By Dr. Sarah Mills
Anni Albers’s drapery material for the Rockefeller Guest House is cleverly woven to enhance the luxuriousness of its interior setting without drawing attention from passersby. To pedestrians below the second story curtain wall, the fabric would appear a single shade of beige. To dwellers inside, the material would contain a soft luminescent glow produced by flickers of light on copper metallic fibers altering between cream-colored stripes of varying width, visible at close range. Hold the fabric close to your face, however, and you will clearly see that these “stripes” consist of fibers crossing at right angles or woven: Albers's drapery material is an important example of modern weaving, a style prevalent in the United States and Europe between the 1930s and 1950s, which showcased weavers’ visual and tactile expressiveness while heeding the new demands of the textile industry.
Like Abstract Expressionist art and International Style architecture, which highlighted formal elements and construction, modern weaving emphasized color, texture, and structure, often at the expense of pictorial forms or imagery. While some weavers, such as Anni Albers, were cognizant of trends in modern art that aimed toward abstraction, most textile designers who shifted aesthetic directions were responding to modern crafting problems in the textile industry caused by the invention of synthetic or plastic fibers and the widespread use of fully automated in the 1930s and 40s.
Anni Albers was one of the leading teachers of modern weaving. She was educated at the Bauhaus in Germany and later taught design theory in its weaving workshop. In 1933, along with her husband Josef Albers, she fled the Nazi uprising in her homeland and relocated to Black Mountain College, an experimental art school in western North Carolina. There, as head of the weaving department, Albers introduced students to weaving techniques from different parts of the world, but she taught a specific practice that focused on the weaver’s role as a sculptor or architect, someone who builds a fabric three-dimensionally using different fibers and .
Before the 1930s, it was common for weavers to work from a cartoon or a copy of a painting or drawing designed by a fine artist instead of the weaver. Rather than reproduce a graphic design, Albers encouraged weavers to find expression through the tactile and structural possibilities of weaving. By weaving with differently textured fibers or crossing warp and weft fibers at specific intervals, a weaver could create a unique formal and material expression in the design of cloth. In the detail of the Rockefeller drapery, the hard-edge and mirror-like surface of the copper lurex fiber contrasts with the fuzzy cream-colored . The white cellophane fiber has a slightly smoother texture than the chenille but is not as slick as the lurex, allowing Albers to create a more even textural blend. By concentrating on texture, structure and color instead of the design of pictorial imagery, she weaves a new overall material surface look and feel.
Synthetics and mass production
As mentioned earlier, modern weaving developed from a new approach to textile design, which was motivated by weavers’ interest in working with the textile industry to use synthetic materials and machine looms. Fully synthetic or man-made plastic fibers, such as nylon and lurex, were developed in the United States and Germany in the mid-1930s. Albers, like other designers, began to experiment with these fibers in part because the textile industry saw their potential to replace natural fibers, such as wool, cotton, flax (linen), and silk, which were in short supply during World War II. When invented, many synthetic fibers were also made stronger than natural fibers and were mildew proof, fire retardant, and more durable. Manufacturers, especially those making furnishing fabrics, were eager to apply synthetic fibers in textile design. Weavers were frequently commissioned to prototype designs with synthetic yarns that could—if approved—be mass produced on machine looms. Albers hand wove the Rockefeller drapery, which likely served as a prototype for potential mass production in other projects.
Drapes for the Rockefeller Guest House
The importance of weaving to 20th-century architects cannot be overstated and is a point that is often overlooked due to the same gender bias that guided women into practicing weaving instead of architecture. Architects, such as Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, and Frank Lloyd Wright, frequently worked with individual female weavers, such as Dorothy Liebes, Marianne Strengell and Anni Albers, to coordinate furnishing fabrics to match the design of their buildings. Although these architects were associated with different styles, they all adopted characteristics of modern architecture: large windowpanes of clear glass, exposure of and styling with structural elements, and a preference for showcasing materiality (the natural properties of materials). Each of these elements can be found in Philip Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House (1950), which Anni Albers’s window drapes stylistically and structurally echo.
At mid-century, Johnson was a well-established architect, known for helping consolidate and expand the International Style in the United States both as a director of the architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and as an architect himself. Indeed, seven blocks from the Museum on East 52nd Street in an area of New York City known as Turtle Bay, Johnson built a modern-styled guest house for Blanchette Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller III, a wealthy New York philanthropist. For the Guest House, Johnson created an unadorned red brick foundation and a second floor with a front façade made entirely of glass and framed by a steel skeleton. While the floor-to-ceiling glazing provided a sense of openness, it also created problems of privacy and brightness, which Johnson would rely on Albers to solve. Indeed, Albers’s massive drapes gave the dweller control over the quantity of light pouring in from the “curtain wall" and the ability to shut off the interior from its urban surroundings. While a curtain wall simply describes a glass façade or a wall that is non-load bearing, it also curiously suggests the use of curtains along glass facades to maintain privacy and heat control.
In terms of form and structure, Albers weaves her drapery similarly to how Johnson builds with glass, brick, and steel. Each designer works with the material in a manner that seeks to express its inherent textural and (non-)structural qualities. Johnson, for instance, uses brick and steel as both the load-bearing components of the Guest House and as prominent visual elements of his design. The giant glass panes between the steel lack color, patterns, and ornamental frames and give the dweller an uninterrupted view to the outside while still serving as a protective barrier between inside and outside. Likewise, Albers uses to emphasize the soft tactility of the chenille fibers and the shiny glow of the metallic (plastic-coated metal) fibers, instead of employing tapestry weaving techniques to represent an image or create an intricate geometric pattern. As such, Albers and Johnson allow the color and texture of their materials and their structural relationships to become the primary expressive features of their designs.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, modern weaving, which had mostly served the textile industry, began to appeal to weavers trained in the fine arts. With knowledge of visual principles and skills adopted from modern weaving practices, such as those taught by Albers, artists began to specialize in fiber design, giving rise to the fiber art movement, which is still prevalent today.
Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Muller-Schareck, Anni Albers (London: Tate Modern, 2018).
Tai Smith, Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
Essay by Dr. Sarah Mills