Something completely different

Patiently, Lucienne Day shifts her weight from one foot to the other and smiles for the camera. The photographer says she is a good subject. "Actually, I’m rather used to it," she replies softly. The doyen of modern British design has smiled her way through 50 years of flashbulbs. What’s one more?

In the exhibition hall of Glasgow School of Art, she is supervising the hanging of her latest show, which combines her recent silk mosaics with digital reprints of textile designs from the 1950s and 1960s made by GSA’s Centre for Advanced Textiles. She is petite and fit, dressed in a chic but comfortable beige jersey and a pair of black trousers with a slight flare. Perhaps only her face gives any indication of her true age - 85.

In her rigorous professionalism there are plenty of hints of the women who, 50 years ago, breezed into Heal’s and sold them their first modernist textile design. "I’m always glad to see those," she says, nodding at my tape recorder. "It’s so easy to get things wrong from memory or ... scribbles," here a glance at my shorthand. She and her husband, furniture designer Robin Day, have always controlled press coverage carefully and they’re not about to stop now.

The significance of the Days is hard to overstate. Frequently compared to designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Arne Jacobsen, they changed the face of British design in the 1950s, and helped put Britain on the world map of modern design. Lucienne’s 1951 Calyx fabric and Robin’s 1963 polypropylene chair are classics of design history. They helped drag Britons - kicking and screaming in some cases - into the 20th century.

The Days have never perceptibly retired. Robin, 86, is currently in Milan, presenting his latest designs at the furniture fair, but will fly back in time for Lucienne’s opening. Lucienne still teaches and sits on countless design committees - so it comes as something of a shock to hear that she stopped designing two years ago. She says that she hopes the Glasgow show will be her last exhibition.

She decided to stop when the Days moved from their London home in Cheyne Walk, where they had lived and worked for 47 years, to a smaller house in Chichester. "I always thought, as he [Robin] thought, and still does, that he would never retire. But when we moved it was a huge upheaval, and it was happening at the same time as the Barbican show [a major retrospective of their work]. So I’d had this break of several months getting the exhibition ready, getting the house emptied and I thought, I can’t go on forever, so let’s stop now. That was good, really. I wasn’t slowly doing less and less and less. I stopped with a bang, which I like."

Robin and Lucienne met during the war at a dance at the Royal College of Art in London. It was a meeting of minds. "Our shared ideas were very much the basis of our interest in each other. We both wanted to do the same things in our different disciplines. We’ve more or less remained together ever since that day."

Their ideas closely reflected the idealism of post-war design, the belief that well thought out products, mass produced, would improve the way ordinary people lived. Lucienne found that the textiles of her day continually looked to the past for inspiration. She wanted to design fabrics inspired by the work of modern artists such as Klee and Miro, but make her designs affordable to the young couples setting up home in the 1950s.

"I was very interested in modern painting although I didn’t want to be a painter. I put my inspiration from painting into my textiles, partly, because I suppose I was very practical. I still am. I wanted the work I was doing to be seen by people and be used by people. They had been starved of interesting things for their homes in the war years, either textiles or furniture."

Although they rarely collaborated on the same projects, Lucienne and Robin continually worked together very closely, advising on and criticising each other’s work at all stages of development. "It’s very useful and satisfying to be able to ask somebody about a design in the very early stages, when you wouldn’t show it to anybody. I’ve sat on countless chairs which were pretty unsafe because they were models, and he’s looked at fabrics of mine, and said if he thought they were good or not, or ‘That stinks and don’t go on with it’, that sort of thing. It’s essential to be frank, and immensely useful and valuable."

Since the 1940s Lucienne had designed dress fabrics, and several industrial textiles which were more in keeping with the style of the time, "botanical prints, rather life-like, not what I wanted to do". But her break came in 1951 when Robin needed a modern fabric for one of his rooms in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival of Britain.

Lucienne designed Calyx, but needed an industry client. She approached Tom Worthington, the director of Heal’s. "He said ‘Oh my god, I won’t sell a yard of that’, and he said he would give me half the normal fee, which was 20 guineas - I got ten. But it was such a success, and it won an American Institute of Design Prize in New York, so he gave me the rest of the fee!

"I thought it was good, and so did Robin, but I didn’t think for a moment that it would be so successful, or that it would be printed, because I didn’t think that Tom would like it. Which of course he didn’t - until it started selling!" Suddenly she was producing six designs a year for Heal’s, and she and Robin were celebrities. She went on to design wallpaper, tableware, carpets and more than 80 printed textiles. In the 1960s her designs still led the field, becoming brighter, more abstract and geometrical.

Then, towards the end of the 1970s, she stopped designing for industry. "Partly, I had been doing them for something like 25 years, every year, to deadlines for clients, and I was getting a bit tired of that. But there was this backward look. Everybody was rehashing old designs, either Arts and Crafts or ethnic designs. There was nobody doing what I can say I did, showing the way, doing something new."

At that time, the John Lewis Partnership, for which she and Robin were working as consultants, asked her to decorate some fire shutters for their new Newcastle store. Looking at her fire shutter designs, a friend commented how much they looked like embroidery. At that point, she began to make silk mosaics, encapsulating the bold modern style of her textile prints, always based around the horizontals lines of the original fire shutters. She had her first exhibition in 1979.

As a designer working within industry, she was unprepared for the life of an artist, trawling galleries and asking for shows. "I hated that, having to go cap in hand to museum directors or gallery directors," she says. But the mosaics were a success, and her job soon became easier.

Her successful change of career in her sixties is one of the things she is most proud of. "I am very proud and pleased that I was able to change direction and that the new direction did become successful. It was a big step to take from designs which were comparatively inexpensive, and made in hundreds of yards, to very elitist one-offs. One could have thought, ‘she’s absolutely changed her attitude’, though, in fact, I hadn’t, because I still believed that the other things were right. But I felt I had done that an awfully long time, and why couldn’t I please myself for a bit?"

Today, the 1950s is the latest decade to receive a retro revival. Habitat is reproducing 1950s designs by both Lucienne and Robin. Design commentators say her designs look as fresh and modern as they did when they were first made. But talking to her, there is a slight sense of disappointment that the design revolution she helped to begin never really came to fruition. Fifty years later, many people still prefer "period homes", and some of the most modern designs available are her own.

"Yes, I would really like to see something in a college or in a shop and think ‘that’s really exciting and different’, but it isn’t often that one can say anything like that. One wants someone who can take a lead in a different direction. At the most, well, I can say, ‘that’s nice, but it’s very much like the design I did in the 1960s’."

Lucienne Day: Silk Mosaics and Early Textiles is at Glasgow School of Art, 7 April until 10 May

Robin and Lucienne: Five classics

STORAGE cabinets were among Robin’s first designs for the home, winning him the International Low-Cost Furniture Competition in 1948. His Interplan range, produced in 1954, were plain and stackable, a clean-lined space-saving alternative to the sideboard.

Lucienne’s Calyx fabric design is a 1950s icon, with its abstracted flower designs in the bold colours of the decade: lime-yellow, vermilion, black-on-olive. It was an instant success when it appeared at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and was a must-have in the trendy homes of the period.

Another classic fabric by Lucienne is Spectators, first produced in 1953. This witty design owes something to the influence of Giacometti, one of the artists Lucienne admired. Though it looks simple and fun, it is a testament to her careful composition. She says: "Someone once said to me, ‘Textile design is easy, you just think of a motif and repeat it all over the cloth,’ which isn’t quite what one does."

Robin’s Polypropylene chair, with its bucket seat and tubular steel frame, is nothing short of a classic. First produced in 1963, its stackability made it hugely popular in public buildings, but it was also a must-have in the modern home. Millions have been produced all over the world, and it was reissued by Habitat in 2001 in translucent shades.

Robin designed a range of Woodro and Toro seating in 1991 which has been widely used in the London underground. It comes in two versions, one using hardwood slats to form a bench on a steel frame, and the other with the seats made from perforated steel. The seat has been designed with a subtle curve to make it comfortable, as well as virtually indestructible.