Obituary: Bernat Klein CBE, textile designer, artist and colourist

Bernat Klein: Colour wizard of the Scottish textile industry who brought tweed to world's catwalks
Bernat Klein: Colour wizard of the Scottish textile industry who brought tweed to world's catwalks
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Born: 6 November, 1922, in Senta, Yugoslavia. Died: 17 April, 2014, in the Borders, aged 91

BERNAT Klein lived a life so infused with the joy of colour it was utterly infectious. His belief that colours are as important in our world as words – and capable of instantly engendering a kaleidoscopic range of emotions – transformed the Scottish textile industry, put it on the international catwalk and left a vibrant archive that still inspires generations later.

Exhilarated by the hues of nature that surrounded him and influenced by the pointillists’ Impressionist painting technique using countless small dots, he could deconstruct the colours from an image and conjure them up again in glorious designs, many of them jewel-bright. But he also recognised the need for a more muted palette, often reflecting the trees, lichen and landscape of the Borders, which he made his home for more than 60 years.

His career spanned a panoply of creations from chainstore scarves to knitwear, fabric for Chanel and Dior, furnishings and carpets, all with his distinctive hallmark of harmony – a world away from the atmosphere in which he started his working life, briefly recruited by the British Ministry of Information during the war.

A Serbian Jew, he was born in Senta, near Yugoslavia’s border with Hungary, into a family who worked in the wholesale textile business and, growing up surrounded by cloth, he spent many hours dreaming about becoming a textile designer and running a mill of his own.

Educated initially by a private tutor and then at a local school, at 13 he was sent by his parents, Lipot and Serena, to a Yeshiva, a Jewish Orthodox school, in Czechoslovakia. Two years later, as war threatened Europe, he went to study with a leading rabbi in Jerusalem where, in 1940, he began attending the Bezalel School of Art and Craft. It was here, after studying art initially, that he learned to weave, spending two years in its newly-established textile department.

Meanwhile Germany and the Axis forces invaded Yugoslavia and in 1944 his parents and many of his extended family were sent to Auschwitz. His father survived, his mother did not.

Around this time he sat the London Matriculation examinations in Jerusalem and worked for the British Ministry of Information in Cairo and Jerusalem, monitoring and translating broadcasts from Europe. Not particularly proficient in English, he turned out not to be particularly good at listening in and, bored by the job, was relieved when his duties came to an end after a few short months.

In 1945 he sailed for England on the SS Franconia, the ship used as headquarters for Churchill during the Yalta conference, and moved to Leeds University to study textile design. He never returned to Senta and went back to Yugoslavia only once, to visit relatives in Belgrade.

Awarded a Diploma in Textiles in 1948, he worked for about nine months as a designer of materials for ties, handkerchiefs and ladies dresses with Tootal Broadhurst Lee in Bolton. The following year he came north to Edinburgh to design ladies’ coat and skirt fabrics for Munrospun. He moved to the Borders in 1950, the same year he became a naturalised British citizen, when the design department relocated to Galashiels. Whilst studying at Leeds he had met his future wife, Margaret Soper, at a ball and they married in 1951, setting up home in Galashiels. But by 1952 he had left Munrospun and established his own company, Colour­craft. Using £500 borrowed from a friend he rented space in a rat-infested weaving shed and began producing rugs and furnishing fabrics. He tried selling them through Liberty’s and Heal’s department store in London but real success eluded him.

However all that changed over the next decade when he began using a professional agent in London who secured large orders for lambswool scarves from Littlewoods, Woolworth, British Home Stores and Marks & Spencer. Business boomed and he contracted out production to other local mills, diversifying into colour woven fabrics for womenswear and menswear.

A key influence at this time was a visit to an Impressionist art exhibition at the Tate Gallery in the mid-Fifties. He was inspired by George Seurat’s pointillist work and dreamed of producing cloth that, by combining many different colours, would blaze or shimmer. “Then the eye could either add them all up together and so enjoy the fun of their varied subtlety amounting to a clear hard fact,” he said, “or it could see them merging in their multitude to remain an amorphous, cloudy hint of tints, of softness and endless possibilities.”

Klein, who later succeeded in incorporating into his work the Impressionist feel he had so admired, went on to buy Nether­dale Mill in Galashiels where he relocated Colourcraft, increased the staff to 150 and operated about 40 looms. The Sixties saw him take up oil painting, which would also influence the colours of his textiles and he developed ranges of space-dyed worsted suiting and mohair tweed couture fabrics. In 1962 Robert Sinclair Tobacco Company Ltd became a majority shareholder boosting the firm’s reach. Renamed Bernat Klein Ltd and with a PR officer appointed, his tweeds excited the fashionistas of the day, were lauded in the US and featured in Chanel’s spring 1963 collection. That year a range of Bernat Klein knitting yarns was launched, along with colour co-ordinated skirt and suit fabrics, and the autumn ’63 collections of designers including Balmain, Cardin, Dior, St Laurent and Hardy Amies all used his light, sumptuous mohair tweeds.

He was appointed design consultant for Bond Worth Carpets, opened a showroom in London, created a velvet ribbon tweed and developed a colour chart, based on analysis of a woman’s eye colour, so that she could choose a wardrobe best suited to enhanced her colouring.

Klein went on to acquire the Gibson & Lumgair mill in Selkirk, opened an office in Paris and wrote the book Eye For Colour. Princess Margaret and then husband Lord Snowden were regularly seen wearing his fabrics. However, in 1966, a business manager was appointed to work alongside Klein who, rather than have his artistic vision compromised, decided to sell his shares and resign from the company.

He then set up a new enterprise, Bernat Klein Design Consultants Ltd, which he ran from his home at High Sunderland and over the next quarter of a century he collaborated with numerous companies in Britain and Scandinavia producing ­designs for rugs, carpets and ­fabrics and opening shops in ­Edinburgh and London.

He was made a CBE in 1973, awarded the design medal by the Textile Institute in 1977 and appointed an honorary fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland in 1980. He was also a commissioner on the Royal Fine Art Commission in Edinburgh and received an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University, whose school of textiles and design is housed in one of his former mills. The university has a collection of his textiles and an archive of around 200 pieces is also held by the ­National Museums of Scotland.

Klein, awarded a Scottish Style Award in 2007, continued painting up until the week before he died, still obsessed with the passion for colour that defined his life and work. Widowed in 2008, he is survived by children Jonathan, Gillian and Shelley, and three grandchildren.