Prints charming – how Lucienne Day created the pattern of modern Britain

Day sold her Calyx fabric design for £20. It became a classic, hung in homes

Deep into the 21st century, there’s still no end in sight to the love affair with mid-century modern, an interiors look that’s now so ubiquitous – and copied – there’s no need to mention that the “mid-century” in question is the 20th.

So much furniture was produced to fill the post-war housing boom on both sides of the Atlantic by a new generation of visionary designers – typically gorgeous, beautifully made, simple pieces in teak and rosewood with simple upholstery – that it is still an accessible option. And there were textiles and fabric, plenty of it – though vintage rugs and curtains aren't as easy to find and their condition is bound to be poor. The designs exist though (some still in production) and those created by one of Britain's foremost designers Lucienne Day are celebrated in a new exhibition Lucienne Day: Living Design at the Coach House in Dublin Castle.

It's a travelling exhibition that was devised as part of a series of events to celebrate the centenary of her birth in 1917. The photographs and fabrics on show chart her career, which started in earnest in 1951 when she designed her famous pattern, Calyx. It came about when her designer husband Robin Day was commissioned to create a "contemporary" room for the Festival of Britain and asked her to come up with the fabric. Taking her inspiration from nature, the colourful abstract Calyx, with its mushroom caps and stalks floating on a plain background, was first produced in zingy orange and yellow, black and white on an olive-green background – what became regarded as a typical 1950s' colour palette. British department store Heal's paid her £20 for the design – thinking it wouldn't sell. But it did and a pair of Calyx curtains became a common feature in homes throughout Britain – and with them a splash of fun, colour and optimism.

Career breakthrough

That was her career breakthrough, although she had been designing since she graduated in 1940 from the Royal College of Art in London. For the next 23 years, she designed more than 70 furnishing fabrics for Heal’s, also taking on many commissions from several other companies so that her extensive portfolio of work includes ceramics, wallpaper, carpets, tea-towels and dress fabrics.

As her daughter Dr Paula Day says about the trajectory of her mother's long and productive career, by the late 1970s Lucienne, who had for decades reacted to current taste, just couldn't respond to the fashion for Victoriana and "she was tired of the annual deadline for the next season's new designs". So in her 60s she began a second career, shaking off the commercial restrictions of industrial design and exploring a more fine-art direction through wall hangings. Paula, who curates the exhibition with Prof Emma Hunt from the Arts University Bournemouth, set up the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation. A design education charity, it also protects the copyright of the designs.

The curators note that the photographs were chosen to reveal how “living design . . . developed from the artwork to the showroom and on to the home”. So as well as a show for anyone interested in 20th-century interiors, there’s much to inspire young designers at the start of their career.

Lucienne Day: Living Design, The Coach House, Dublin Castle, Admission free, July 20th-September 15th