August 2017

In 1913 the painter and art critic Roger Fry reported to a journalist that “it is time that the spirit of fun was introduced into furniture and into fabrics. We have suffered too long from the dull and the stupidly serious”.

A fitting statement for the founder of the Omega Workshops, an experimental design collective, whose members included Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and other artists of the Bloomsbury Group. Introducing the experimental language of avant-garde art to domestic design in traditional Edwardian Britain was the aim for this group of intellectual creatives.

A contrast to the industrial colours of a nation recently released from the shackles of the Victorian era, the Omega Workshop was a laboratory of radical design ideas, creating a range of objects for the home all boldly coloured with dynamic, abstract patterns. From rugs and linens to ceramics, furniture and clothing, the workshop’s designs enlivened an otherwise dreary world, still living in the grips of industrialisation.

Located on Fitzroy Square, the Omega Workshops epitomised the Bloomsbury Group’s endeavours, pushing the barriers of both design and intelligentsia through the employment of vivid colours, abstracted patterns and references to cultural happenings. The ethos of coming together, under a shared premises, created a sense of equality and modernity. This was further enforced through the use of the Greek letter Ω, Omega, which was used to sign all work. No design nor artist was singled out, instead the group’s presence was seen as a collective one; unified in the desire to create something which stood up to the norms of Edwardian life and beliefs.

A refuge for encouragement, the workshop was also a place where likeminded individuals could meet and exchange ideas. Every artist was provided with a means to make a living through designing and decorating furniture, textiles and other household accessories, alongside their personal artistic endeavours. In doing so, each artist was able to transcend their specific expertise into creating truly original and unique designs. Furthermore, Fry was content with removing what he saw as the false division between the fine and decorative arts. He was keen to see some of the main ideas of post-impressionism, such as bright colours and bold, simplified forms applied to design.

The autumn of 1914 saw the creation of the Omega Workshop’s Descriptive Catalogue, providing accessibility to all. To promote the designs of the artistic collective, three rooms at the workshops’ premises on Fitzroy Square were decorated in the Omega Style; soon, this space became the only place to shop for a Fauve shawl, a Post-Impressionist chair or a Cubist-inspired rug.

The workshops survived the duration of the First World War but closed in 1919. Whilst they only operated for six years, their impact on the design world and the influence they had on liberating the grey Edwardian era lived on for generations, influencing the likes of Henry Moore and Tibor Reich whose fabric designs were bold and daring. At its core, the Omega Workshops were a design collaborative who sought to challenge the commercial market of domestic interiors all whilst bringing vibrancy and optimism to a country marching towards modernity. 

Photography © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery & Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett 
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