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Chintz: A Fresh Future?
Casting about for fabrics to decorate the new studio, I held up a large length of chintz to various members of the office to get their reaction. It was not really a serous choice—the scale was too big and the colors too pastel—but from their reaction, what seemed more damning was the sad stigma attached to its own nature, that of simply being chintz.
Chintz is essentially a type of painted or printed cotton that later evolved into the floral form we know. The fabric is of Indian origin and probably comes from the Hindi word “chitte” or “chit,” meaning speckled or printed cloth. European traders brought over the first brightly colored versions to Europe in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, and they were well received from the start.
As interest in it developed, Western adaptations meant to appeal to the European market were introduced. First made abroad by Indian artists and craftsmen, these imported chintzes retained an exotic point of view. Then Western workrooms, initally in France, began to make them in the mid 17th-century, and they began to take on the appearance for which they are recognized.
The patterns followed fashion easily since they were printed rather than woven, a process that would have required the complication of translating the designs into warp and weft. Also, they had broader appeal because of their lower prices. Before chintz, the only fabrics readily available were plain linen, hemp, silk, and wool. These were expensive, heavy, and their colors easily faded. Damasks and brocade were for the rich. In great contrast, chintzes were colorful, lightweight, and held their colors. As a result, all classes could have beautiful fabrics.
There was a revival of the earliest Indian designs for chintz by William Morris who favored those patterns over the designs currently available. Ultimately, he derived from these the patterns that we now attach to his name.
Chintz was so popular that it also denoted a style and is strongly associated with a type of English interior. An early history of the subject written by Frank Lewis in 1935 is very evocative:
“Chintz! What a pleasant sounding name—what pleasant thoughts it brings to the mind—the old country cottage with its old grandfather clock, the burnished copper warming pan, and those gaily coloured chintz curtains. The country house with its bright chintz covers, so reminiscent of home and all it means. Truly, chintz may be said to represent the feeling of the Englishman and his home, as it really is.”
A revival of 18th-century patterns was part of the Country House style of the mid 20th century. The lead decorators of this were Colefax and Fowler who looked at 18th-century documents for pattern and color, and were deeply influenced by Georgian taste.
My decorating career began in the 1980’s under the supervision of Albert Hadley and David Kleinberg. A large part of my time at those firms was devoted to shopping for chintz which had a hey day in that period. They stressed that what distinguishes the best examples of these fabrics is the beauty of the drawing or artwork and the coloration.
Later, in the 1990’s, this remarkable fabric fell very much out of favor, in part because of a change in taste toward things considered modern. But many of the new chintz designs were ugly, lacking finesses, or too strongly associated with overwrought cabbage roses. To cater to the vast market that wanted chintz, textile mills economized on the expense of design, abbreviated patterns, and employed every color combination imaginable.
Now chintz is having a modest revival. Cotton grounds are becoming more widely used again after a period when patterns linked to chintz were being printed on linen grounds. These printed linens offer a subdued low key glimpse of the color and pattern and allow chintz its continued fame.
I was also heartened to see others finding freshness in chintz again. Donna Halloran wrote in her blog Fabricadabra about her experiences working with a London-based fabric company with a large inventory of chintz designs in its archives:
“Initially, I was hard pressed to find a design or colorway thereof that I liked. But, not long after reacquainting myself with the sophisticated designs and colorways, I became completely enamored with the patterns and their beautiful applications in home furnishings. Oddly enough, it was also a period of time when contemporary designs with bright colors were just starting to pick up steam in the residential furnishings market…After seeing these [prints again], isn’t your heart just aching a bit for refined but refreshing florals?”
I can’t agree more. After many years of seeing designs based on geometric repetitions or reduced versions of floral motifs, there is something captivating about the lushness and vibrancy of a good chintz design.
From top: Late 18th- or early 19th-century printed English cotton with exotic and stylized floral and foliage, supplied by Titi Halle of Cora Ginsburg Gallery; Austrian or Swedish, printed linen by Josef Frank printed linen "Botany" from the 1930’s/1940’s, supplied by Titi Halle of Cora Ginsburg Gallery; a French block printed floral chintz curtain panel from the mid 19th century; William Morris’ “Strawthief” textile design; document chintzes discovered by John Fowler and then made into new designs for Colefax and Fowler; “Tree Peony,” a chintz style printed on linen from Colefax and Fowler fabrics.