Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Cecil Millar and the Power of Chintz

Illustration: Cecil Millar. Silk brocade textile design, c1906.

At one point in time during the first few years of the twentieth century, the English designer Cecil Millar was spoken of in the same terms as Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, Walter Crane, Lindsay Philip Butterfield, Lewis F Day and Sydney Mawson. However, today his name has been largely forgotten despite the fact that he produced a fair amount of popular decorative work.

The two examples shown here were produced around the year 1906 and were included within The Studio magazines annual yearbook for that year. The first example is that of a silk brocade, while the second is that of a wool tapestry fabric, both were meant as interior fabrics which was seen as one Millar's particular strong points.

Millar's style seems to have been one that, although not doggedly nostalgic, did take into consideration the long history of English textile pattern work in particular. Although still based on natural observation, Millar's work was much more inspired by a stylised interpretation of nature, and was often referred to as 'chintz-like', although this was not necessarily an exact interpretation of his work. Although his work could sometimes appear to be somewhat heavier and more formalised than perhaps some of his contemporaries during this period, his styling did take into account both the British penchant for chintz and other textile design work that followed closely this particular style.

Chintz itself is a large and fascinating subject. Although the style has been associated with India, where it originated, it also has a long independent history across Europe, being produced in a number of individual and nationalistic styles. English chintz has proved consistently popular throughout its decorative history, at least in England. It has served well as an interior fabric and has been reinvented and reimagined by any number of designers and manufacturers.

Illustration: Cecil Millar. Wool tapestry textile design, c1906.

To show the power that this borrowed Indian design style truly has had on both the British psyche and their interiors, can be seen by giving a clear example. An extraordinary British advertising campaign by Ikea, the Swedish flat-pack interiors company, at the very start of the twenty first century, advised the British to throw out their chintz in favour of Ikea's own imaginative interpretation of Scandinavian Modern. The campaign quickly back-fired and led to accusations ranging from bullying to dissmisiveness, misunderstanding and even deliberate misinterpretation of national tastes and styles. Although only meant as a light-hearted advertising campaign, the interpretation that many in Britain took, clearly ended that particular form of advertising.

This near contemporary example goes someway into explaining not only the British attachment to particular styles and motifs in pattern work that are seen as near domestic in origin, but also generally those of different peoples and cultures across the planet. Ikea's mistake perhaps was to imagine that their own multi-international style could remove national flavours and taste. However, these national and often regional quirks, although an irritation to internationally motivated companies that have little interest in accommodating any real form of regionalism and ethnic and cultural diversity, can often be part of a much more fundamental feeling. Often they can give a sense of belonging and of a shared and communal understanding, even when considering a seemingly innocuous textile motif or pattern.

This also concerns the subject of Cecil Millar and some of his traditionally styled textile work. Although the examples shown here might well have been outside the remit of the popular and fashionable Art Nouveau styling that still dominated Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century, chintz was still a style that many of the British public were both familiar and comfortable with. To attempt to remove a style from a culture merely for the sake of it, or in Ikea's case for profit, can often prove to be counter-productive and even invasive. This is not to say that the public should not be offered contemporary alternatives to old favourites, but if the old favourites prove too powerful a draw, then perhaps the alternative would be the route that Millar took in at least part of his patterned output, the re-imagining and re-interpretation of a faithful and much loved decorative style. Interestingly, the fact that Ikea now produces its own variation of chintz is perhaps telling.

Reference links:
Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West
Chintz (3rd Edition) : The Charlton Standard Catalogue
Trade Goods: A Study of Indian Chintz in the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, Smithsonian Institution
Origins of Chintz
Chintz by design
Chintz and Cotton India's Textile Gift to the World
The Chintz Collectors Handbook
Chintz Quilts: Unfading Glory
Printed Fabrics: Bingata, Chintz, Kalamkari, Androsia, Nankeen, Cretonne
English Chintz
Two Centuries of English Chintz, 1750-1950
The Chintz Collection: the Calico Museum of Textiles, India: 2 Volumes, Limited Edition

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