Literally translated as “deceives the eye,” the French term trompe l’oeil refers to a technique that has been employed by artists for centuries and usually uses a two-dimensional plane to suggest a fictional three-dimensional space. For instance, the traditional use of tromp l’oeil in this plan for the ceiling of a chapel creates the illusion of a grand architectural space, a space that doesn’t really exist but imparts an impressive sense of luxury and heavenly light on its viewers.

More recently, this type of optical illusion has been applied to textiles in a variety of innovative ways. An example of that trend, Panache, designed by Anne White, is actually an image of a striped fabric that has been gathered or ruched, printed on woven cotton. Here, the use of a tromp l’oeil effect suggests more fabric than is actually present in a given length of the design.

White designed this pattern, originally in twelve different colorways, for Warner Fabrics, a company famous for pushing the postmodern envelope. The self-reference of a fabric within a fabric is an example of how designers can express postmodernist ideas through textiles. The design firm (which still exists) values creative freedom for their designers who, in the 1980s took fresh, ironic perspectives on historic style fabrics. The country home look, complete with balloon shades, had become fashionable in interior design and Panache, which seems to reference the voluminous window treatments, was a bold reaction to that trend.

Other contemporary trompe l’oeil textile references can seen in Junichi Arai’s Nuno Me Gara (1981) and  Paul Wunderlich’s Faltenwurf wallcovering. Today, the deceptive device has been employed beyond the realm of interiors and textiles and can even be seen in elaborate sidewalk chalk drawings and in trendy handbags.

Carly Lewis is currently earning an M.A. in the History of Decorative Arts and Design at Parsons. She has a B.S. in Textile Design from Philadelphia University and is focusing her studies on gender issues in regard to textile design practices in the 20th century.

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