Pat Albeck interview

Pat Albeck is a textile designer whose exciting designs were hugely embraced by postwar Britain; from voluminous 50s dresses, to being one of the first designers to add a pattern to bedlinen, to National Trust tea towels. I interviewed Pat Albeck for the first ever issue of Lionheart, back in 2011. After our two hour chat on the phone, I felt inspired and excited about textile design, art and the possibilities that come with trying something new. I was also mesmerised by her stories of growing up, 60s Britain and the rise of patterned textiles, something she has been credited for in the home and obviously became massive. I love this feature on The Guardian, on her home. Anyway, I barely edited the interview because I love the way that she talks and you get a real feel of Pat and her storytelling. I don't mind at all that the piece is really long, personality is vibrantly alive. I sent Pat a copy of the magazine and she emailed me to say: "That is the best article I've read about me.  Did we really talk for 2 hours? Thank you for sending both copies.  I think your magazine is really lovely, and full of interesting things. Congratulations! I will subscribe." I think it will always be one of my very favourite interviews. 

Over to Pat.

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The only time I was ever told off by my father was when I picked the pansies in the garden. We lived in what my father called his ‘Dream House’ in Albany, just outside of Hull. I was about four or five-years-old when we moved in. Our front garden was part of the woods, within a place called Tranby Croft. The famous Royal Baccarat scandal, concerning the future King Edward VII, took place there in 1890. As a child one of my favourite activities was to do something called ‘trespassing’ in the woods. We would explore and climb up as high as we could. I had no idea what trespassing meant back then, but we would trespass for hours. 

People used to call their houses such dull names, our house was called ‘Mid-Oaks’. It looked normal on the outside, but it was very different to many other homes internally. Mainly perhaps, because it was designed by a local stage designer.

It was quite art deco, as many houses were then, but there were lots of very unusual aspects. From a star shape cut out of my sky blue ceiling to a peach coloured mirror in the drawing room and a clock with amber squares instead of numbers. Every room also had abstract murals, I had a stained glass surround to an electric fire in my bedroom. It represented Little Red Riding Hood and was designed by students at Hull Art School. Unlike many other homes, we had polished floorboards and specially designed rugs from Liberty. It was extravagant in some respects, but then we would have whole rooms completely unfinished for years. We also seemed to never have any actual money spare.

Back in the thirties, in Hull, people had paved gardens with dowdy flowers. I remember in great detail how our own garden was laid out. We went to this garden centre, well, a garden centre didn’t exist in the thirties, we went to a plant buying place and oh, it was wonderful. I was always mad about flowers. Our garden had, as was popular then, half moon-shaped beds, filled with abresias, then rhododendrons and lupins at the back. My favourite flowers now are lupins and pansies, which I think is partly a nostalgia thing. I used to adore the flower shops, though I do have flower prejudices. I remember buying my mother a poinsettia, which was very new then, awful thing! 

We weren’t rich by any means, but we had a gardener.  He used to create amazing dahlia flower displays. I didn’t know the word oasis back then. 

Oasis: 

1.A fertile spot in a desert, where water is found. 

2. A pleasant or peaceful area or period in the midst of a difficult or hectic place or situation.

Trademark. A type of rigid foam into which the stems of flowers can be secured in flower arranging. 

Oxford English Dictionary

My parents were very different from each other. My father was very political and clever. People used to call him Mr Oilbeck because even back then, he thought oil was the route of all evil. 

They considered him very intelligent and would ponder over something before deciding to ‘Ask Mr Oilbeck!’  My mother devoted herself entirely to looking after my father. They had four daughters, of which I am the youngest. I always thought that they must have been disappointed after three daughters. I remember the meals. My father wouldget the very best bits and would always be fed before us. Always. We had what was left over.  

My three older sisters were academic but I wasn’t, so my father asked me to be accepted by the art school. Oh it was wonderful. There were lots of like minded people there, into modern and contemporary design, as opposed to the chintz, neutral and rosy patterns around. It was also just after the war and people wanted to prove that Britain could make it. There were lots of dashing young army men there. Survivors, getting on in the world after they’d missed out on vital years of their lives by being in the war.

Designing was a crusade. I absolutely thought that I could make life better by design.

After art school, I was lucky enough to get into the Royal College of Art. I had a brilliant time there. It really was marvellous. I was surrounded by painters, sculptors and theatricality. I also met my husband Peter Rice, a theatre design student, whilst studying there.

It was such a wonderful and glamorous time.

The college was attached to the V&A, which was like my cathedral. Many of the roads around there don’t exist anymore. 

Horrockses were the first company to bring cotton dresses into fashion. There were many other companies influenced by them. I believe I got picked up by them because I was standing where I was.

Don’t you think that’s how things happen? That so many people take the day off when something important tends to occur? You have to be there incase you’re needed.

Anyway, I was stood there painting these sort of, blobby flowers, when it happened. They took me on and I spent half the time with them and half at college. It was lovely to have industrially produced fabrics in my show. 

I spent a large amount of time working at The Mill in Manchester, which I love. I am devastated that they are no longer making English cotton there anymore.

I actually tried to organise a march along the M1 once, to save cotton in Manchester. 

When college ended I became full time at Horrockses, designing all day, still living in London. I worked with three dress designers, all of us under the eye of Jimmie Cleveland Belle, a great inspiration. One would design very clean cut dresses, another matronly dresses and then a boy called John Tullis, was the flamboyant one. The fabric designs came either from myself or I was asked to design something specific by one of the dress designers. I remember John asking me to do a design of large pink bows. I was horrified! Anyway, I managed to design something quite dashing in the end. 

Most English people were very influenced by Paris, a sort of sub couture. When I was 20, I travelled there myself. It was 1953 and Dior had created a new look for fashion.

Shop windows in Paris were created by artists and they were stunning, absolutely mesmerising. The flower shops and markets were also beautiful. You could get ‘mixed bunches’ of flowers, something that didn’t simply didn’t exist at home.

We were also very influenced by the USA fashions. Films were highly popular, dresses for younger people were being created, inspired by the likes of Shirley Temple. I would say France, Italy, Scandinavia and the USA were all very important. I was myself very inspired by these places, anything from abroad was very desired.

No one had travelled during the war, so anything from outside England was influential. 

When I left Horrockses in 1958, I realised that there was so much built inside of me, as I had just concentrated on clothing, solely for five years. 

I had an explosion of creativity. 

I worked with the textile publication, Ambassador Magazine created by two refugees from Germany, Hans and Elspeth. Elsepeth is now 100-years-old. You must get a copy of that magazine. They used to do things like have a ballet shoot with furnishing fabrics everywhere. Perhaps that’s a little extreme! 

Later I joined three fellow former Royal College students who were in charge of design at Cavendish textiles, the production department for the John Lewis stores. We had very much the same ideas about design.

At John Lewis, I designed for products I had never thought of as being patterned before, like sheets and towels.

Previously sheets had always been white, or dyed pastel colours, blue, pink, green or yellow, or sometimes were printed or woven pastel stripes. Tea towels were plain or they had ‘Glass Cloth’ woven in a primary stripe colour down the middle. 

These products were waiting to be decorated! 

It was a great time for furnishing fabrics for me, and I really felt I knew and understood the people purchasing all of my fabrics. I was there for ten years.

I would say that personal inspiration in the fifties tended to come from nature and historic plant forms, as well travelling and designers like Ken Scott and Fornasetti. The latter of whom had a very amusing approach to decoration.

My house was also very creative; full of magazines, theatre and design.

My husband would put on theatre productions set in different countries, periods and worlds. Shakespeare would be performed on stage with all the absolute correct attire. We were terribly committed to our work.

After eating in the evening that would be it, we would be straight back at our desks.

The sixties - as everyone agrees - was a fabulous and exciting decade. For me it meant my first trip to New York, the birth of my son Matthew Rice, my travel scholarship to Australia and my move to Hammersmith by the river. 

I am mad about New York. Another place, like Paris, with wonderful flower markets and window displays.

My visit was completely inspirational; I loved the museums, architecture and amazing shops. You asked about the smells of places, well Barneys, the smell of Barneys, is just the most brilliant. It’s where I purchased the only perfume I wear.  When I first travelled there, I took a collection of dress fabrics to show and hopefully sell in New York. I was introduced to a wonderful agent who continued to sell the designs I sent him into the sixties.

In 1962, after some important time off when Matthew was born, I won a travel scholarship and chose to go to Australia. I went via Bangkok and Hong Kong, very interesting and exciting places to be, I still have many pieces from Bangkok. Whilst in Australia, I drew an awful lot.

Architecture, flowers and the desert all inspired new designs.

Later I travelled to Florence through Osman Fabrics who became clients of mine. I also became the colour consultant to Marks and Spencer, Design Consultant to Fergusons and Heathcotes and I was on the Council of Industrial Design selection committee. I was able to go on buying trips to France and Italy in the two former roles. 

By the end of the sixties, it was the tea towel that became a major part of my designing life.

My relationship with The National Trust began in the seventies. Shops were opening next to properties, it was the beginning of a new style of shopping, a new market. I was designing items that people might be tempted to buy at the end of a visit to a National Trust house or garden. This influenced my work. I was using line drawing as my work became more representational and my colour became more muted to go with the historic houses. I got used to painting buildings in great detail, designing tea towels, then table linen, kitchen textiles and ceramics. 

'Surely she wouldn't miss just one,' cries my inner klepto as the Hull-born designer unveils a tempting pile of brightly coloured linen tea towels from the Sixties and Seventies (since Pat practically invented the decorative tea towel, these are not just lovely, they're serious collector's items).’ Fiona Rattery, The Observer

I fell further in love with the countryside as I got to travel to a huge number of the properties in England and Scotland. I very much enjoyed it. 

**‘Can Design, Will Travel!’**

I don’t care to travel so much these days. I’m a bit like an overripe fruit. It used to be so glamorous to go to Heathrow and have a lovely meal and now it’s far harder. 

It’s very important to make the most of travel.  

I continued to design throughout the eighties and nineties, for The National Trust and Department 56 in America and for Gisella Graham in England. I used to travel to New York regularly, to attend gift fairs. Matthew created his own paper company designing decorated stationary and greetings cards. I did flowery things and cats, neither of which he particularly liked drawing. 

I adore cats, I don’t understand anyone that doesn’t love cats. They are such wonderfully designed animals.

Our cat isn’t so smart at the moment, not with hair parted down the middle like a proper cat. We used to have three white cats, a design advantage, as it was just eyes, nose and whiskers. They are terribly sentimental, cats. Yet they are thought to be too obvious like hearts, or roses, or lavender. 

Matthew married Emma Bridgewater in 1987 and I had an exhibition of flower paintings in her Fulham Road shop. My husband was still designing madly for theatre then, and so my life was pretty well filled with design. I started doing watercolours in the eighties and nineties, just because Peter and Matthew were always painting and I felt left out. 

It was terribly sad leaving our London home in 2000. It was in between Hammersmith and Chissick in a sort of cut off bit of London. Everyone was an artist or writer and we knew every person. We still go back now and again. I will always try to go to the Michelin and buy ludicrously priced coffee, just to sit by the flowers. Also Liberty’s have that flower store, Wild At Heart. You must do this too. We are closer to our grandchildren now though, each one of which is wonderful and spectacular in their own way. 

These days, living in Norfolk, I still paint, I still design. I paint flowers with water colours. I pick them then spend two hours arranging them and making sure all my paints are washed and clean, before I paint them.

Then it takes a while to get started and I hate it, then I get into it and then there is a rough patch and then I love it again. 

I listen to Radio Four all the time. These days sometimes Radio Three, as I am learning music again. I’ve always liked music, Frank Sinatra - not the stuff you lot like. Though i was a fan of Amy Winehouse, let’s not go into that. OK well, it’s just so deeply tragic. I used to watch her on TV, she was so clever. I stopped when the Beatles came out, I like some of their numbers, but everyone chooses them on Desert Island Discs. Perhaps that’s a kinky thing on my part. Anyway, yes, I always need sound when I am working, but never at the beginning of a piece. It always comes when I have got into the flow. 

I have many students ask me about what it was like working in the fifties and I say, what’s the difference, designing now and then? Of course though, they mean with paint, they all use computers these days. It’s not the computer’s fault that I haven’t designed with one, but I’ve always used hand. 

I love new art materials, a new rubber will put me in a good mood for weeks!

Art materials are reinvigorating. I also love my vegetable patch, though my husband hates corguetes, so I have to disguise them! 

Bravery I think is going to war. That’s what it means to me, I am a wimp. If the soldiers hadn’t gone to war I wouldn’t be here now, because I am jewish. I am a passivist though. I don’t like physical pain, I am terrified of it. I like sport however and I will listen to the cricket when I am not listening to Woman’s Hour occasionally.  I tell my grandchildren; ‘Don’t go too near the edge’. I am not terrified of using paints and patterns, but I don’t know if that’s really bravery. I am brave with food, I will invite people round for dinner and not know what to give them until an hour before. I am worried now, am I not brave?

I thought I would give up on work, but I still paint, design a National Trust tea towel every year, as well as charity tea towels. At the end of the year I will have an exhibition of my tea towels at Norwich Cathedral. I’m into lots of of nostalgia at the moment. I’m looking through it all. I like to work and do as much as I can, but there is never enough time. The days rush by.