Catherine Stowell stands on the shoulders of giants, women artists from the Bauhaus school that explored new techniques in fabric design, transforming what was deemed to be craft projects into art worthy of scholarship. These luminaries of the loom—particularly Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers—were pioneers, influencing subsequent generations to push boundaries and create pieces that surpass mere functionality. And as the creative director of Designtex, an over 50-year-old manufacturer of textiles and wallcoverings, Stowell’s passion for their work runs deeps.
With an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Bauhaus and the oeuvres of Stölzl and Albers, Stowell and Designtex president Susan Lyons recreated some of the artists’ best-known designs. Partnering with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and Stölzl’s daughter, Monika Stadler, the two collections—Designtex + Anni Albers and Designtex + Gunta Stölzl—debuted at NeoCon 2019. The company also hosted a number of podium discussions and premiered a video highlighting the efforts of the Bauhaus women.
All these initiatives come at a time when the school is celebrating its 100th anniversary. But unlike other marketing ploys that are hopping on the centennial bandwagon, Designtex’s Bauhaus project is seemingly much more reverential of the women and the significant role they played in furthering its reputation. The eight upholstery textiles and eight digitally-printed wallcoverings in both lines, which will be available for retail in October 2019, stay true to Stölzl’s and Albers’s original designs, with slight twists in their manufacturing to allow for greater volume. And admitting how there are still areas of their work that require further exploration, Stowell isn’t leaving her perch on those shoulders anytime soon.
Here, she elaborates further on continuing the legacy of her forebears.
How would you describe the Bauhaus school? Why do you think its influence continues to reverberate throughout the years?
The founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, wanted to erase the distinctions between “high” art and “low” craft, and that goal gave rise to cross-disciplinary practices—an example of Bauhaus principles that resonate today. The Bauhaus is really much more than a movement or a style. The ideas of experimentation with mass production, functional design, fit for its purpose, and collective practice continue to reverberate with today’s architects and designers.
Why do you think the Bauhaus was more accepting of women than, say, other schools at the time?
Many men were still returning from the war’s front at that time. Later, they made up a greater proportion of the school. However, Gropius wanted the school to be a new model for society. In his first speech to students, he noted the school would have gender equality. Sadly, it was a tall order that he couldn’t fully keep. Gender norms were embedded in the teaching and the women students were relegated to only a few fields at the Bauhaus—mainly textiles and ceramics. However, the women in those workshops did reach some measures of success for the time. Gunta Stölzl was the first female master teacher at the Bauhaus. At first, she was paid less than the men, but she successfully lobbied to be paid the same rate as her male counterparts.
How would you characterize the work of Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers? Did there work differ from their male contemporaries in any way?
During the early years of the Bauhaus in Weimar, the work of the women weavers followed many of the same ideas that the male Bauhauslers were pursuing in painting. Many of the women that came to the Bauhaus to study had an interest in painting and drawing, but they were not given an opportunity to join the art studios. Although they were relegated to the weaving studio, they used the same principles as their male counterparts: learning by doing, having contact with the material and exploration into abstract form and composition. Although their medium was textile, their thinking and their way of working was deeply rooted in the ideas of the Bauhaus. Both Gunta and Anni were making art, but instead of paint, they were using yarn and any other material they could find that could be woven.
How did the partnership with Stölzl’s daughter and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation come about? Was there anything you found in their archives that you didn’t know about previously?
As textile geeks, we have long admired the works of these two women and all the women of the Bauahus. We felt that their work deserved more attention than it had gotten. Anni’s work was better known due to the stewardship of the Foundation. Susan Lyons had met Nick Weber, the director of the Foundation, in college and we were able to take a field trip to see the archive. That was a thrill.
It was harder to track down the family of Gunta Stölzl. We finally found a website that catalogued her work, and sent an email to inquire about working together. It turned out that the website was administered by Gunta’s grandson, Ariel Aloni. Catherine and Susan flew to Holland to meet with Monika Stadler, Gunta’s daughter. We met in her three summers ago and shared our desire to celebrate Gunta and Anni’s work, and discussed our thoughts about how we might work with the archive. Monika showed us some lovely watercolors that her mother had done. One in particular became the foundation of her collection.
One of the things that really hit home as we worked with the archives of these two artists was their genius for composition and construction. Today, most woven textiles are designed on a computer and then woven on a jacquard loom. Gunta and Anni were designing and weaving incredibly complex patterns and weave structures completely by hand. Their drawings are beautiful road maps for the ideas they had in their minds—a 2-D manifestation of the 3-D object they wanted to create.
How did these two women influence your work as a textile designer?
I feel lucky to have gotten to work so closely with these women’s work and with the people who knew them. In school, I learned about these women almost in passing. I didn’t study weaving specifically, so maybe that is why. In the course of learning about the Bauhaus, the women weavers presence was acknowledged, but very little time was spent learning about their work. As textile design became the focus of my work, I became more and more aware of their contributions to textile design and how they and the other women weavers of the Bauhaus are in many ways responsible for how we work today. The integrity and thoughtfulness they brought to their designs, particularly in the work designed for production in Dessau, has been particularly impactful. The idea that fabrics can be technical in nature but also be beautiful and artfully constructed is something that is important today and is a core design principle at Designtex.
For the collections, how did you incorporate their sensibilities with your own?
This project felt indulgent in the time we got to spend studying each design and construction in detail. In a small way, we got a sense of how each designer thought. We had to pay attention and understand the role of each yarn and its placement in the design, so we could decide what we were doing for this collection and how we were going to do it. Some designs were technical and had manufacturing challenges that were fun to execute. Others were vehicles for some coveted but underutilized yarns and constructions.
I have a penchant for structural textures with luxurious—and sometimes expensive—yarns, and Stölzl’s Woven Texture was the perfect opportunity to use these large fiber-blended wool yarns made from American sheep, and by American dyers and spinners I had been coveting. I like designs that could be considered indulgent or luxurious in their use of scale or color. Albers’s Jacquard I, for example, is a wall-hanging that is delicately constructed out of silk, wool and chenille, and shows off bright colors and her signature bold graphics on a large scale. In thinking about this design as an upholstery product, we imagined this pattern used in public spaces like a library or entrance to a school. We set out to use a type of construction that would be beautiful, but have enough performance characteristics so that it could be used in this type of space. We ended up using a combination of high-energy spun dyes, filament polyester, and nylon with a nano finish to achieve this.
Will Designtex continue to create Bauhaus-inspired styles, or was this a one-off to celebrate the centennial?
There were plenty of ideas that we didn’t quite figure out for this collection. We didn’t find the right modern-day substitute for the saran and cellophane yarns that Gunta and Anni used, and there were some exquisite rigid lino panels of Anni’s that we didn’t find a scalable production method for. So, I imagine we aren’t done yet.