Interview with Frances Pritchard, Tibor Reich, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

The Whitworth hones its reputation as a key international textiles collector and exhibitor with a new retrospective celebrating the centenary of textiles pioneer Tibor Reich. Born in Budapest in 1916, Reich studied architecture and textiles in Vienna before moving to Britain in 1937, and setting up Tibor Ltd in 1946. Establishing himself as a highly influential designer, Reich introduced a sense of modernity into the drab interiors of post-war Britain; utilising bright new colours and textures to explore fresh ideas across the disciplines of textiles, photography, ceramics and drawing. Rapidly gaining worldwide recognition, Reich and his firm worked on commissions for the Festival of Britain, Expo ‘58 and Concorde. We speak to curator Frances Pritchard about Reich’s impact on Modern and contemporary design, and how this unique show ties into the Whitworth’s own prominent textiles collection.

A: In 2016 the Whitworth celebrates the centenary of Tibor Reich. How important has Reich’s influence been on the textile and design industry?
FP: Tibor helped to bring vibrant colour into British homes in the 1950s and 1960s after the greyness and privations of the austerity years. His furnishing and upholstery fabrics were noted for their subtle textures and exuberant colours and, through his marketing strategies that included touring room sets, he encouraged consumers to co-ordinate their interior furnishings to reflect their individual taste – something that we take for granted today.

A: In your opinion, how did Reich bring innovation to British textiles and the rest of the world?
FP: A gifted entrepreneur, Reich’s achievement lay in seeing the technological potential that existed in the British textile industry in terms of the varied yarns available, looms and printing machinery and combining it with his flair for design, which had been honed through his broad, skill-based education in textile technology in Vienna and Leeds. He embraced modernity and was always trying out new combinations of yarns to create different textures. He also readily tested new materials; Ardil, a groundnut-based yarn briefly produced by ICI in the 1950s was an example of this.
He also used photographic imagery to create textile designs trademarking the process by the name of ‘Fotexur’ (Fo referring to photography and texur to texture). He would use a close-up of a pattern occurring in nature such as cracked mud, straw or bark and then manipulate the resulting image to form a pattern repeat. This is the type of exercise that today would be carried out through digital technology.

A: Are there any particular works by Reich that are greatly anticipated in the upcoming exhibition?
FP: Tibor’s love of colour that stemmed from his childhood in Hungary and the ribbons made in his father’s factory is immediately obvious from his textiles. At the entrance to the exhibition is a colour montage made up from dozens of samples of his woven and printed textiles that visually demonstrates his strong sense of colour. A special feature is a wall of photographic panels showing how his own photographs of natural forms inspired many of his most original designs. Appropriately, the Age of Kings, the company’s best selling printed textile will be on display. Commissioned in 1964 for the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, this year 2016 marks the 400th year of Shakespeare’s death.

A: Reich made textiles accessible to a wide range of audiences. How has the transformation from exclusivity to popular commodity influenced designers today? Are there any notable names that come to mind?
FP: Tibor Reich established a textile company that continued to be successful for over 30 years. He did this through shrewd marketing as well as through the excellence of his products and by undertaking prestigious contract work, for example the furnishing fabrics used on Concorde, the supersonic airline. Today, designers often specialise more narrowly in certain niche product areas such as rugs or printed textiles. Trish Belford, who for many years ran Belford Prints based near Macclesfield has a similar experimental approach to Reich in creating surface textures. Recently she has been combining textiles and concrete.

A: How will the survey show feed into the Whitworth’s overall aims and year-round programme?
FP: Textiles have always been a significant component of the Whitworth’s collection and, therefore, textile exhibitions form an essential part of the gallery’s yearly rolling programme. This year the Tibor Reich retrospective will be complemented by two other exhibitions, in particular. The first one, Wallpaper, will open at the same time as Tibor Reich. It features 1960s wallpapers from the Palladio ranges, which were bold, modern designs highly favoured by architects and contemporary with many of the fabrics produced by Tibor Ltd. The other is Revolutionary Textiles 1910-1939, which opens on 25 March. It focuses on textile design, experimental and innovative techniques and the introduction of man-made fibres that took place throughout Europe at the very time that Tibor was growing up in Budapest and studying in Vienna and had a formative influence on him.

Tibor Reich, 29 January – August, Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15 6ER.

Find out more:

Follow us on Twitter @AestheticaMag for the latest news in contemporary art and culture.

1. Tibor Reich with Yarn, 1948. Copyright Tibor Reich archive.