Curator's Corner

Gem of the Month: Mary White

By Karl Cole, posted on Apr 12, 2021

As long as I’m pining for the greenery of spring to emerge, I’ll indulge in one of the wonderful art works in our collection that brings that pining to mind. As you know, I’m a big foe of the term “decorative arts,” because no matter the medium, something made with aesthetics, sensitivity, and skill is made by an artist, no “decorative” needed.

Textile design by Mary White titled Cottage Garden (1958-1960). Abstract, line drawing plants with additions of mustard and teal on white background.
Mary White (born 1926/1930, England), Cottage Garden textile, 1958–1960. Printed cotton plain weave, 16 ¼" x 48 ½" (41.3 x 123.2 cm). Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2021 Mary White. (PMA-6317)


Cottage Garden is one of textile designer Mary White's most popular designs. White has admitted to being drawn to the designs of Arts and Crafts Movement pioneer William Morris (1834–1896), and Cottage Garden certainly reflects the influence of some of Morris's wallpaper patterns in the stylized, flattened natural forms. Just as Morris was inspired by his nature walks, White's designs, too, were inspired by the Kent countryside, as well as books of wildflowers.

Only after the Arts and Crafts movement that began in the latter half of the 1800s, and the Wiener Werkstätte and Bauhaus schools of the early 1900s, did fine artists begin to show interest in such media as textiles, ceramics, furniture, and jewelry. The three movements elevated these art forms to fine art status by including them as important elements of fine art curricula.

In Britain, before, during, and after the Arts and Crafts Movement, one of the leading entities in fiber arts, furniture, and design was the home furnishings retailer Heal's (formerly Heal and Son). During the 1950s and 60s, Heal’s was a major retailer of modern textiles, bringing vibrant, rhythmic designs into the homes of everyday consumers. Many of White’s most iconic designs were commissioned by Heal’s. (Read more about Heal's in my post from 2016.)

Born in Margate, Kent, White studied textile design at the Thanet School of Arts and Crafts (Margate). She became an iconic designer of textiles in the Mid-Century Modern craze that was an off-shoot of the International Style in architecture and furniture. Her designs reflect the same clean, simplified aesthetic as the International Style, and yet contain a connection with nature not part of modern, urban architecture. She was sufficiently esteemed to have been commissioned to design interior textiles for the RMS Queen Mary and for Heathrow Airport in London.