 1984, two years before her death. This was considered the ultimate accolade for any designer in Britain, Shelby says.

Wiltse and Brown, who have amassed a great collection of modern textiles over the years, say they were drawn to Groag because of her influence of postwar design. They say they feel her work deserves to be seen because her designs were incredibly modern for the time. Not only was she interested in revitalizing the country, but she was also a key pioneer in modernizing textile design and defining the contemporary style popular in post-war society.

"We live in two small apartments and there's no way we can have all these beautiful things up, so to have them out and enjoyed by other people is really a treat for us," Brown says. "This designer represents a person who is under the radar screen of women and men designers of that period. She's a very talented artist and I think one that's deserving of recognition."

The collecting couple also expressed their interest in recognizing textiles in the field of fine arts.

"I think textiles are an art form," Wiltse says. "You know, people don't usually see a textile framed because it's something familiar to all of us, but it's really nice creation."

It is no secret that textiles and fashion have long been denied the title of fine art. "Pattern Play" further breaks that barrier by presenting revolutionary fabrics that defined an era against the white walls of the museum. The Phoenix Art Museum is one of a minority of museums that have focused part of their collection on fashion. Groag became the pioneer for today's contemporary artists who continue to assert the validity of textiles by challenging conventional ideas about what they can do and say within the art world.

Pattern Play will remain on display through August 9 at the Phoenix Art Museum. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $10 for students, and $6 for youth ages 6 to 17. For more information, visit phxart.org.

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