In celebration of Women’s History Month, March Object of the Day posts highlight women designers in the collection.
This sidewall, with its medallions and stylized animal imagery, brings to mind medieval and Renaissance brocades made centuries earlier. However, its two-tone blue gray color scheme has little in common with the vibrant colors of those rich textiles, reflecting the paper’s modernity. The rough quality of the line work reflects its maker’s curiosity about folk art, an interest born from her childhood in Chile, as well as her life in rural Scotland and her knowledge about the culture of the Romany people. It also reflects her belief in the importance of handcraft. The paper is block-printed by hand, a process Angus preferred to machine production.
Peggy Angus’ greatest inspiration was the British Arts & Crafts designer William Morris (1834-1896). With Morris, she shared a belief in the redemptive and moralizing quality of craft-based design, a love of medieval works, and an intense dedication to socialism. Also like Morris, she achieved more in her fifty-year career as a designer than most individuals achieved in their lifetime. Fiercely independent, she was criticized in her lifetime for being a divorced working woman and for her attraction to Soviet culture and Constructivist design. She was a friend of influential artists and designers such as Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, who she went to school with. Her cottage in the hills near Eastbourne, Scotland was a veritable artistic hotspot. Named Furlongs, the cottage, though dilapidated, was visited by such individuals as the architects Serge Chermayeff and FRS Yorke. From 1930 until 1971, Angus was a dedicated children’s art teacher, believing that art education was a necessary aspect of all children’s upbringing. She modeled her art courses on the ideal of the Renaissance workshop and treated her students as apprentices who were always involved in her work. Whenever possible, she created projects where her students could develop pride as artists by decorating their own school with wallpapers and murals based on patterns developed through linocuts and potato stamping. The architect Yorke, a close friend, saw some of these patterns and persuaded Angus to have them produced commercially as tiles.
Angus’ career as professional designer began in 1948 when she was already 44-years old and continued until her death. During this time, she continued to work as a children’s art teacher, and she was criticized for attempting to maintain these two careers side-by-side. For most of her career, she specialized in tile design, particularly for wall murals. She fulfilled multiple commissions in collaboration with Yorke and designed commercially for the tile manufacturer Carter’s of Poole. Her most famous works include the tile murals for the Susan Lawrence School in London (a rare commission that is still standing), a tile wall in Heathrow Airport, and an enormous mural at the British Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Her belief that mural-making should be a more widespread fixture of the postwar environment allowed her to momentarily set aside her dislike of mass-production and industry. However, by the mid-60s, when she turned from tilework to wallpaper production, she had largely severed her industrial connections. Her wallpapers were, with extremely few exceptions, produced by hand as bespoke commissions, in a small workshop called Angus Designs. Thew workshop also produced limited ranges of floor tiles. Designs for papers dominated the last years of her production.
Angus’ practice for designing tiles and wallpapers largely remained unchanged throughout her life. She created her patterns through linocuts, and as a result, they often had a rough, hand-worked appearance. Like many other modernist pattern-makers, she used simple, two- or three-tone color schemes and her patterns were extremely simplified, using geometric or medieval-inspired motifs. Medieval motifs, in particular, became more prominent as she turned to wallpaper production. This sidewall, made just a year before her death, showed how active she remained even late in life. There is no doubt that Angus until the end was a 20th-century counterpart to Morris, not only in her practice, but also in the extraordinary intensity of her career.
Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design & Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.