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Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19

Exhibition preview

BEYOND Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19, which is on view at The Courtauld Gallery until September 20, 2009, takes a fresh look at a singularly creative moment in the history of modernist craft and design in Britain.

Founded by the artist and influential critic Roger Fry in the summer of 1913, the Omega Workshops Limited was a laboratory of radical design ideas, and involved many of the most avant-garde artists of the day.

Inspired by contemporary art in Europe, the Omega Workshops created a range of objects for the home, from rugs and linens to ceramics, furniture and clothing – all boldly coloured and patterned with dynamic abstract designs.

For a short while, the Workshops’ premises at 33 Fitzroy Square was the only place to shop in London for a ‘Fauve’ shawl, a ‘Post-Impressionist’ chair or a Cubist-inspired rug.

Fry sought to challenge the commercial market in domestic interiors with new and exciting products, and the Omega Workshops functioned as a beacon of opposition to mainstream Edwardian culture and aesthetics. As he told a journalist in 1913: “It is time that the spirit of fun was introduced into furniture and into fabrics. We have suffered too long from the dull and the stupidly serious.”

The Workshops managed to stay open during the First World War but eventually closed in 1919. Although it operated for just six years, it saw the creation of an impressive sequence of thrillingly bold designs which were well ahead of their time.

The Omega Workshops was a limited company, with shareholders, employees and several subcontracted craftsmen producing wares off site for the Omega ‘brand’ from original designs by the Workshops’ artists. At its height they included Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Frederick Etchells, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Winifred Gill – the remarkable young woman who ran the Workshops from the start of the War until 1916.

Fry insisted that the designs were produced anonymously, bearing only the Greek letter Ω (Omega) in a square, which also decorated the signboard outside 33 Fitzroy Square. The premises served as a shared working studio and a showroom where informed clientele could drop in to make a small purchase, choose to have something made from a wide range of designs, or even commission an entire interior.

Clients included Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats and E.M. Forster, as well as bohemian high society figures like Lady Ottoline Morrell and Maud Cunard. Fry was also adept at bringing visiting intellectual grandees such as Gertrude Stein to the Omega. There was no other shop in London like it, where artists and rich patrons rubbed shoulders and where artists’ designs were sold directly to the consumer.

Virginia Woolf recalled the lively atmosphere: “There were bright chintzes designed by the young artists; there were painted tables and painted chairs; and there was Roger Fry himself escorting now Lady So-and-so, now a business man from Birmingham, round the rooms and doing his best to persuade them to buy.”

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN.