Cliff Holden

Documents: 1963


This article, originally written in English by Edward Maze, was translated into Swedish and appeared in the first issue of the Swedish design magazine 'FORM' in 1963. The original English version now follows...

A little more than a decade ago an old London taxi (Austin 1934) pulled into Stockholm after having come all the way from London. An expensive way to travel? Not at all, since the meter had long since fallen off, the occupants owned the vehicle and it was by far the cheapest way for them to transport their paintings from England. Cliff Holden and two colleagues- Dennis Creffield and Dorothy Mead - were in town for an exhibition of their oil paintings at Gummesonís on fashionable Strandvägen. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the three English artists attracted considerably more attention than their canvasses, which, incidentally, the critics compared favourably to the paintings of Evert Lundquist, whose work they had never seen. Dressed in old-fashioned waistcoats, jackets that were too big and trousers that were too short, they looked exactly like those eccentric characters one encounters in the novels of Dickens, "Pickwick Papers" and "David Copperfield" first coming to mind.

Critically succesful the exhibition fell flat on its face from an economic standpoint. Two weeks later, after being celebrated and wined and dined by critics, painters, Swedish Radio and the British Embassy, Cliff Holden was washing dishes in the basement of Bernís Restaurant, which he described as a “cross between Kafka and Orwell.” Several months ago this same Cliff Holden - having long since discarded the London taxi (it broke down in Spain) and the Dickensonian clothes (although he still retains a slightly faded purple bow-tie in his wardrobe) - received the coveted London Design Centre Award for the best design of the year, a wallpaper, from the hand of Prince Philip. The Kafka-Orwell days, it seemed, were a thing of the past.

Holden entered the design field quite by accident and in spite of an early antipathy towards the industrial arts. His grandfather, a competent academic painter, had made a very good living as a textile designer. “His speciality was old English roses for Chintzes,” Holden recalls. “He was clever at it, but I thought his designs were awful. I swore as a boy that I would never do commercial art.” But in 1956, when he was exhibiting silk screen prints in Gothenburg, Holden met Lisa Grönwall and Maj Nilsson, graduates of the Göteborg Slöjdförening school. Impressed with his screen prints, they thought the medium, as he practiced it, could be used to advantage in the design field, especially with wallpaper and textiles.

The trio began to work together, and in 1959 established a studio on the rock-bound island of Marstrand. They worked as a team in the most literal sense of the word, even though each design bears only one name, the person who got the original idea. One of them has a basic idea, draws it on to the screen and prints a proof. Then all three discuss it, make changes and print it in repeat with colour ways. Also one of the group may start a drawing and give it to one of the others to finish.

Holden, a firm believer in the Guild system or group workshop, rejects what he calls the “cult of the individual.” As a closely-knit team he feels, they have the advantage of being able to criticise each other and so get the best out of the work. He contends that because of the pressures and the speed at which one must work for industry (they produced two designs a day, plus repeats and colour ways), it is virtually impossible for one person to consistently produce work at such a rapid rate.

The Marstrand Designers draw and compose directly on the screen, a rather unique method with many advantages apart from being very basic. For one thing, it allows the designer to demonstrate to the factory personnel that even the most complicated design is suited to commercial reproduction, since he has the evidence before his eyes in the form of a completed screen print. Drawing through the print medium, using the same process as the factory, leaves no doubt as to the feasibility of printing any design.

Holden explains their method this way; “Schools teach students to use screens as a printing process. We use screens as a compositional device - that is to say, we use screens as a tool or brush. Putting marks down directly on the screen preserves the vitality of the original idea. It also means that the design can be made in the size in which it was conceived. You can make a single organic line on a screen and from it evolve a whole composition. Industry uses screens for reproduction, we use them as a tool for creation.”

The choice of Marstrand as a place for a design studio was an excellent one for a number of reasons. It enabled the group to call themselves the Marstrand Designers - a catchy name that sticks in oneís mind. And clients coming from around the world, e.g. from England, Ireland, Australia, invariably find the island, with its toy ferry, rocks, delightful harbour and looming fortress, absolutely charming.

Most important, the island serves as an inspiration for creative activity. The team gets many of its design ideas from observing the nature around them: light on water, colour on boats, rocks, branches, bushes, leaves, fishing nets. But the treatment is built up organically rather than geometrically, by means of colour and light and space relations. Being close to nature, according to Maj Nilsson, has a pervading influence on the group, although theyíre not always out drawing. “Even though we work from nature,” says Lisa Grönwall, “we very often combine a series of apparently abstract lines and shapes which, when organized, give a greater sense of the reality of nature than one could obtain from a purely literal rendition.”

Holdenís award winning "Trifoliate" wallpaper, a clover-leaf pattern in delicate green, brown, blue and grey tones, came as a direct result of seeing leaves floating on water which gave the idea of an overlapping transparent effect. Maj Nilsson also turned to nature for her "Calligraphy" wallpaper design (the idea came from observing branches) which gained a prize in Sandersonís Centenary Design competition. A motif from a tree served as the inspiration for Lisa Grönwallís "Rhythm", a curtain design which took 2nd. Prize in a competition arranged by AB Stobo, Stockholm.

On the other hand, her carpet - a series of spontaneous organic lines splitting a circle - is an example of another approach. While not drawn directly from a natural motif, it nevertheless finds justification in nature either as an aerial perspective or a form seen through a microscope. Lisa Grönwall's design won an international award gaining 3rd. place against 27 countries. In selling designs for wallpaper and textiles to both Sweden and England, the group has found the British more receptive to full, vivid colours which, like the Finnish Rya rugs, are closer to painting. Swedish companies tend to choose colours that fit into the standard Swedish home furnishing style. Their experience has led them to conclude that British companies are more adventurous than their Swedish counterparts, with the former buying more extreme designs. Inevitably , perhaps, Cliff Holden is often asked about how his painting activity paralleled his design activity. He insists, immediately and in no uncertain terms, that he is first a painter. He paints for several months a year or splits the day between painting and design. He exhibits regularly and is represented, with three paintings in the Modern Museum, Stockholm and one in the Tate Gallery in London. He is also highly articulate on the subject of painting and design. “I think painting and designing have nothing in common,” he says. “But of course the fundamental approach is the same. That is to say that drawing is basic and fundamental to both. If you can draw you can paint, and if you can draw you can design. But painting is more satisfying to me because it is concerned with ideas of life. You paint to know yourself. You paint to find out what you are and what life is all about. But there are obviously easier ways to make a living. Design, on the other hand, doesn't deal with ideas at all. Itís purely a decorative, sensuous functional activity. I get much pleasure out of designing, in contrast to the agony of painting. First of all there is the satisfaction of doing a good job which functions in a given situation. One can also get sheer pleasure out of playing with lines, forms and colours. Itís a kind of recreation geared to the hard facts of industry. And youíve got to sell the product. I have no problems in designing, I just do it. Very often I allow the materials and tools to dictate the direction I will take. I make a mark, a line which leads to another line which leads to a shape. You take a colour and when youíre tired or bored with that colour you take another colour. The painter is molding the ideas in a culture, while the designer is shaping and molding manís environment.” Holden feels that if he hadn't become a painter he couldn't have become a designer. The impulse and vitality of his designs, he contends, come from his experience as a painter, as does the discipline. As a painter too he learned that certain forms can carry certain colours, and that sometimes the colour dictates the form and sometimes the form dictates a particular colour.

“I donít believe in training designers as designers,” he says. “The mistake the design schools make is that they donít supply a thorough training in the fundamentals of drawing. And on the other hand they have no direct knowledge of the specific requirements of industry. Those who are successful do so by perseverance through a long process of trial and error, and in spite of, rather than because of, their design school training.” Iconoclastically warming up to the subject, Holden went on to charge that contemporary Swedish design was in a sort of straight-jacket. He pointed to the fact that 25 years ago Sweden had established itself internationally as a country of sound designers with good taste. Swedish design filled a void then, whereas today, Holden feels, thereís no longer any void to fill. The once backward countries, from a design point of view, have now caught up, and therefore a new orientation in Sweden has become a matter of necessity. Holden complains that Swedish designers, instead of taking up the challenge, have been content to rest on their laurels. The old Swedish design revolution has become today's conservatism.As a result of this design in Sweden is nowadays often dry and monotonous. Holden continues: “I believe that Swedish design in general is too intellectual, too planned. I myself prefer to work through a series of "planned accidents". Even in science, for example, as in the discovery of penicillin, it is often a coincidental accident that reveals the discovery. The main point is on activity, but this activity must be canalised in a certain direction, and the genius is to take care of the accidents that can lead to a deviating road and to a richer goal. This happened when we were working on Maj Nilssonís pattern "Calligraphy" where we used an unintentional stippling which enriched the composition.”

Anyhow it seems as if the "planned accidents" of the Marstrand Designers are rather well planned. They have won many awards in different countries and the group's patterns for wallpaper and textiles have been sold and produced in England, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Holland, France and Germany. One of their designs has been bought for Windsor Castle and one for the Swedish American line shipping company. They have also sold designs to Formica for plastic laminates which have been used on ships and in Londonís Underground stations. Curtains chosen from Sandersonís Centenary collection and specially designed wall coverings were used in Park Avenueís Lorensberg Restaurant. Their recently concluded exhibition of wallpapers and textiles designed, selected and curated by the architects Rolf and Margareta Åberg at the prestigious Röhsska museum in Gothenburg, has earned many words of critical praise. Also this year Cliff Holden won an international award from the American Institute of Interior Designers, and was made an Honorary Associate Member. This was for a wallpaper design "Arcadia", part of the English Palladio range of wallpapers for architects.

Great things happen in little Marstrand.

[Page last updated: 12th October 2005]

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