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Anni Al­bers was one of the most in­flu­en­tial tex­tile artists of the 20th cen­tury; Paul Smith is one of her big­gest fans. Ahead of a ma­jor new show of her work, the de­signer tells An­drew Dickson why she in­spired his lat­est col­lec­tion

Paul Smith races up the stairs of his stu­dio, charg­ing through a cor­ri­dor crammed with vin­tage prints, art books, old records, rac­ing bikes and tchotchkes of ev­ery con­ceiv­able de­scrip­tion. Mo­ments later, we’re in a bright, open-plan room where, at 9.15am, young de­sign­ers are blearily fir­ing up their com­put­ers. Smith – hair art­fully shaggy, win­dow­pane-check navy suit as dap­per as you’d ex­pect – be­gins rum­mag­ing through pa­pers. “Morn­ing!” he bawls to any­one re­motely within earshot. “Hiya!”

The fo­cus of his en­thu­si­asm this par­tic­u­lar morn­ing is the artist

Anni Al­bers, the sub­ject of a ma­jor Tate Mod­ern ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing next week. In­spired by Al­bers’ Bauhaus tex­tiles, Smith and his team have been work­ing on a lim­ited-edi­tion range of knitwear, and he’s des­per­ate to show me the orig­i­nal ref­er­ence. Even­tu­ally, he lo­cates an im­age of one of Al­bers’ geo­met­ric wall hang­ings from 1925 – a gor­geous thing in wool, silk and che­nille, swathes of sun­flower-yel­low and oat­meal shot through with shafts of red, blue and green – be­fore em­bark­ing on a 10-minute dis­qui­si­tion on colour the­ory and yarn counts.

In fair­ness, if any­one de­serves such en­thu­si­asm, it’s Anni Al­bers. One of the lead­ing fe­male artists of her gen­er­a­tion, and per­haps the most in­flu­en­tial tex­tile de­signer of the 20th cen­tury, Al­bers, who died in 1994, is nowhere near as cel­e­brated as she ought to be. While her hus­band, the painter Josef, has long been ac­claimed as a pi­o­neer­ing ab­strac­tion­ist, teacher of Robert Rauschen­berg and Cy Twombly, and a cor­ner­stone of art col­lec­tions across the globe, Anni has been writ­ten out of art his­tory. It’s nearly 20 years since her work was last dis­played on any scale in the US, and al­though her pro­file is some­what higher in Europe, she’s not what any­one would call a house­hold name. Work­ing in an art form usu­ally dis­missed as “craft” – the kind of thing tra­di­tion­ally done by women in their spare time – seemed to all but guar­an­tee her dis­ap­pear­ance. The Tate Mod­ern show, which also marks the cen­te­nary of the Bauhaus in 2019, will be her first fullscale ret­ro­spec­tive in Bri­tain.

Smith first came across Al­bers’ work in a book on Bauhaus de­sign in the early 70s, when he was al­ter­nat­ing odd jobs with an at­tempt to get his first menswear bou­tique, in Not­ting­ham, on its feet. “Her de­signs just jumped out: those slightly clash­ing colours, ochres, yel­lows, misty greens, the tex­tures she used.” He laughs. “I car­ried that book around ev­ery­where, stick­ing it in my back­pack on hol­i­day, por­ing over it. It com­pletely dropped to bits.”

Smith re­paid a cre­ative debt to both the Al­berses with a 2015 cat­walk col­lec­tion: sleek suit­ing en­livened by ar­chi­tec­tural slabs of colour, partly in­spired by re­search trips the cou­ple made to Mex­ico in the 30s and 40s. He reaches into a thicket of cy­cling jer­seys flung across a chair – he is as ob­sessed by the sport as ever – and yanks out a dark woollen men’s suit jacket stip­pled with off-kil­ter squares and rec­tan­gles. “The ideas they were play­ing with were so mod­ern – all that lat­eral think­ing.” He shrugs. “The rest of us are still strug­gling to catch up.”

Anni Al­bers’ life was ev­ery bit as trail­blaz­ing as the tex­tiles she cre­ated. Born An­nelise Elsa Frieda Fleis­chmann in Ber­lin, to a wealthy Jewish fam­ily, she was de­ter­mined not to end up a high-so­ci­ety wife and mother. In­stead, she set her heart on join­ing the rad­i­cal art, de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture school in Weimar known as the Bauhaus, founded by the ar­chi­tect Wal­ter Gropius a few years ear­lier. She en­rolled in spring 1922, hav­ing al­ready fallen in love with Josef, who was also study­ing there. The cou­ple mar­ried three years later, soon af­ter the Bauhaus moved to a gleam­ing, Gropius-de­signed com­plex in Des­sau.

Anni Al­bers’ aim was to train as a painter (Paul Klee was a last­ing in­flu­ence), but that plan was dashed when it tran­spired that the weav­ing workshop, one of the few open to women, de­spite the Bauhaus’s os­ten­si­bly egal­i­tar­ian phi­los­o­phy, was the only class that had space. Al­though she strug­gled with a mus­cu­lar ill­ness, Al­bers learned to weave by hand at a loom, and re­alised she had found her metier. “Cir­cum­stances held me to threads and they won me over,” she wrote decades later. “I learned to lis­ten to them and to speak their lan­guage.”

Even by Bauhaus stan­dards, Al­bers’ early tex­tiles dis­played huge orig­i­nal­ity. Her diploma piece, awarded in 1930, was a light-re­flect­ing, sound­ab­sorbent wall hang­ing for an au­di­to­rium which in­cor­po­rated cel­lo­phane – a ma­te­rial that had only just been in­vented. But it was the bril­liance of her eye that im­pressed her tu­tors. An­other wall hang­ing idea, sketched in 1926 and seem­ingly a re­sponse to one of her hus­band’s de­signs for stained glass, is a daz­zling grid of red, black and orange blocks; it looks like a Mon­drian that has been pulled apart, remixed and re­assem­bled. In her in­ven­tive­ness with dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als (rough and smooth tex­tures, con­trast­ing thread →

‘Her de­signs just jumped out: the slightly clash­ing ochres, yel­lows, misty greens, the tex­tures she used’

den­si­ties, translu­cent tex­tures, a re­flec­tive thread), Al­bers ri­valled any­thing be­ing done by the cu­bists on can­vas.

By the time the Nazis forced the clo­sure of the Bauhaus in 1933, Al­bers was in charge of the tex­tile workshop. When she and Josef fled to the US that same year and were in­vited to join Gropius at a new Bauhaus-style col­lege at Black Moun­tain in ru­ral North Carolina, leg­end has it that it was her work, not his, that sealed the deal.

On the vast desk in the cen­tre of Smith’s of­fice, we page through Al­bers’ de­signs. One of her most renowned works, With Ver­ti­cals (1946), could barely be sim­pler: a red­dish linen-cot­ton ground marked with dark, ver­ti­cal stripes of dif­fer­ent lengths, only 1.5m high. But spend time with it and you no­tice its rigour as well as its play­ful­ness – the way the stripes echo and bal­ance each other, how your eye is en­cour­aged to roam around the space, never find­ing a fixed point. In the bot­tom left-hand corner is Al­bers’ el­e­gant sig­na­ture­cum-logo: a straight hor­i­zon­tal line bi­sected by a jagged stitch, mak­ing two As.

Smith says he thinks of music when he looks at her de­signs. “It’s a bit like rhythm, isn’t it? The en­ergy. It’s like she’s riff­ing.” He also ad­mires her in­sis­tence that de­sign­ers should un­der­stand ev­ery as­pect of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process – some­thing she de­scribed as at­tend­ing to “the yes and no” of ma­te­ri­als.

“You can’t do it on a com­puter,” Smith says. “She knew how im­por­tant it was to be in con­tact with the ma­te­rial. She’d say, ‘Ooh, I won­der what would hap­pen if I put a heavy yarn next to that light yarn – how about I play with the ten­sion?’ Lit­tle things like that. Sud­denly you’ve got a tex­ture that looks like waves or the coun­try­side.”

He lifts up a wool scarf his team has de­signed: a pane of sap­phire blue an­chors the com­po­si­tion, warm au­tum­nal colours pierced by a cool shaft of day­light. “Sur­prise is such an im­por­tant el­e­ment of de­sign – she re­ally un­der­stood that.”

When Al­bers was given a ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive at MoMA in New York in 1949, it was the first time a cre­ator of tex­tiles had re­ceived that hon­our, and be­came the first big show for a fe­male artist from the Bauhaus. The ex­hi­bi­tion trav­elled to 26 in­sti­tu­tions across North Amer­ica, some­thing that makes her sub­se­quent ne­glect more re­mark­able.

In 1950, the Al­berses re­lo­cated to Yale, when Josef was ap­pointed head of the univer­sity’s de­sign depart­ment. Anni con­tin­ued to work and teach, but was be­com­ing dis­il­lu­sioned that, de­spite her fame, she still wasn’t taken se­ri­ously as an artist. She did more print­mak­ing, be­liev­ing this would bring the recog­ni­tion she felt had eluded her as a fabric de­signer. By the end of the 60s, she had largely given up her loom.

She also be­gan to write more, a dis­ci­pline she re­garded as in­ti­mately linked with weav­ing. In 1965, she pro­duced her mon­u­men­tal book On Weav­ing, which is still con­sulted by de­sign­ers. In it, Al­bers grap­ples with the com­plex­i­ties of a dis­ci­pline that strad­dles art, craft, fash­ion and in­te­rior de­sign. “We do not speak of de­sign­ing a pic­ture or con­certo,” she wrote, “but of de­sign­ing a house, a city, a bowl, a fabric. But surely these can all be, like paint­ing or music, works of art. Use­ful­ness does not pre­vent a thing, any­thing, from be­ing art.”

Ni­cholas Fox Weber, who runs the Josef and Anni Al­bers Foun­da­tion in Con­necti­cut, knew the cou­ple well. “She was gen­uinely demo­cratic,” he says. “She ac­tu­ally pre­ferred the ev­ery­day to the do­main of the rich.” Con­tem­po­rary lux­ury brands would do well to learn from her ex­am­ple, he adds: “She would have had no use for flashy Gucci mono­grams, or leather goods stamped with Louis Vuit­ton a mil­lion times. She said, ‘Be faith­ful to the ma­te­rial, not to the name of the de­signer.’ That was the code she lived by.”

Did she adopt this phi­los­o­phy her­self? “Oh yes. She was al­ways beau­ti­fully el­e­gant. She felt style was time­less. And she could be pretty bitchy if she didn’t ap­prove of some­one’s clothes. You could wear a Ro­man toga if you wanted, so long as it was prop­erly draped.”

Weber ar­gues that Al­bers’ sen­si­bil­ity re­mains vis­i­ble in ev­ery­thing from ev­ery­day de­sign to high art, from the “mo­quette” fabrics fit­ted to seats on the London Un­der­ground (cre­ated by the Bri­tish duo Har­riet Wal­lace-Jones and Emma Sewell, who work on hand looms as she did) to the work of con­tem­po­rary artists such as Sarah Sze and Sheila Hicks. In fu­ture, it won’t be pos­si­ble to tell the story of mod­ern art with­out her, he sug­gests. “She’s com­pa­ra­ble to Mon­drian or Klee – I hon­estly be­lieve that. It’s some of the great­est ab­stract work ever – it just hap­pens to be cloth rather than paint on can­vas.”

Smith puts it more straight­for­wardly. “So many peo­ple look, but they don’t know how to see,” he says. “Anni re­ally saw.”

Anni Al­bers is at Tate Mod­ern, London SE1, from 11 Oc­to­ber 2018–27 Jan­uary 2019; go to tate.org.uk for de­tails. The Paul Smith x Anni Al­bers col­lec­tion is avail­able from se­lect Paul Smith stores and on­line at paul­smith.com/uk.

‘She felt style was time­less. You could wear a Ro­man toga, so long as it was prop­erly draped’

Por­trait: Ben Quinton

Al­bers in 1937 in her weav­ing stu­dio in North Carolina. Her Las Cruces 1947 (above); North­west­erly 1957 (right)

Paul Smith’s 2015 col­lec­tion, in­spired by both Al­berses (above), and new de­signs drawing on Anni’s work: ‘Their ideas were so mod­ern. The rest of us are still strug­gling to catch up’

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