1942 On Jewelry
1958 Designing as Visual Organization
1963 On Weaving
Date Unknown Some Considerations of Designing
1982 Material as Metaphor
When I was asked to speak here about some work I had been doing, together with Alex Reed, student and later teacher at Black Mountain College, a work started quite a while before this war,—I was asked too, if I could refer in some way to defense work, in the mind of so many of us the most urgent work of the moment. Though our work has nothing to do with defense work, there was something right in asking to connect it with it. For it is obvious that the urge we feel for doing our part in a catastrophe of such huge proportions as this war, stands in the foreground of all of our thoughts. But I think we have found that for many of us our part can not be that of going into a munition factory or that of helping those who suffer in this war in a direct way. Many of us are tied to our homes, to our normal circle of action to our work continuing as usual. But in all of us, I believe, the need to take some part is accelerating. The work we are doing may have no immediate effect on the outcome of war, as also the work I am going to speak about here, will have no influence on it now. But as every action transmits its sense or nonsense beyond its actual radius, whatever we do has its effect. To give our actions the meaning we want them to have implies questioning them anew and becoming conscious of their implications.
The work I am going to speak about here is the work I have been doing together with Alex Reed, student and later teacher, at Black Mountain College. It was not started with any clear knowledge of its possible inferences. Like any other work that has not been tried before, it took on form only by being tried. We knew the direction in which we wanted to go but not where we would end.
You will be astonished, I think, to hear, that the first stimulus to make jewelry from hardware came to us from the treasure of Monte Albán, the most precious jewels from ancient Mexico, found only a few years ago in a tomb near Oaxaca. These objects of gold and pearls, of jade, rock-crystal, and shells, made about 1000 years ago, are of such surprising beauty in unusual combinations of materials that we became aware of the strange limitations in materials commonly used for jewels today. Gold and silver, pearls or diamonds or their substitutes comprise just about the total scale. Rock-crystal with gold, pearls with simple seashells are beautiful together, we found. We began to look around us and, still in Mexico, we found beads made of onyx, which nobody ever seemed to buy. We saw silver beads and remembering the Monte Albán combination of rock-crystal and gold, we combined onyx with silver. We made variations of this first combination and later, back in the States, we looked for new materials to use. In the 5 & 10 cents stores we discovered the beauty of washers and bobbypins: Enchanted we stood before kitchen-sink stoppers and glass insulators, picture hooks and erasers. The art of Monte Albán had given us the freedom to see things detached from their use, as pure materials, worth being turned into precious objects.
After indulging for a while in new material combinations of our necklaces we soon found the need for good constructions in addition to our strange conjunctions of materials. As we were neither goldsmiths nor knew even the simplest metal work or stonepolishing, we were forced to use materials as we found them as elements for our work. Strangely, we found that having to work with given elements or units, brought about new ways of construction, new ways of linking parts together, new catches, new ways of suspending parts. The professional jeweler has means of forming all parts forming a piece of work. His inventiveness in regard to construction depends on reshaping in already given ways, while our amateurish manner of using existing units made new constructions necessary. They were rather forced upon us by the material than being sought by us. We felt more acted upon than acting. I believe a goldsmith would come to many new and surprising results if he reversed at times his usual procedure and would, instead of making all parts to fit a given whole, form independent parts which would challenge his inventiveness and constructive ingenuity in combining.
To our surprise we found that though we used such common materials as bobbypins or washers or stopper chains for our necklaces they sometimes looked quite beautiful and even precious. To our greater surprise still, we found that other people liked them too. But our greatest surprise was, that others, like ourselves, did not care about the value or lack or value of our materials used, but enjoyed instead of material value that of surprise and inventiveness, —a spiritual value.
From the beginning we were quite conscious of our attempt not to discriminate between materials, not to attach to them the conventional values of preciousness or commonness. In breaking through the traditional valuation we felt this to be an attempt to rehabilitate materials. We felt that our experiments perhaps could help to point out the merely transient value we attach to things, though we believe them to be permanent. We tried to show that spiritual values are truly dominant. We thought that our work suggested that jewels no longer were the reserved privilege of the few, but property of everyone who cared to look about and was open to the beauty of the simple things around us. Though the so-called costume jewelry has gone in this direction, it is hard in them to trace back the simple elements that constitute them. We tried to emphasize just this side in our work. We wanted to lead the person looking at our jewels back through the process that brought it about. All things are at their beginning formed in this way of unprejudiced choosing. From time to time, it becomes necessary again to go back to it to clear the way for new seeing.
If we can more and more free ourselves from values other than spiritual, I believe we are going in a right direction. Every general movement is carried by small parts, by single people forming their way of believing and subordinating everything to this belief. We have to work from where we are. But just as you can go everywhere from any given point, so too the idea of any work, however small, can flow into an idea of true momentum.
Talk at Black Mountain College, March 25, 1942
I have written down my words to make sure that I approach at least what I want to say.
I am a weaver, that is, a craftsman, and therefore I stand for a number of unpopular notions. For instance, I believe that it is right to lose yourself in your work, to lose your self-awareness and thereby the self-insistence that we know so well in the subjectiveness of the much discussed, and/or verbalized, art scene of the last years. And strangely, what I am saying here may not be as outdated as it may have seemed some months ago, but possibly may even be a glimpse of the future. For it looks as though the depth of decomposed self-presentation has been exhausted, and composed craftsmanship may, perhaps once more be considered a prerequisite for authenticity.
I realize that craftsmanship does not sound seductive. Maybe a new term could be coined, such as “work with non-aleatory elements”, with “controlled chance”, etc. We may have to get busy on that.
Craftsmanship extends, of course, from useful to useless things and at its best to art, though art has not necessarily to be useless, as architecture sometimes proves.
By useful and useless, I mean purposely useful and purposely useless in a practical sense. But, alas, since the crafts of today are outside the general course of production, their products are often found to be senselessly useless. There are those teapots that drip, those plates too poorly glazed to get clean in a dishwasher, those draperies that hold together only long enough to put in an appearance before a jury. The purposely useless I call art, which I see as the final aim of all crafts. For, if good enough, a work in any material in no matter what way can be art. If a work is clearly headed toward the useful, on the other hand, it can be a model, a direction-setter, for industrial production, that is, today’s production.
The danger to the crafts is not, to [my] mind, their being out-of-date with respect to modern technology, but an over-experimentation in which anything is not only tried—that would be healthy and is necessary for new articulation—but is considered an end in itself and acknowledged as avant-garde by the trend-detectors of the art—as well as craft—scene. Interpretation is made, of course, in words, often by those who mainly think, and think they see rather than see.
For countless centuries a craftsman was one who gave form to material—his ally sometimes, sometimes his opponent—with respect and care. Untouched by trends and countertrends, such respect and care are still good things.
Feb. 12, 1964
Talk to the Colloquium of Associated Artists of Pittsburgh
February 12, 1964
Edison, the great inventor, was asked to what, specifically, he attributed his great creativity. His answer was: "I think in pictures."
That is—not in words.
Those of us who read art magazines, art catalogues, art revues, know the inclination toward wordiness today and the confused state of mine they, by the abstraction of words, can bring about, —in me at least—or—that perhaps brought them about. Not in all, though, for I am going to quote from one. But as a result of what I learned then, I will be careful and limit my talking and concentrate mainly on comments to the slides, that is, on the visual.
But a few things I do want to say before that, out of an old habit—and that is that things are changing so extraordinarily fast today that, except for a few unchanging things, what is true today no longer is true tomorrow. Therefore there remain two things to talk about: change and the timeless, and it is both that we have to be concerned with in our work.
If we think of change we are thinking in the direction of technology, of ways of doing things. And if we think of the unchanging things, the timeless ones in contrast to the variables, we have in mind immaterial things, for instance, a belief in a cosmological order, in a forward development, in the good, the beautiful, things that have to do with art, as I see it. (Though we are sometimes, even often, made to believe that this old stuff.)
Weaving is my concern and looking at it from these two angles, that is, in a specific, circumscribed, way, and also inclusively and comprehensively, it brings me to a number of realizations which, of course, also have to do with living in general.
Now, if we look at weaving, or more precisely at making cloth from the technological standpoint, it takes us back about 8000 years, and, more clearly recognizable, 4500 years. Our vista into the past widens with new excavations of fabrics and new methods of dating. The oldest fabrics thus far known to us were found not very long ago, in 1961. They were excavated by a Danish archaeologist in Ancient Anatolia (Asia Minor) in Catal Huyuk, and carbon dates for them are 6500 B.C.
They are said to be twined, a method of thread interlacing preceding weaving, though the photo reproductions do not show this clearly. Some seemed constructed by knotting.
In this hemisphere Junius Bird of the Museum of Natural History, New York, excavated in 1946 at the Huaca Prieta at the North Coast of Peru several thousand cotton fragments, dating back to 2500 B.C. The earliest ones are also twined. And on the South Coast of Peru Frederic Engel excavated more recently, in 1959 or 1960, I believe, at Cabezas Largas, material consisting mainly of rushes but held together in the same twined construction. Dates given: ca. 3000 B.C. (published in a French archaeological magazine).
You will have noticed that I mentioned here three times "twining" as construction of these earliest fabrics. And perhaps I should define "fabrics" here as a fabricated pliable plane. I will now show you a slide form the Huaca Prieta digging, and a diagram of twining. So here we are right in the midst of technology, for twining, as mentioned above, seems to belong to one of the earliest techniques, following perhaps knotting and looping. These fabrics belong to a pre-ceramic age.
No equipment is necessary to produce these except perhaps a gauge for measured looping and later for netting. The twining of rushes, which are stiff and act similarly to warps, can also be achieved without tools, while twining, using pliable warps that are verticals, held together by a crossing of another pliable element, the weft, needs a first piece of machinery, which in later centuries is to become the loom. This is a bar to hold vertical, suspended, threads, that is warp threads, that have to be given tension. In fact this is the principle reason for any loom. (I will show you slides of this.)
The first invention in regard to giving tension to the warp was, sensibly, to attach weights to it. This is the warp-weight loom, the Greek loom. It is also the loom of the North Pacific Coast on which still fairly recently the Chilkat ceremonial blankets were woven.
To save time is one of the most intelligent human drives and I believe it is responsible for the development of the loom. I have been told however by an archaeologist that earlier centuries had all the time in the world. What an absurd notion! Just think of the time we save by having an icebox and that we do not have to hunt—in the literal sense—for days, to find food. I will show you in quick succession some slides of looms, each one representing a step forward in regard to speed of production as also in regard to precision, though this seems only secondary, considering the amazing feats of accuracy achieved with little or no implements. Faster and faster we go, increasing the output, limiting, however, with mechanization the range of possible results. With our fingers we can make infinite variables, with machinery only limited variance. In textiles this means that a handweaver can weave far more different things than a mill, equipped for a defined range of end results. Despite all of the advances in regard to speed and the changes the loom has undergone the underlying principle has not changed in thousands of years.
We should look now, I think, at the effect on thread construction brought about through the advancing technology. Twining was the earliest technique demanding as equipment more than our fingers. It is, as you have seen, a doubled thread traveling horizontally to lock between its crossed ends the vertically suspended warps. It allows for wide spacing of these horizontal wefts while holding them securely.
Now, if I am right in my speculations seeing the desire for ever greater speed as a dominant driving force in regard to technical progress, we can discover, that a method holding these warps in place, using a single weft and crossing it rectangularly over and under alternate taut warps, produces a fabric—a pliable plane—quicker, and, as a by-product, with half the weft needed for each crossing—though more crossings are needed for a firm material. The result is a fabric lighter in weight, faster in production. So here already, 2500 B.C. a concern becomes evident that must have been in its reasoning very much like 1965 A.D. For we, too, want things lighter in weight as also quicker in production. Our air travel demands lightness and lack of bulk. Textiles more than other materials can supply this. You can reduce a textile to a minimum of its size by folding it.
Then already, 2500 B.C. the intersecting at right angles with single wefts was gradually introduced; gradually, for the excavated fragments for the Huaca Prieta in Northern Peru show how twining was more and more replaced by this, then new, method, we call weaving. Twining was retained for centuries in its capacity not only to interlock the warp so securely but also for its capacity of spacing them evenly. In ancient Peruvian fabrics the beginning and the end of a woven piece are often found to be twined.
It is interesting to follow this function of twining until it is dismissed with the invention of the reed in the emerging loom, which has as one of its functions the even spacing of the warps.
These examples show you, I believe, the interaction of technique, the process, and technology.
It should be mentioned here that twining, this efficient early method of thread interlacing was also used in its capacity of being useful for intricate designs. The Chilkat ceremonial blankets, mentioned earlier, were worked by this method.
That weaving took over completely and made twining an obsolete technique—except for some specific purposes involving rigid materials (fences, window shades, etc.) lies also in the fact that the process of weaving was open to mechanization through the ingenious invention of the heddle. This is the device that lifts mechanically selected warp threads, in order to allow the weft to enter faster. Except for further, less fundamental, devices to further increase speed, nothing has changed the basic conception of this machinery for weaving for uncounted centuries. Our hand-loom is the loom developed to this point.
Our hand-loom belongs to the craft stage. Buckminster Fuller, in one of his more recent books, "Ideas and Integrities" has an analysis in it of the crafts versus industry. In his eyes, he rightly, I think, points out that the crafts are involved with the local scene, industry with the global one. Tools, working materials, purpose, all involve in the crafts the limited surroundings, while industry and industrial equipment make use of inventions from everywhere, use materials from all over and are aimed at international consumers. The speed of production and its distribution are keyed to a world public and our world today is, of course, the whole world.
Here, then, we see change taking place increasingly. Textiles are no longer local products but are geared to worldwide consumption. It is true, of course, that also in earlier centuries precious fabrics travelled far, but they had less utilitarian functions than our fabrics today, rather they were sought for the high quality of their raw material, their skill of execution, the beauty of color and formal treatment and, with these, their preciousness that made them also class and status symbols. All these reasons, except for the last, make us admire fabrics still today, for here are the intangible qualities to be found, lying in the direction of art.
When I had arrived at this point of writing this talk I happened to find in an issue of Vogue Magazine the following in an article by William C. Seitz of the Museum of Modern Art, New York: "The content of the arts, like that of human experience is timeless—Art is still a means of examining a leaf, smelling the air, and renewing one’s contact with the infinite." You see, I am not alone in my thoughts on the timelessness of art though it is surprising today to discover this. Today, that is, when we find a statement by Marcel Duchamp, that a work of art lives no longer than 30 years! Or when you find statements that change itself is sufficient justification in a work to be recognized as art.
Though we have gained through concentration on speed and with it quantity of production we also have lost something which we have slowly to re-conquer. We had lost for a time our concern for that surface quality that is typically textile, at its best, the result of thread construction. I will show you here some exercises I developed with this in mind. Now, this has only to do with one quality, the surface character. There are those of proportion, for instance, and I am speaking here only of the visible characteristics of fabrics and not of warmth, for instance or pliability, water-repellence fluorescence, sound-absorption, spot-resistance, being moth-proof, shrinkage controlled, crease-resistant, flame-retarding, drip-drying and so on, the ever-increasing list of qualities with which we endow our fabrics today, which make our life easier and even longer. I will show you examples of simple stripes that are carefully considered and therefore of lasting quality ad with it a step nearer to art. Here we are dealing with proportions. I remember Mies van der Rohe saying: "after all, proportions don’t cost anything". Embedded in the process of weaving is, of course, the concern with stripes, horizontal, vertical, warp and weft stripes, and their crossing, going back to the time when the loom evolved which fixed the verticals through tension, and weaving was established as a crossing at right angles. These are the basic elements of textile structure and with it textile form. This relatedness is a relatedness of structure to form, belonging to all art, to architecture, sculpture, painting, music, etc. It is timeless resultant quality.
There is an area where there is an overlapping of utilitarian and art qualities, of course, in textiles as much as in architecture, for instance. We use a house as much as we use a fabric. Usefulness does not prevent a thing, anything, from being art. It is the thoughtfulness, care, and sensitivity in regard to form that makes a house or a fabric turn into art and it is this degree of thoughtfulness, care, and sensitivity that we should try to achieve. Neither the use for which an object is intended nor the material it is made of keeps an object from being art, for there are no exclusive materials reserved for art though we are often told otherwise. Neither preciousness nor durability of material are prerequisites. A work of art, we know, can be made of sand or sound, of feathers or flowers, as much as of marble or gold. Any material, any working procedure and any method of production, manual or industrial, can serve an end that may be art.
turn once more to technical, fast moving progress: strangely, it lies today mainly in invisible qualities brought about largely through chemical inventions, not by inventions of textiles technology. Our newly invented fibers and finishes come and go so fast that you can hardly learn their names before they are outdated already and replaced by others.
Since these qualities are invisible we need labels to identify our fabrics and their new characteristics and even experts can hardly do without them. For the results look much alike and become even more and more alike: linen can look today like silk or silk like linen or jute; cotton like wood, to speak only of the older more familiar fibers, treated by new methods. Glass can look like silk or wool and the new synthetic fibers can look practically like any other one. We can only be grateful for this fantastic wealth of new properties given to the textile world.
Those of us who are visually concerned can make with their help materials sensibly suited to their purpose in addition to the visual qualities we may want to give them. And just as we do not buy a car primarily because it is red, so too, we should go about the choice of fabrics. Often the first consideration when it comes to textiles for interiors, is their decorative quality, wrongly so, I believe.
You can not show visibly what makes sense in a fabric, you need words, that is labels, for that. You can show however, what makes it beautiful, even in a slide, though fabrics are largely unphotogenic.
And since I want to show you things and not only talk about them, I will show you what I think is art in textiles, timeless art. Not useful in many cases, but endowed with that quality that lifts our spirit, the quality of art.
I am greatly prejudiced in that direction and I will be showing you no balanced selection of the art of textiles. I will try to show you, however, pieces that are thought out in relationship to their working material and work process and that did not trespass into fields outside their own realm, such as painting, as some of the renaissance tapestries do, for instance, as also some of the tapestries of today, woven from painter's cartoons. Those, however, that are based on designs with largely flat areas are of high quality. We must realize, though, that a woven face obeys other formal laws than a painted face. Here are some woven faces.
In contrast, I will show you a painted Peruvian piece. It has a different concept of form than a woven piece.
And here again, a tapestry, conceived completely in the woven idiom.
I will now show you slides from pre-conquest Peru, textiles that have been preserved through many centuries, for they were found in the burials along the desert coast. This dry climate has preserved them just as fabrics have been preserved in Egypt, for instance.
In Peru we have the longest record of textile development. I have shown you already twined constructions dating back to 2500 B.C. That makes them about 4500 years old. The textiles of ancient Peru are to my mind the most imaginative textile inventions in existence. They form, I believe, the greatest textile culture we know. They had all the techniques known to us today and some that are uniquely their own. They had more tapestry techniques than Europe, centuries later. They had double weaves, triple weaves, a quadruple weave, even, not existent elsewhere. They had gauzes and laces, braids and embroideries. Their language was textile and it was a most articulate language, as you will see. It lasted until the conquest in the 16th century. Until that time they had no written language, at least not in the sense we think of as a form of writing.
I promised not to talk too much so here are the slides.
And now I feel obliged to show you some of my own work to balance all that talking I have done here. Please close in your mind completely that chapter of beautiful and imaginative things I showed you just now and get ready for that dabbling that is my own. Sorry it is no better.
First a few works again: I am working mainly in two areas: useful fabrics for interiors and attempts in the direction of art, pictorial in character, tapestries, that is, though they are not tapestries in the technical sense.
The useful things: I try to make them as anonymous as possible, concentrating on their serving quality. No personal handwriting. They are machine produced, for mass consumption, or for special architectural commissions, though first developed on the hand-loom.
The tapestries are woven by me, are one of a kind, completely useless in any practical sense. If they make sense at all, it lies in the direction of those unchanging things that are our concern when we are alone.
I want to end with a quotation by Odilon Redon which I found recently. It may sound just sentimental to you, for we just don’t say things like that anymore. But I feel it to be important to read to you what he said, today, when much of art is losing its stature and so much bluff and nonsense is connected with so-called art.
Odilon Redon says: "Art is the supreme goal: noble, sacred and good; it resurrects."
Untitled lectures with slide illustrations given in New Haven, October 1963
My subject is considerations of designing in general and of textile designing in particular. I will deal mainly with the formative aspect of design and less of the practical. There are any number of aspects of designing that I am leaving out of that I barely touch, but I thought an attempt at simplification of the problem, even a drastic over-simplification might at least not complicate a complicated matter any further.
I will first try to outline my ideas and then show some photographs and a few actual materials in the opaque projector to illustrate what I mean.
I should like to start by saying: we all are designers, you and I, though perhaps many of you have not thought of yourselves as designers. Everyone of us is a designer in that sense that we give order to things.
When you and I set the table, for instance, and place knife and fork to the right and left of the plate, two verticals at opposite sides of a circle, we are establishing an order. This urge to be orderly, to take things away from confusion and incorporate them into a system of thought is the first move in designing.
Designing in that sense is our signature as human beings. We leave it wherever we are found. In contrast, the designing of nature is overwhelmingly complex and mysterious to us where we are nto able to discern a pattern of forms, a rhythm of growth, a cycle of movement, that is – a formal concept that we can grasp. Our signature in essence is a geometric form, a square, triangle, circle, a straight line, or an elaboration of these underlying forms.
It is an amazing experience to discover this signature of ours. Discovery happens through separateness: that what is different we can see. In the midst of New York we can hardly recognize how typically "human" the streets are, these straight channels through vertical cliffs of cement. But when we fly across country and see below amidst the meandering lines of rivers of the free forms of the coastline and the mountains the sharp cut of the highway, the squared off meadows and clusters of rectangles that are roofs, we know this is the scribble of mankind. Or, in the desert of the southwest we find a bit of clay of even thickness and even curvature, an even, smooth surface, perhaps covered with lines in regular intervals, we realize with amazement that this can only have come about through the doings of our own species. 1000 years ago or today the handwriting is essentially the same.
Through thousands of years as through our own time runs this effort to make the straight line more perfectly straight, the circle more perfectly round where we apply it in material. Mankind is entranced by these kinds of forms.
Circles, squares, triangles, cubes, spheres, are the forms we try to approach in that forming that belongs to our daily living, to the clear, conscious part of our existence. For that other part that takes place in the atmosphere of the incomprehensible, forms stand for the eternal forces or rather become synonyms with them.
This then is art. We leave the safe ground of the evident and are in the presence of some unknown. Form here can be of any sort, definite or amorphous, simple or complex, resembling forms of nature or not…but always there is an inner logic that organizes them into an orderly whole.
What I am trying to say is, that all forming is orderliness in some manner and that all forms take place within a framework—self-imposed and/or imposed by the working material and the work process. We always build a structure within which to function. Think of music, think of poetry, think of social structures, think of grammar . . . and think of our squares and circles.
Now, that forming which we call "designing" has taken on the meaning of giving form to a useful thing. This useful thing may become art (see architecture which always serves a practical purpose) or this designed useful thing may remain just what it is, something useful. We do not "design" a picture or a sculpture, but a poster or a bridge or a weaving. We also understand by "design" an aesthetic concern with form. And here it gets problematic for a primary aesthetic consideration of the form of an object would be added embellishment and would not be an organic part of a structural unit. Good design, it seems to me, is that form that has come about within its proper framework. To recognize or to invent such framework is the taste of the designer or the artist.
For weaving this framework has existed for about 3000 years, practically unchanged. For though a modern mill looks very different from early, primitive looms, the principles of textile construction have remained unchanged. Throughout the centuries inventions here were always concerned with greater speed of production and greater quantity of production, but not with changes within weaving itself. This framework of weaving is the rectangular intersecting of vertical and horizontal units, linear in character, of soft fibres, in order to produce a pliable plane—a plane that is limited in width but practically unlimited in length. This structural framework is also the formative framework: woven forms of whatever sort retains always this horizontal-vertical character that goes back to their origin. A diagonal has to be built of steps (horizontal-vertical construction) a figure, a circle—they cannot but show this structure that built them.
The intersecting of the linear elements, the threads, forms also the surface of the plane that it produces and gives it a quality uniquely its own, so much so, that we speak of this newly formed object as "material". This textile surface quality, the texture, results besides in this interlacing also from the fibres used and the twist that is given these fibers in making them into threads. We can shift these surface effects from being mainly structural to being mainly the results of fibers or mainly the result of twist or spinning, or invent combinations of them. Today's inclination is toward yarn effects rather than structural effects, perhaps because they are easier to produce, both by hand and by machine, and take less though and knowledge, and, in industry, simpler equipment.
One more element belongs to the weaving framework: color, third on my list though of enormous psychological weight. Third, because it is not intrinsically a textile element as the former, structure and texture. A fabric, or "material" can be blue or red or green without changing its basic character. Or it can be striped in different colors or checked or have pattern of any sort in color added to it and it may still function in the same way, shut out light or cover a bed or a chair. But color, of course, adds greatly to the strictly textile palette of rough and smooth qualities, or shiny and dull ones or their combinations. Color is in useful textiles almost entirely an aesthetic factor, one that belongs to the category "embellishment" we spoke of before. But so powerful is color that we may choose a red material even if as material it may only barely fit out needs. However convincing a material may be in itself in regard to usefulness, we may choose it or reject is because of its color. The charm of a surface quality, the play of smoothness and roughness and shininess and dullness seems to affect us with less violence.
Color, too, has been the great temptation here to leave the given framework and trespass into the domain of the painter: see the renaissance tapestries which try to be pictures, pictures with frames, even.
The great masterworks of weaving, however, have come about within the textile framework: early Peruvian weavings, the Coptic weavings, tapestries of the middle ages, they are clearly built within the structural scheme, in a formative sense, of horizontal-vertical interlocking; the play with clearly textile surface qualities with amazing inventiveness and color never becomes autonomic.
We now have established to some degree the orderliness that is "textile", thus, the textile form. I would like to show you at this point some studies, developed in connection with my classes, which isolate their "textile" qualities as a training in textile thinking. These exercises try to give the illusion of weaving without being woven, by employing the form-characteristics of weavings.
1. Done on the type-writer. Illusion of the horizontal-vertical interlacing of the line as elements—threads.
2. Same as before and a texture effect. Below diagonal effect like a woven twill. Built up in horizontal rows.
3. Illusion of a combination of a twill weave and one with a clearly horizontal-vertical structure, a plain weave as a basket weave, perhaps.
4. Exercise in textile effects; again within the textile kind of order: perforated paper.
6. Same. With twill construction.
7. An actually woven piece of wallcovering of plastic yarns, just to show how close the illusionary effect can come to reality. Both, of course, done independently of each other.
8. A study in textile appearance. An imitation in corrugated paper.
9. Also in corrugated paper.
10. A step toward actual weaving: threads and strips of newspaper interlaced.
These textile illusions deals, of course, only with the appearance of textiles and not with their actual and practical characteristics, like being soft or stiff, heavy of light, porous or dense, warming, etc. the long list of qualities we expect of textiles. These qualities are achieved through the choice of the raw material and the construction of the weave and they can support each other or counteract each other. Soft threads can be used to make a stiff material and vice versa. Silk threads are soft in a satin construction and stiff in a plain weave, or taffeta weave.
To choose the suitable fiber and the suitable construction for a given need is a chief task for the designer. This choice is really in the end no choice at all, for an analysis of the specific need will bring a certain fabric to suggest itself and also a definite construction. All that is left to the designer to do is to listen to the ideas that present themselves to him. The more receptive he is, the less subjective, and therefore better the answer to the need will be. A useful fabric really designs itself.
Let's take the fact of making a wall-covering material. It should be dust repellent, I would think, easily attached to the wall, it should not stretch but keep its shape; it should be possible to clean spots with a damp cloth; it should be light, perhaps even light reflecting, for light is one of our great passions today. Also, perhaps, it should not be expensive . . . Certain fibers will present themselves now, certain others will rule themselves out; certain constructions will be suited, others not. In the course of such analysis a certain fiber will appear as most suitable, and a certain construction and here it is, the self-designed material.
Another task of the designer is to recognize new needs, to foresee developments. New uses will be possible in the new architecture. For our pliable plane can be an architectural element of much interest today when we like flexibility in space dividing, for instance. We can foresee the need for the new partition material in a range, perhaps, from opaque to transparent and from stiff to soft. The practical is as suggestive as the imaginative.
Fabrics also can project themselves into existence through a counterpointed use of fibers, for instance, with no practical end in view, though one may appear eventually.
Untitled, undated lecture
A short while ago I had a visit from 10 week old baby who looked at me wide eyed and I thought somewhat puzzled and was struggling as if trying to tell me something and did not know how.
And I thought how often did I feel like that, not knowing how to get out what wanted to be said.
Most of our lives we live closed up in ourselves, with a longing not to be alone, to include others in that life that is invisible and intangible.
To make it visible and tangible, we need light and material, any material. And any material can take on the burden of what had been brewing in our consciousness or sub-consciousness, in our awareness or in our dreams.
Now, material, any material obeys laws of its own, laws recognizably given to it by the reigning forces of nature or imposed by us on those materials that are created by our brain, such as sound, words, colors, illusions of space—laws of old or newly invented. We may follow them or oppose them, but they are guidelines, positive or negative.
The human brain is a computer. Total chaos is not human. In the cosmos we try to unravel the riddle of its order. Television, my great teacher, tells me that astronomers are finding ever more simplifications of order, unifying ever more everything.
How do we choose our specific material, our means of communication? "Accidentally". Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks us to be formed. We are finding our language, and as we go along we learn to obey their rules and their limits. We have to obey, and adjust to those demands. Ideas flow from it to us and though we feel to be the creator we are involved in a dialogue with our medium. The more subtly we are tuned to our medium, the more inventive our actions will become. Not listening to it ends in failure. (Years ago, I once asked John Cage how he had started to find his way. He will not remember it. "By chance" was the answer.) Students worry about choosing their way. I always tell them, "you can go anywhere from anywhere."
In my case it was threads that caught me, really against my will. To work with threads seemed sissy to me. I wanted something to be conquered. But circumstances held me to threads and they won me over. I learned to listen to them and to speak their language. I learned the process of handling them.
And with the listening came gradually a longing for a freedom beyond their range and that led me to another medium, graphics. Threads were no longer as before three dimensional; only their resemblance appeared drawn or printed on paper.
What I had learned in handling threads, I now used in the printing process. Again I was led. My prints are not transfers from paintings to color on paper as is the usual way. I worked with the production process itself, mixing various media, turning the screens . . .
What I am trying to get across is that material is a means of communication.
That listening to it, not dominating it makes us truly active, that is: to be active, be passive.
The finer tuned we are to it, the closer we come to art.
Art is the final aim. In an interview recently Maximilian Schell, the actor, said, "art is for realizing dreams."
Statement on panel "The Art/Craft Connection: Grass Roots or Glass Houses" at the College Art Association's 1982 annual meeting. New York, February 25, 1982. The panel was moderated by Rose Slivka, editor of Craft International and the panelists were Anni Albers, John Cage, Lee Hall, Robert Malloy, Phillip pavia, Jacqueline rice and Peter Voulkos
1942 On Jewelry
1958 Designing as Visual Organization
1963 On Weaving
Date Unknown Some Considerations of Designing
1982 Material as Metaphor