Creating Artwork to Sit Upon

Marianne Straub has devoted much of her career to quietly designing fabric for public places. INTERVIEW

`IT may be safe to say,'' wrote Mary Schoeser, in her book about textile designer Marianne Straub, ``that most people have sat on or looked at a Marianne Straub fabric (or copy), yet few ... could name the designer.'' Many people, indeed, have sat and still sit on Straub-designed fabrics in London Underground trains, on Trident aircraft, in public buildings, or in ordinary British homes where the owner has an eye for fine-quality woven material.

The largest part of Ms. Straub's career has been devoted to textile designs that have quietly made themselves apparent in public awareness without ever shouting ``Marianne Straub!''

Yet Linda Parry, curator for modern textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, rates her as ``extremely important in the history of modern textiles in British textiles.'' Straub is one of two or three British artists who have used their ``great ability'' in textile design to serve industry, she says.

The great thing about her work, say observers, is that it has extraordinary balance between, for example, color and texture, durability and appearance.

``Surrey,'' one of her more famous designs, is currently featured in a traveling exhibit with the Muse'e des Arts D'ecoratifs de Montreal. Based on the crystalline structure of the mineral afwillite, the design was used at the Festival of Britain in 1951.

``It's made a terrific name for itself ... selected as an example of that period,'' says the 80-year-old Straub, who has produced innovative, abstract textile designs in industry for over 40 years, but is now retired.

She willingly spoke about her career, and voiced her thoughts, during an interview in her garden at her home in Cambridge - though we had to break off briefly to be introduced to the local robin. All strangers have to be inspected.

But Straub feels strongly - she feels and speaks strongly about most things - that, like architecture, textile design is ``a matter of collaboration.'' For her, ``it is neither here nor there'' whether the word ``art'' has a capital or a small ``a.'' But actually she prefers it small. ``I put it on a `design' level, you know,'' she says.

``Her total modesty - in being quite happy just to be part of a design team. ... I mean, it bowls you over,'' says Ms. Parry.

No cult of the individual for Straub. She has believed throughout her long career, working for several manufacturers in Britain, in ``loyalty to the firm. I enjoyed that very much. ... I've never worked freelance.''

None of this is due to shyness or false modesty. Michael Chase, a longtime London gallery director, says ``There's nothing indefinite about Marianne Straub.''

Working in industry, though first trained as a handweaver, was deliberate - an early decision, stuck to for a lifetime, ``to design things which people could afford. ... To remain a handweaver did not seem satisfactory in this age of mass-production,'' she says.

Born in Switzerland, Straub still owns a dual passport. But her career developed in Britain from the time when, in 1932, she attended Bradford Technical College (in the center of the Yorkshire wool industry) to extend her experience of powerloom weaving. Her mother had vetoed Germany as a place for further training because Straub was ``very outspoken,'' and she didn't want to have to rescue her from prison.

Being a woman, she was a rare commodity in a Technical College set up to train people for industry. After the initial surprise response, Straub believes she got ``preferential treatment.'' But as a workaholic, she is more likely to have earned simple respect.

Her fascination for sheep and their wool - which she has long since collected samples of - was prompted by one of the teachers. But above all, her determination to understand the machinery of the industry must have recommended her to the teachers. This was also to stand her in good stead later when weavers on the shop floor were unwilling to try new designs.

``I know the machines,'' says Straub, ``and can talk to the technicians.'' She almost always designed on the handloom, developing her ideas as she worked. As a handweaver in the industry, it gave her special clout.

``Then I could present the manufacturer with the finished article,'' she explains, and he could never say ``I can't do that.'' Even if he did, she would stand at the big loom and demonstrate how he could. `The workpeople respected you - it made an enormous difference.''

Straub says that if more designers tried out the things they were designing, fewer bad designs would result. It's often apparent when a man has designed an object a women uses every day, she says.

But the main reason she preferred to work in a firm, rather than sell her designs as a freelancer, was to be in control.

``If you sell your designs, and the manufacturer hasn't got the right yarn or the right color ... then in the end you see something that isn't at all what you meant it to be,'' Straub says.

Employed by a Lancashire firm called Helios (a subsidiary of Barlow and Jones), and then by Warner and Sons, she most frequently designed domestic fabrics - upholstery, curtains, bedspreads. But she was never much interested in designing material for fashion.

``I'm much more interested in architecture than lady's fashion,'' she says with a chuckle. ``If you work in fashion you've got to be absolutely sold onto the whole thing.''

Clearly, Straub is not. Fabric design is like architecture in being structural and ``also built out of units. You've got to know your raw materials,'' she says.

Though never against using synthetic fibers when necessary (when cost dictated, for example), Straub says ``the most durable fabric is still wool or worsted (closely woven wool yarn). And wool takes the colors very clearly. It also has the great advantage over man-made fibers in that it doesn't look dirty so quickly. All man-made fibers, you see, are very strong.''

If synthetic fibers get rubbed, they don't wear away like wool - revealing a cleaner layer underneath, she explains.

Her London Underground upholstery fabric is a case in point. It is moquette - a fabric with a thick, soft, napped surface similar to velvet. If you look at the surface, it's part cut (or tufted) and part uncut. The tufting makes it wear better.

``The chap at London Transport told me that it is by far the best they've had for wear - it lasts about eight years,'' she says.

How does she protect against vandalism? ``Nothing you can do, unless you weave it of sheet metal.''

Straub, who has taught at most of the major art colleges in London, speaks strongly against the tendency today for designers ``to borrow too much.

``I've never used ethnic designs because I would feel dishonest. That is not our [European] handwriting. We must keep our own culture going with our own designs.

``But I am very interested in techniques. I will always look at what is done anywhere - how it is done. Or at old fabrics - how I can learn from them. But then I develop my own ideas.''

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