IN 1910, A SHOW opened at London’s Grafton Galleries that shocked the British upper class. In the waning years of uptight Edwardianism, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” introduced works by Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon, all of whom sharpened the gentle haze of Impressionism to a jagged edge with geometric distortion and unnatural palettes. Their paintings heralded continental Modernism and its abstractions — and the English, who were still in thrall to narrative-driven pastoral scenes, detested them.
Such derision, however, only motivated the man who had curated the show and named the movement: Roger Fry, the then 44-year-old critic, painter and polymathic member of the Bloomsbury Group, a set of aristocratic bohemian intellectuals whose name derived from the London neighborhood where they lived. “On or about December of 1910, human character changed,” wrote the novelist Virginia Woolf, another Bloomsbury member, of Fry’s show and its aftershocks. Fry continued to write voluminously about Post-Impressionism and curated a second, equally maligned London show on the subject in 1912, but that was not enough for him; he wanted to live it. So, in 1913, with his fellow Bloomsburians, including the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (Woolf’s sister), he opened the Omega Workshops, a short-lived but influential craft utopia that created furniture, linens, rugs, ceramics, children’s toys and clothing, all meant to render in three dimensions Post-Impressionism’s unfettered emotion and commitment to the mark of the human hand.
Today, several designers and artisans are finding new relevance in Omega’s raw brio, moved by the group’s mix of the cerebral and the instinctual, its fiery colorations and patterns that seem too kinetic to be contained — and, perhaps above all, the template it provided for translating fine art into everyday objects. “Omega was so inspiring because it was really the first time in Britain that there was this collective energy about art informing the domestic space,” says the 35-year-old fashion designer Jonathan Anderson, whose clothing and accessories for the Spanish brand Loewe and his own eponymous London-based line embrace a similar ethos, bridging the divide between sculpture and handicraft with slow-wrought artisanal techniques such as weaving and macramé.
Fry himself was inspired by the British social critics-cum-artists William Morris and John Ruskin, who had, in the late 19th century, become influential figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, encouraging artisans who worked with glass, textiles and hand-blocked wallpaper to confront the dehumanization of the Machine Age by reinventing humble crafts as the focus of bourgeois desire. Omega, too, vowed to dissolve the boundary between painting and decorative objects, remaking the chairs, bowls, rugs and garments that defined daily life. But whereas Arts and Crafts relied upon dense figurative patterns, harmonious colors and a veneration of medieval themes, Omega’s aesthetic was suggestive of Pablo Picasso’s Cubism and Henri Matisse’s Les Fauves — slashy, garish and wild. And while Morris thought the elevation of handicrafts might bring economic justice to workers who had been brutalized by industrialization, Fry’s motivations were purely cultural and aesthetic: He believed that by transforming the passion of Post-Impressionist painting into applied art, so, too, could the late Victorian soul be transformed. If the priggish aesthetic of dark walnut armoires and factory-made porcelain were reimagined, he reasoned the national character might be liberated. “It is time that the spirit of fun was introduced into furniture and fabrics,” he is said to have told a journalist in 1913. “We have suffered too long from the dull and stupidly serious.”
Named for the last letter of the Greek alphabet, the workshops opened in a 6,000-square-foot space in Bloomsbury, at 33 Fitzroy Square, with early funding in part provided by George Bernard Shaw, fresh off his “Pygmalion” success. Three rooms were fully decorated in Omega style, from hand-painted walls with squiggly borders, to vivid geometric rugs, to floor-to-ceiling hand-screened curtains.
In the spirit of a guild, the works carried no signature, just the Omega symbol. Fry had long been concerned with artists being able to support themselves, so he devised a system in which they were paid to come in three days a week, leaving time for their own work. The in-house designers included the painter Wyndham Lewis, who later split off to start the aggressively abstract Vorticist movement, and the flamboyant Welsh artist and writer Nina Hamnett, but most of the objects themselves were fabricated to specifications by traditional artisans in small ateliers throughout London and the French countryside. Among the pieces that remain iconic is an upholstery pattern named Amenophis, an abstract adaptation of Fry’s 1911 Cézanne-inspired painting “Still Life: Jug and Eggs,” in which the canvas’s namesake objects are transformed into geometric shapes that fold and undulate.
UNFORTUNATELY, OMEGA WAS before its time — British society was not ready for a radical rethinking of the sober Edwardian living room. Taste-setting socialites including Lady Ottoline Morrell became enthusiastic patrons, but the movement never caught on, and World War I finished it off. Fry kept his workshops afloat with loans through the war, but in the end, he was forced to sell Durbins, the spectacular Georgian-Modernist Surrey villa he designed for his family. Omega went into bankruptcy and closed in 1919.
Still, a century later, the shared creativity that was at Omega’s core animates Fort Makers, a decade-old Brooklyn design collective founded by the creative director Nana Spears, 42, the woodworker Noah James Spencer, 40, and the 36-year-old painter Naomi S. Clark. Not only are many of their patterns and objects — from blown-glass lighting to quilts and cushions — reminiscent of the workshops’ output, but a similar energy infuses the group’s studio near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with corners sometimes set aside for fabric design and block printing. “Over the years we’ve been working, we see more of an acceptance of the wildness and spontaneity that we’re interested in, which seems to be what Omega was seeking,” Spears says.
For the London-based potter Alison Britton, 71, whose poetic slab-based vessels were the subject of a 2016 retrospective at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Omega remains a formative influence. As an art student in the late 1960s, Britton was enamored of the Omega artists’ fearlessness. She visited Charleston, the house in East Sussex, now a museum, that Bell shared with her husband, the art critic Clive Bell, as well as her lover, Grant, and a revolving cast of Bloomsbury luminaries; the exuberant manner in which virtually every surface was painted, in shades of lavender, azure and tangerine, with fluid figures dancing across the walls, excited Britton’s imagination. That Omega’s pottery was the least well executed of its crafts did not diminish, for Britton, the purity of its intent. The manual dexterity and knowledge required to work with clay may have been too challenging for Bloomsbury’s bohemians in an era in which painting and sculpture were the dominant art forms — Britton calls Fry’s circa 1914 tea set on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum “lumpy” — but their attempts paved the way for Modernist postwar British artisans, including the master weaver Ethel Mairet and the ceramist Bernard Leach. Omega’s “awkwardness — its desire to fully do justice to the [Post-Impressionist] paintings — endures,” Britton says.
The spirit of Omega is likewise evident in the Marrakesh studio and store of the Belgian-born designer Laurence Leenaert, 30, whose four-year-old Lrnce line includes tapestries, tagines, clothing, rugs and small objects. Aided by a team of artisans, she paints, embroiders and glazes the surfaces with asymmetrical half-faces and brightly colored wavy lines that are evocative of the white porcelain plates that Grant painted for the workshops, on which smudgy abstractions seem to twitch with joy. “Their work conveys the kind of serenity I am after,” Leenaert says. “Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, in everything — the combination of breaking rules and making new ones?”
The artists who founded Omega were themselves after something more than just inner peace, of course; they were spoiling for a revolution, a way to will Modernism and its discontents into being, right there in the front parlor. The full impact of what Vanessa Bell called “a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself” may have taken a century to be fully realized, but at last it appears to be in flower around us: lambent, incandescent, awake.
Digital tech: David Chow. Photo assistant: Karl Leitz
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