By Liberty Archivist, Anna Buruma
Once I was asked to do a short presentation to the studio about significant past designers for Liberty. It made me reflect on who these designers were and what made them so significant. It made me realize that perhaps it wasn’t always the designers who were significant. Traditionally the buyers at Liberty had enormous power and it was they who commissioned designers to produce patterns for Liberty’s textiles.
In the late 19th and early 20th century it was John Llewellyn who, while managing the silk department, commissioned the top designers of his day. People like CFA Voysey, Lindsay Butterfield and the Silver Studio created Liberty’s celebrated Art Nouveau look. During the 1950s it was the two descendants of the founder, Arthur Stewart Liberty and Hilary Blackmore, who commissioned Robert Stewart, Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag, etc. It was they who encouraged young designers like Althea McNish and Colleen Farr straight from the Royal College. Colleen Farr started Liberty’s first in-house textile design studio. Arthur Stewart Liberty employed Bernard Nevill when she left and Susan Collier when he finished. These designers were the ones who moved the look of Liberty forward. They didn’t necessarily create bestseller patterns, although sometimes they did, but they did get Liberty spoken about in the press and in the long run that got people through the door.
The present studio is very young and there are only a few who have been there more than two years. This makes the archive so important, as it shows what Liberty design stands for. It is much more complicated than the beautiful paisley or the small dense floral. There isn’t one Liberty look, there are magnificent geometrics, there are witty conversationals, large blousy flower designs, extraordinary abstracts. My colleague and I have our desks in the studio, and we are part of the design team so we can alert them to things when we find something new and can respond to any of their questions immediately. Last summer the database was upgraded and now, rather than it sitting on just two computers, I have been able to make it accessible to the designers on their own computers, which means they can browse themselves rather than always seeing it through our eyes. It will be interesting to see if it will make a difference to what they produce in the future.
On a typical working day I am sitting at my computer, creating new data for recently digitized images or adding these to existing data. Nearly all the designs in the Liberty archive are now on the database and we are concluding the digitization project this year. There will always still be data for designs that have no image and these may never be filled. The cataloguing of the Liberty archive can go on and on for many years to come.
Anna Buruma is the in-house Archivist at Liberty’s and Curator for the Museum and Study Collection at Central St Martin’s
Liberty interviews Anna Buruma