The Milwaukee Handicraft Project’s block printing unit developed as an off-shoot of the bookbinding unit, when the designers there decided to decorate their book covers with linoleum block prints. This quickly evolved into the creation of printed yardage. Barbara Warren was among the graduates of the Milwaukee Teacher’s College art department who served as designer/supervisor, drawing patterns to be carved into linoleum blocks and printed by the workers. The artists strongly felt that the project should not simply provide work, but should elevate the appreciation of good design among both the workers and the clients who purchased the products. Samples of the printed textiles were also used to educate high school and college students about design.

Since WPA projects were charged with stimulating the economy while not competing with private industry, the primary clients for these goods were publicly-funded institutions, including schools and hospitals. The project created model rooms to display their selection of woven and printed textiles, rugs, draperies, and furniture items, and published a 90-page catalogue for national distribution. The block-printed fabrics sold for 70 cents per yard, and hung as curtains in many Wisconsin schools.

Susan Brown is the Associate Curator of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

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