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

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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."

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Mackenzie McCreary