Book Review: Enid Marx The Pleasures of Pattern

Enid Marx (20 October 1902 – 18 May 1998) was an English painter and designer who had a long and distinguished career spanning some 70 years. She produced a great variety of work including stamps, seating fabric and posters for London Transport, books and book-jackets, wrapping paper, logos, textiles for the wartime Utility Furniture Panel, packaging labels, rugs and menu cards. She was the first ever female engraver to be awarded the title of Royal Designer for Industry and an important advocate and campaigner for better design education.

Enid Marx

Yet despite this stellar career, Marx has been overshadowed by her contemporaries Bawden and Ravilious. It is only this year, nearly a century after Marx began her design career, that she is being given her due recognition with an exhibition at the House of Illustration and the publication of a companion book, Enid Marx The Pleasures of Pattern - the first-ever full-length monograph of her work.

The book, which has been drawn from the Enid Marx archive, is authored by Alan Powers and published by Lund Humphries. Thoroughly illustrated with over 150 high-quality reproductions (many previously unpublished), the book is a lively account of Marx's life and career. These illustrations are structured into six chapters exploring the designer's early years, her block-printed textiles, her design for industry, her paper and print designs and a chapter exploring her passion for English folk art. 

As you might imagine, the book is a feast of patterns and includes reproductions of drawings, paintings, hand-blocked fabrics, linocuts and book illustrations. These include her book covers for the publishers including Chatto & Windus and Faber and Faber; her illustrations for her own books, including Bulgy the Barrage Balloon; her patterns for laminates; her design for postage stamps and her celebrated upholstery designs for the London Passenger Transport Board.

 

Throughout the text, Powers vividly brings out Marx's spirited nature, and we are left in no doubt as to her perfectionism, resilience and determination not to be thwarted.

When at the RCA, Marx, known to her friends as Marco. was refused entry to the printing school but was smuggled in after-hours by Ravilious. This after-hours tuition paid dividends as while she was at the RCA, Marx was commissioned to make book cover prints for Curwen Press using woodblock engravings.

After leaving the RCA, Marx did a year's work experience at the craft studio, Barron and Larcher. There, her employers prevented her from writing down any dye recipes in case she became a competitor. Marx simply memorized them and rushed off at the end of the day to write them down. 

In 1933, Marx was commissioned to produce upholstery designs for the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933. The brief was challenging as the upholstery pattern had to be robust enough to camouflage dirt, had to work in artificial and natural light and not be too overwhelming for passengers’ eyes. Marx managed to navigate this tight brief only to struggle in the manufacturing stage of the project. Prior to Marx's appointment, seating fabric for trains and buses had been ordered directly from mills and designed in-house. It took Enid some five goes to get a fabric sample from the mills that was a faithful reproduction of her designs. As she explains: 'I fear my insistence on preserving the character of my design may appear unduly meticulous. But I feel very strongly that, if the works draughtsmen are to make free translations of the designs, the full possibilities of the material will never be developed.' (p65).

From her time at the London Passenger Transport Board, Marx nursed a lifelong frustration about manufacturers' unwillingness to take designers seriously within the technical process. Later in life, she became a great champion for design education, advocating that technique should be a central part of any design curriculum arguing that this was important to ensure that designers could not 'be bullied by the machine' (p149). 

Enid Marx 

By weaving in accounts of Marx's process, Power has created something special. Enid Marx: The Pleasures of Pattern is both a love letter to the joy of pattern and a book that underlines the importance of persistence in delivering great design and that makes it a great addition to any design library.

 Get a copy.


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