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  • Study for Enid Marx’s London Underground moquette, 1937, pencil and gouache on paper. Photo: © ESTATE OF ENID MARX

Full Marx

A new book and exhibition hopes to introduce the designer Enid Marx to a younger generation

As a designer Enid Marx was an exceptional figure. Although her name is as well known as any designer outside the few whose work turns the big wheels of museum exhibitions and historical surveys, she is still not appreciated at her true value. It seems to me that it’s time to redress the balance.

The conventional narrative that was repeated endlessly in the 1930s was that crafts represented a semi-obsolete way of making that was chiefly fit to survive as a launch platform for industrial design. Marx came to believe this too, and to some extent the direction of her career bore this out. Between 1927 and 1939, she ran her own textile-printing studio, using mostly natural dyes and a wide range of hand-cut blocks. Her designs are one of the highest achievements of British modernism – inventive but disciplined, with a perfect match of medium and image. A whole exhibition could be devoted to them, and most have not been seen in public since they were first made.

Through these years, Marx also produced stage design, pattern papers, book illustrations and covers, but in 1937, with the commission to design seating fabrics for London Underground, she moved into machine production. Her father and brother were both inventors of industrial machinery and, like the campaigners of the Design and Industries Association and the Society of Industrial Artists, she believed that industrialists did not give designers enough respect. Her fears of losing control of her designs seemed justified when the weaving firms for the Tube fabrics would not give her the simple information she asked for, and the first samples had to be rejected. This did not bode well for the revival of British design and industry on which people were pinning so many hopes.

Covers for Some British Moths, King Penguin (right) and A Book of Modern Verse, Chatto & Windus. Photo: © ESTATE OF ENID MARX

Chosen as a Royal Designer for Industry in 1944 on the strength of her pattern designs, Marx then embarked on designing Utility furnishing fabrics. There was more support here, from the chairman of the Utility committee, Gordon Russell, and from Alistair Morton whose firm did most of the weaving. As a designer, she relished the restrictions on colours and yarns, and the opportunity, despite these, to cheer up people’s lives.

After the war, she designed printed textiles for Morton Sundour, with flowers and circus scenes that were a world away from the abstraction and what she called, in her idiomatic spelling, ‘interlectual’ colours of the 1920s’ block prints, showing that she was flexible and could perform well in many roles. She enjoyed unusual tasks, such as suitcase linings for her friend John Waterer, laminates for Harrison & Sons and, a high point of her career, the low-value definitive postage stamps in 1952; but there are many files in her archive recording failures, with uncommitted firms fearful of insufficient sales or unwilling to pay a decent fee.

The News of the Day (left) The Lion and the Unicorn (right), wood engravings for 'Nursery Rhymes'1939. © ESTATE OF ENID MARX

One sad result from this is that Marx is remembered largely as a pre-war figure, when in fact she updated her style rather successfully to take in Op Art and loose graphic textures. Designing for flat surfaces was the connecting thread, and whatever style she used there is always an intuitive balance of movement and structure, with a range of scales in the patterns to entertain the viewer’s eyes.

By the time of her 1979 retrospective at Camden Arts Centre she was being hailed as a pioneer, showing in early displays at the Craft Study Centre in Bath and often featured in the pages of Crafts. Her prophesies of doom about the obtuseness of industry turned out in some ways to be justified, and her own revival coincided with the wider resurgence in crafts. She would have been unwilling to place one above the other and was scornful of the drift of craft towards self-indulgent or impractical fine art, writing: ‘Personally, I have no space for bottles which will not hold water.’

I met ‘Marco’ (as she called herself) in 1987 when I asked to use one of her pattern paper designs. I wrote about her personally and in the context of block printing more generally. As a friendship developed, the usual arrangement was a mid-morning telephone call announcing the agenda of the day – I remember on one occasion: ‘Marco here; I want to shoot the director of the V&A’ – followed by an invitation to tea at the kitchen table in the basement of her house to discuss the matter further.

Twenty years after her death, I hope that through the exhibition I’ve co-curated and the monograph I’ve written a new generation will come to understand her extraordinary talent.

Enid Marx: Print, Pattern and Popular Art is at House of Illustration, King’s Cross, London N1C 4BH until 23 September 

Enid Marx: The Pleasures of Pattern by Alan Powers is published by Lund Humphries, £40 hardback

Enid Marx in c.1946. Photo: © ESTATE OF ENID MARX