I asked Althea if she had met racism in her career and she said that her father told her not to dwell on it, and instead focus on being herself. She said to me: ‘All I wanted to do was open doors for others.’ After her death, a few years after John’s, I was looking through their archives and I discovered that they had wanted to mount a retrospective of her work in 1988. They even wrote an exhibition plan. I have drawn from this for the William Morris Gallery exhibition as a way to bring her voice into the show. One of the highlights will be a modern recreation of the ‘Bachelor Girl’s Room’ she designed for the 1966 Ideal Home Show in London, conceived as space for the modern girl about town. Incorporating her botanical Lumiere design for Cavendish Textiles (then part of department store John Lewis), the room was beamed in colour by BBC Two onto TV sets in homes across the nation. It exemplifies her influence on the design aesthetics of the time, yet her work has been completely left out of the design history canon.
To help the exhibition (co-curated by the William Morris Gallery’s principal curator Rowan Bain) come to fruition, I applied for a research grant from the Antiquaries Society. Part of my mission is to correct the inaccuracies that abound about her life, using a range of archival material. The research project will continue into 2024, her centenary year, when I hope to have more outcomes from the work. The exhibition at William Morris Gallery is sponsored by Liberty Fabrics, which is reissuing a capsule collection of her designs this spring.
Althea once said: ‘I wanted to change all those little dots that women were walking around with on their skirts. I wanted to create something for women that was more in sympathy with their bodies [...] I think that's what took me into textiles.’ Soon a new generation will be able to wear Althea McNish’s work – and will understand how the designer changed the world with her colourful visions.
‘Althea McNish: Colour is Mine’ runs from 2 April 2022 to 11 September 2022 at London’s William Morris Gallery