“One of the most promising newcomers in the highly competitive field of fabric design is a youthful, multi-talented New Yorker, Joel Robinson, Ebony magazine proclaimed in 1952.[1] Robinson’s printed fabric Ovals had been shown that winter in The Museum of Modern Art’s 1951 Good Design exhibition, making him the first African American to be included in the influential exhibition series, an achievement acknowledged in the multi-page article in Ebony. Jet magazine also covered the groundbreaking nature of his inclusion.[2] When the exhibition series ended in 1955, Robinson remained unique in this distinction.   

At the time, Robinson was a 29-year-old native New Yorker working as a graphic designer in the advertising industry, first for pharmaceutical advertising agency William Douglas McAdams, and later as creative director and executive vice president at the David D. Polon Advertising Agency.[3] His celebrated fabric was produced by L. Anton Maix Fabrics. Maix was noted for his innovative collections of prints for the modern interior, often created in collaboration with artists and designers from other fields, including architect Serge Chermayeff, graphic designers Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig, industrial designer George Nelson, and furniture designers Jens Risom and Paul McCobb After the success of Ovals, Maix introduced two Ovals variations and three additional designs by Robinson as part of his Kaleidoscope collection: Roman Candles, Honeycomb, and Glen Plaid, a fine linear design of interlocking bands of narrow rectangles in brown, yellow and red. A swatch book from the New York shop of Georg Jensen, also in the museum’s collection, includes Glen Plaid and other designs from the Kaleidoscope collection, illustrating the type of modern, design-forward retailer that promoted Maix’s fabrics.  

Despite his breakout early success as a textile designer, there is no evidence to date that Robinson continued in the field after his first, groundbreaking collaborations with Maix. Former Cooper Hewitt Curatorial Fellow Andrew Gardner explored the sometimes-failed promise of the Good Design program in the essay “Lilly White”: Joel Robinson and Black Identity in MoMA’s Good Design Program.”

Susan Brown is an Associate Curator and Acting Head of the Textiles Department.

[1] N/A, “Fabric Designer,” Ebony, May 1952. 

[2] N/A, “Exhibits Prize-Winning Fabrics,” Jet, December 13, 1951. 

[3] N/A, “Named Vice Prexy of N.Y. Ad Firm,” Ebony, February 25, 1954. 

 

 

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