When Sir Leigh Ashton, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was confronted by his first Jackson Pollock painting in 1948, his reaction was: "It would make a most enchanting silk." Designers themselves were equally quick to appreciate the decorative potential of action painting, and initially it was the design fraternity rather than the art world which responded most positively to what Alexander Eliot dismissed in Time magazine as "the shlosh-and-spatter school of post-war art".
In his landmark article on Pollock published in Life magazine on 8 August 1949, Arnold Newman wrote: "Recently, a formidably highbrow New York critic hailed the brood- ing, puzzled-looking man shown above as a major artist of our time... Others believe that Jackson Pollock produces nothing more than interesting, if inexplicable, decoration. Still others condemn his pictures as degenerate, and find them as unpalatable as yesterday's macaroni."
While art critics argued fruitlessly over whether it was art, decoration or, indeed, yesterday's macaroni, designers responded in a more immediate way to Pollock's energy and dynamism. His work had a huge impact in Italy, for example, when it was showcased at the Venice Biennale in 1950, prompting Lucio Fontana to create a huge scribbly neon-lighting installation - the three-dimensional equivalent of an action painting - at the Milan Triennale the following year. In Britain, Zika and Lida Ascher, who produced artist-designed dress fabrics and scarves, were the first to get in on the act, commissioning an abstract expressionist fabric from Gerald Wilde in 1947, which captured all the excitement of "Jack the Dripper", just as his work was breaking onto the international scene. Hot on their heels came the Preston-based firm of Horrockses, makers of printed cotton frocks, who abandoned floral patterns in favour of Pollock- inspired scribbles and dots. "Dot Dash" was the evocative name of a fabric made by Marchington in 1954, while over in Denmark, the artist Aagaard Andersen created an irreverent homage to Pollock in the form of two "action textiles", "Doodlepoint" and "Doodledash". During the 1950s, it was perfectly commonplace for artists to create designs for the textile industry, as the title of an exhibition called "Paintings into Textiles", held at the ICA in 1953, bears witness. The exhibition featured abstract paintings by leading artists such as Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Gear, Donald Hamilton-Fraser and Louis Le Broquy, many of which were subsequently put into production by the progressive Lancashire textile firm, David Whitehead. Paule Vezelay, who designed a number of fabrics for the equally forward-looking Heals, commented in 1959 that "the whole standard of textile design has been raised in the most interesting way by the introduction of designs inspired by paintings. They have ceased to be something purely commercial and have formed a bridge between commercial art and fine art." Vezelay appreciated the important propaganda role of design in popularising the avant- garde. Of her own textiles she said: "Many people would be bewildered by the same design if it were an oil painting and shown in an art gallery". Eddie Pond, a textile designer who trained at the Royal College of Art from 1955 to 1958, experienced the Pollock phenomenon at first hand. "Designers found a new god in Jackson Pollock and action painting," he recalls. "Doreen Dyall's desk at the RCA sat in a sea of encrusted varnish and paint, whilst other students dribbled and splashed paint all round. …