The famed Bauhaus textile designs of Ani Albers and Gunta Stölzl weren’t the kind of tapestries that homeowners in the 20s and 30s were accustomed to—no ruffles, decorative swirls, or sentimental embroidery in sight. Geometric, modern, vibrant, and abstract, these compositions rivalled the crisp graphic design of fellow Bauhaus members László Moholy-Nagy and the playfulness of Oskar Schlemmer’s illustrations. There was an element of unity in style across the Bauhaus board, and a restless exploration of how to use different media to say a similar thing.
Despite the modern outlook, even at the Bauhaus, tapestry was seen as inferior “women’s work,” with female students restricted to specializing only in this singular discipline. The idea of textile as a lesser medium, and its relegation to the world of kitsch, is steeped in social history: in the 18th century, women weren’t given paintbrushes but needle and thread, and told to embroider a pattern, something they could follow that was soft and domestic. In contemporary design culture today—and I’m not talking about product design but specifically image design—the meaning and associations of textile have shifted, and this is largely because of the digital context in which we now find ourselves.
Artists in the latter 20th century like Tracy Emin and Louise Bourgeois reclaimed the stitch by using it to tackle subversive themes, and now the haptic qualities of textile are beginning to mean something else; embraced as a form of visual communication in editorial contexts.
As if to continue the mode of thinking begun at the Bauhaus, graphic designers and illustrators are increasingly exploring, experimenting with, and integrating the medium of textile into their work. Image editors for magazines are even starting to commission tapestries from these image-makers—like Hannah Waldron’s striking WIRED commission in 2015, and children’s illustrator Chris Haughton’s 2012 Creative Review cover.
For Eike König of Berlin’s famed HORT, the homespun tapestries of American suburbia —the kind that read “home is where the heart is” in baby pink cursive stitch—are an early form of typographic poster design. He’s embraced the medium as his own, creating his own graphic weavings with slogans he finds more relevant for hanging on the white-washed walls of modern studios. For König, it’s an extension of the poster, and experimenting with textile means pushing that traditional form of graphic design into new realms, inviting other kinds of sensory responses and injecting new life into a well-worn medium.
For many contemporary image-makers, the process of creating a textile is an immersive exercise that informs their two-dimensional image practise. This was certainly the case for German illustrator Josephin Ritschel. Her illustrated world has always been geometric and linear, and therefore lends itself well to translation into a textured version; her pictures are practically woven with the cross-hatch of a pencil, and she’s drawn to depicting modernist architectural havens amidst luscious landscapes, the kind of villas in which you might find an original Gunta Stölzl.
A few weeks ago she uploaded a photograph to Instagram of a weaving she’d just made; the composition depicted a familiar scene for her, namely a modern structure in a sublime setting. Ritschel decided to make the rug after seeing instructions online, starting right away and finishing that night. “It felt so good to have something in my hand at the end of it,” she says, “that’s why I wanted to try this technique.”
Artist Erin M Riley believes image makers can learn a lot of discipline from making tapestries. “It has a lot of challenges, vertical lines are something that are hugely complicated, there are a lot of small details, and lots of layers,” says Riley. “It’s fun to approach an image with these limitations and challenge yourself to work around them to create something visually appealing.” Weaving, then, can push you out of your comfort zone by providing advantageous restriction.
Children’s illustrator Chris Haughton started transforming his sketches into rugs in 2010 while working with Fair Trade company People Tree. It was there he was introduced to a non-profit weaving school called Kumbeshwar in Patan, and he quickly fell in love with the carpets they produced. Haughton was so inspired that he decided to set up his own non-profit, a social business called Node that connects designers with weavers in Patan. The idea is that everyone can then transform their two dimensional drawings into thick, textural rugs.
“From a creative point of view I find working with simply color and pattern is a nice antidote to working with narrative and story in my books,” says Haughton. “Stepping back and working on these allows me to then rethink my work and often adds color and pattern back into my children’s book art.”
Haughton believes that an interest in tapestry provides an antidote to the largely digital world of design, leading to a resurgence in the appreciation of craft. So too is the rediscovery of letterpress and screen printing, which also allow for uniquely tactile experiences.
“By creating artwork like a rug, it becomes not just a piece of design but a piece of furniture too, something to feel and touch. And it lasts for generations.”
Recent design criticism has centred on the idea that print acts as an antidote to the screen, but the role tapestry plays in this hasn’t been explored in the same way. Looking at Riley’s compositions, the power of their haptic nature in juxtaposition to the screen resonates with striking force. For her Year of Porn series—a body of woven works from pornographic screen captures, recorded at the moment of climax—imagery associated with the harsh, cold surface of the screen is suddenly contextualized with warmth and texture. Crucially, the resulting work can be touched, not just observed.
Contemporary artist Kustaa Saksi, whose otherworldly dreamscapes appear in the form of computerized jacquard weavings, as pattern on Marimekko products, and as editorial illustrations, sees great similarity between textile and graphic design. “They combine quite seamlessly as they’re both disciplines that celebrate usage of ornamentation, texture, pattern, color and skill,” he says.
When it comes to the current popularity of the medium among visual image makers, Saksi’s opinion chimes with Haughton and Riley: “It might have something to do with the fact that people are a bit bored with flat surfaces and screens. The greatest thing with textile is that you can touch it and feel something; warm, soft, coarse, spiky, lush…”
Like Saksi, Hannah Waldron’s work is a give-and-take: her illustrations inform her tapestries, and the process of weaving teaches her surprising things about illustrative composition. Look in her portfolio, and you’ll notice how woven her two-dimensional work appears, and how geometrically illustrative her wall-hangings are.
“Taking up weaving has taught me that there is a language inherent in every medium, and that language is incredibly rich and extensive,” says Waldron. “When I’m weaving or working on paper, I’m speaking two different languages. I would encourage image-makers to embrace textiles, but really I would encourage everyone to embrace them more. It’s the stuff that is closest to us, and yet most people have no idea how it is formed. There is so much magic and beauty and meaning to discover in the materials, process, and communicative qualities of textiles.”
Anni Albers of the Bauhaus once said that “being creative is not so much the desire to do something as listening to that which wants to be done: the dictation of the materials.” The graphic designers and illustrators mentioned here have their ears finely attuned to the textured materials with which they’re experimenting, and the results are a distinctive, hybrid form of visual communication where the traditional rules of each discipline evocatively blur.