Kasper de Graaf's picture
The golden girl of Heal’s
Kasper de Graaf, 20 March 2017


Barbara Brown, Frequency, Heal Fabrics,

Screen-printed furnishing cotton.

Asked about his slogan “I miss my pre-internet brain” in an
interview with the FT, the artist Douglas Coupland observed: “I have been
rewired in the last 10 or 15 years. I remember what I used to do. I remember
doing it. But what it felt like, I don’t remember. I think I’m not alone in

That disconnect for pre-millennials is highlighted when you
enter the magnificent Barbara Brown exhibition that opened at The Whitworth
last week. It’s not just Generation X that may find it hard to imagine how
these designs could have been conceived, never mind rendered, in the
pre-digital age. Those who were there at the time and have since gone through
the Coupland re-set, marvel just as much.

Yet the designs are unquestionably of their age, without
having lost their pertinence. They are grouped to illustrate Brown’s
progression through the period, from organic plant-like patterns to vibrant
graphic shapes and then to op-art explorations speaking of Sixties art and
style. Yet as she strips away figurative representation, adds vibrant colour
and then takes it away to stark monochrome, the emotional content and humanity
evident in the organic early designs remains, as evident in the most reductive geometric
patterns as it is in the organic origins. Even in the context of The Whitworth,
with its world-class textiles collection, this exhibition is outstanding in
every respect and a worthy successor to the equally brilliant Tibor Reich
exhibition last year.


Jennifer Harris, the recently retired Deputy Director of The
Whitworth who originated this milestone show, revealed it is not Barbara
Brown’s first outing at the gallery: she participated with two other young
artists in a group exhibition in 1962, just three years after she was spotted while
still at the Royal College of Art by Tom Worthington, who commissioned her to design
for Heal’s. Placing such early career designers in the gallery speaks of The
Whitworth’s historic role as a documenter of a living industry – and as an
incubator, not merely a repository, of emerging talent. The current WYC ‘And
Now We Are Plastic’ exhibition – part of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation-funded
Circuit scheme – shows The Whitworth remains open
to that, even if the living, contemporary textile industry has featured less in
recent years.


Design Manchester’s John Owens 

That story, of design and the textile industry, is one we’re
exploring with Design Manchester this year. The textile industry was a driver
of wealth and growth in the north west for over a century. Manchester School of
Art was founded in 1838 for the express purpose of supporting it by nurturing
new talent. Those world-class skills in design education and making have
remained and developed even as the industry declined over the last half century. Today there
is growing evidence of green shoots based on innovation, digitalisation and
specialisation. Manchester School of Art has a thriving textiles department
combining traditional skills with cross-disciplinary research. Lorna
Fitzsimmons, who led the Textiles Growth Programme and the Alliance Project,
brought substantial new investment to Tameside to create a production centre of
the future in one of the traditional mills. The success of quality brands like
Private White V.C., and also of online fashion retailers like BooHoo and
MissGuided, confirm Manchester’s return as a centre of design, manufacture and
commerce. The Fashion Forum on ‘Age’ organised by Manchester Fashion Institute
earlier this month heard ideas from students in Manchester and Helsinki about age-inclusive
fashion design, connecting not only with these new opportunities but also with the
Age-Friendly Manchester thinking explored in our New Generation workshops last


Design Manchester’s Fiona McGarva with Claire Cochrane

Barbara Brown: The
golden girl of Heal Fabrics in the 1960s & 1970s
runs at The Whitworth until
December. We will soon announce an exhibition of another world-class textile
designer, to open at Manchester School of Art during this year’s design
festival, which takes place from 11 to 22 October, alongside a programme of
workshops and events exploring the opportunities and challenges for design and
the creative digital sector in the region. There could be no better starting
point for our textiles story this year than partnering with the Whitworth to
promote this exhibition. 

Go. You won’t regret it.