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Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay

08/18/11    Sara McLean  |  specs+spaces Editor, Dunn-Edwards Corporation, Allied Member ASID, CMG

As a designer and color stylist, I love to explore many ideas of artistic inspiration to find that next great idea. One of these recent artistic explorations involved a business trip to NYC where I attended two amazing exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, each focused on color and design within the artists’ featured mediums.
The first featured over 300 design works by Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), spotlighting textiles and fashion in the 1920s through the 1940s. This period in Sonia’s life marked an intensive exploration of the relationship between the fabrics she created and contemporary art at the time with a focus on the movement and color.
History of Sonia Delaunay
Born in the Ukraine, Sonia Delaunay was raised in Russia. Then after a period of time studying in Germany, Sonia moved to Paris where her artistic life bloomed. Known as an abstract painter and colorist, Sonia Delaunay’s works showcased her talents through a range of design including graphics, interiors, theater and film, fashion and textiles.
With a focus on color, her creations reflected the modern age and all that was happening at the time. She stated, “color as the skin of the world.”
These initial principles on color and movement began to show their influence in 1912 when Sonia and her husband, painter Robert Delaunay, created their own ideas of “simultaneity” – the sensation of movement when placing colors side by side. Each artist had their own interpretation of simultaneity, however for Sonia, the principles were about transforming ordinary colors into provocative forms that moved.
In the first 20 years of her career, Sonia used these principles in all her work over a range of mediums. While Sonia was a painter over her career, she felt that there was no distinction between her painting and design work and one can see the principles carried over from her paintings into textiles, interiors and other design works she created. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she touched on these mediums with a similar focus.
In the 1910s, Sonia collaborated with poet Blaise Cendrars on a poem titled La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France, a story of a young poet’s journey from Moscow to the Sea of Japan. Shown as one of the exhibit’s masterpieces, the text was printed in four colors and many font sizes on a single sheet of paper that folded into twenty-two panels. On the left side of the panels, Sonia stenciled in color arcs and half-circles, which created a pattern of movement that complemented the text. When the poem was introduced in 1913, poet Guillaume Apollinaire stated “Cendrars and Madame Delaunay-Terk have realized a unique experiment in simultaneity, written in contrasts of colors in order to train the eye to read with one glance the whole of a poem, as an orchestra conductor reads with one glance the notes placed up and down the bar, as one sees with a single glance the plastic elements printed on a poster.”
Through the 1920s and 1930s, Delaunay’s most important works were her textile designs. These designs became a key source of income for her family and with her return to Paris after WWI; she enveloped the spirit of the modern woman through her creations. As Paris was the capital of the world in fashion, Delaunay’s designs showcased the independence of women through simplified styles and loose clothing, sitting with a cigarette in hand, sometimes leaning against a car or behind the wheel.
Sonia’s textile designs were the reason for her long-standing professional relationship with Metz & Co., the luxury department store in Amsterdam. Through the 1930s, Metz & Co commissioned over 200 designs and though she took a different style direction from her early days in simultaneity, her work continued to showcase the language of color. Sonia personalized her colors and organized them, giving her textiles a message and form. People who wore Sonia’s designs wore a work of art.
Sonia’s Color and Design Influences then and now
Sonia’s use of contemporary forms and use of modern colors and the language of colors is work that the design community continues to see and be influenced by today. A trademark of Sonia’s work is the sense of movement and rhythm created by the simultaneous contrasts of certain colors.
The idea of Simultaneism dominated Sonia’s early work, always trying to capture the movement of colors through all her designs. Yet later in her career, Simultaneism was used less in her textile designs. She was still aware of the power of color and movement, and kept this important theme within her paintings.
One of Sonia’s work methods was to name her colors used in her textiles. Names like crocodile, cactus, corinthe and cappucine were just a few of the color names that gave her color palettes meaning and imagery. Much consideration was given to naming her colors and she used fresh, clear combinations of colors such as red, green, blue, black or white. She also had subtler, pastel color combinations and would mix strong and soft colors. Today, reviewing the Perfect Palette color names, one gets a better sense of some of the history behind why naming colors is so popular.
Sonia is best known as a modern painter, yet considered herself and her husband, Robert Delaunay, to be visionaries in the world of design. Here, she states in a 1962 letter to Hendrik de Leeuw (Metz & Co.): “Our position in life and its evolution are important and unique because, parallel to important developments in art, we introduced art into daily life. I started this in 1911, when I created the baby blanket for our son, shown in nowadays in art galleries as one of the first abstract paintings. Then the book covers of 1913… the robes simultanés of 1913-14, and later on the fabrics and embroidered coats – they all stand in close relationship to the laws of painting. From 1924 until 1930, this made me well-known in the whole world, especially the United States. This contributed greatly to the comprehension of modern art, which became more accessible and understandable through my fabrics, which for me were exercises in color.”
See the slideshow:

Special thanks to the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum for providing the photography.

The exhibit ran through June 19, 2011 at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, Design Museum. You can purchase books about Sonia Delaunay at their bookstore.  
Timeline: Sonia and Relevant Historical Matters
1885: Sarah Stern born in Gradizhsk; a village near Odessa, Ukraine
1890: Age 5, Sarah is adopted by her maternal uncle, Henri Terk, a wealthy lawyer in St. Petersburg, Russia. From then on her name was Sonia Terk.
1903: Sonia attended the art academy in Karlsruhe, Germany where she became interested in French Impressionism
1905: Sonia arrives in Paris
1907: Sonia meets Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), a painter and fellow artist
1909: Sonia takes up embroidery as part of her study in color and design
1910: Sonia and Robert marry after her divorce from her first husband [do we know who he was and what date they wed? No mention in the timeline above. Wikipedia cites it as a marriage of “convenience” to a homosexual gallery owner named Wilhelm Uhde. Please check and confirm for her to escape her parents and him to mask his sexual preference. ] (since it’s a different focus, I thought not to add it; we want to focus on her work)
1911: Sonia shows her skill in patchwork by making a patchwork quilt for her newborn son, Charles; a traditional technique with a very modern and abstract effect
1913: Sonia creates her first dress, the robe simultanée (simultaneous dress); a modern creation with patchwork cloth pieces and fur; some say was a statement in the direction of Italian Futurists who wore eccentric garments intended to shock the establishment
1914: While on holiday in Spain, Germany declares war on France; family decides to stay in Spain and Portugal over the next 6 years
1917: Return to city life in Spain; in Barcelona, family receives news of Russian Revolution, which results in Sonia’s family losing all their property in St. Petersburg and Sonia losing her principle source of income
1917: Travel to Madrid where increasing numbers of Parisians were emigrating from the art and fashion world; started their business Casa Sonia; important first step to Sonia’s career path in fashion and commerce
1918: Sonia and Robert commissioned to make designs for Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet Cléopâtre; Robert designed the set and Sonia designed the costumes. Cleopatra’s robe won the greatest acclaim. Sonia became a household name in Madrid and Casa Sonia was a success.
1920: Considering opening more branches of Casa Sonia, Sonia went to Paris to investigate options. Falling in love with Paris again, especially with the works of the Dadaist movement, they moved back and created a new series of artistic endeavors.
1922: Created several robes poèmes (poems in motion), which were capes with embroidered poems by Sonia’s poet friends. Her initial embroidered cape became known as the rideau poème (curtain poem); embroidered with a poem that Philippe Soupault had dedicated to her. These poems in motion were worn by young women who wanted to be noticed.
1923: Sonia continues experiments with costume designs, designing costumes for several Dada evenings and other occasions, such as dance improvisations and plays; one dance called Mouvement Perpétuel, Sonia suited the dancer with a suit of colored cardboard discs, which moved while dancing – Simultaneist choreography – a step beyond what could be achieved on paper or canvas. This experiment was a continuation of Sonia’s studies of color and rhythm of Portuguese and Spanish dance, and was related to developments in Constructivist theatre in Russia and the Bauhaus
1925: Maison Delaunay fashion house opens in Paris in March
1925: July, Sonia’s breakthrough came at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, an exhibition celebrating Paris as the world capital of art and luxury. Jacques Heim, of renowned fur and fashion house Heim, arranged for Sonia to decorate the presentation room, called la Boutique Simultané, and design fur coats using her appliqué technique. Sonia’s work was unanimously praised and orders came in from celebrities like Gloria Swanson, to the wives of architects like Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Erich Mendelsohn. Metz & Co. first orders of her fabrics.
1926-1929: Despite critical acclaim, Parisian women who could afford Sonia’s designs opted for Chanel, Lanvin or Patou. Plus, Maison Delaunay lacked a strong business model. The fabric designs sold very successfully; however, the fashion workshop floundered.
October 1929: Wall Street stock-market crash; orders stopped coming in and Sonia closed down Maison. However, under her trademark Tissus Delaunay Sonia continued to create and sell fabric designs.
1930s: Tissus Delaunay – Sonia had been designing printed fabrics, called “tissues simultanés” since 1923. After her fashion house closed, she became a professional textile designer. She also continued to design clothes for a limited clientele and designed interiors for her friends.
1930s – 1960s: Metz & Co. – a small luxury department store in Amsterdam that sold interior furnishings, art, fabrics and fashion. Focused on modern and avant-garde artists and architects, Metz & Co became a very important client for Sonia, and deep friendships formed throughout their life and work until Sonia’s death in 1979. Together, they created over 2000 designs through the years and continued to produce until the 1960s.

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