If Rumpelstiltskin turned straw into gold, Peter Collingwood, the British textile designer, is an alchemist of at least equal accomplishment. The 77-year-old designer-artist-craftsman has been inventing new weaving techniques since the 1950s. The techniques, he says, not only allow the loom to do things it hasn't done before. They allow the textile designer to produce unusual rugs, hangings and fiber pieces quickly and inexpensively so they can be affordable to many more people.
Impressive as that may be, it understates the power of his work, as seen in the retrospective, "Peter Collingwood: Master Weaver," at the Textile Museum. The show, which runs through Jan. 23, includes his Finnish-inspired rugs from the 1950s. And it moves on to astonishing wall hangings from the 1960s that recall the paintings of Vasarely. It culminates in what Collingwood calls "macrogauzes," three-dimensional Noguchi-like hangings that fascinate the viewer both in their harmony and in their effortless achievement of sculpture from bands of thread. Because of the techniques, Collingwood says, the pieces can be reproduced quickly and purchased for prices ranging from $60 to $800.
In a nod to the industrial age, he has made one huge fiber sculpture from stainless steel strands.
"Collingwood's work is meticulous and intellectual," says Jack Lenor Larsen, the noted American textile designer.
"I always had this idea that you should make things for use," says Collingwood. "I wanted to speed up the process, to sell. And I liked the fact that ordinary people could buy.
"With artists, the design comes from above. I always think of the technique and see what kind of design will rise out of it."
Sounds like a post-Bauhaus design guru? Maybe, but it's really by chance.
Collingwood was educated and trained as a physician and, after World War II, ended up in Jordan with the Red Cross. It was there that he became interested in weaving and its many design possibilities.
After a short apprenticeship outside London, he established his own workshop, turning out place mats using then-unconventional materials like rush and cellophane, shopping them around to stores large and small.
"Peter extended odd materials into his work," says Linda Theophilus, a British curator who organized the current show, which includes the early place mats. "His desire to bring well-designed things to everybody was a widespread concern in the 1950s, and Peter contributed to that aesthetic."
But place mats didn't hold him long. "I wanted to find ways to make things quick that didn't look like other people's weavings," he says, explaining his foray into rugs and the invention of "shaft switching," a technique that allowed him to weave unusual shapes into rugs, using levers, but to keep the rugs more affordable.
"Tapestry and knotting were the only techniques that gave free design," he explained. "But these are very slow. With shaft switching, you could do complicated designs quickly."
One invention led to another. From rugs, Collingwood launched himself into wall hangings that he named "anglefells," with subtle geometric designs that emerge when the weft threads are beaten diagonally.
The anglefells led to the macrogauzes which were, at first, two-dimensional fiber hangings with repeating areas of negative space and geometric forms that emerged when Collingwood crossed the warp threads diagonally, after stopping them using a horizontal wire rod. He thought of the idea after seeing an exhibit at the American Craft Museum of the ground breaking American fiber artist Lenore Tawney, who crossed the warp fibers but had to untie the fibers from the loom every time she wanted to cross them, a long and laborious process.
"I knew," says Collingwood, "that if I could think of a quick way to cross the warp threads over, that would lead to a family of hangings. The thing I like to do with weaving is disobey the rules, like the weft is supposed to be at right angles to the warp. Or that the warp runs from one end of a fabric to the other."
The two-dimensional macrogauzes led to the intricate three-dimensional fiber pieces in which the strands, with apparent ease, flow in and out of each other to form geometric shapes.
The most recent piece, made of stainless steel threads, represented a challenge to Collingwood because he had never worked with industrial, as opposed to organic, materials. The Japanese textile designer Junichi Arai gave him the stainless steel filaments and dared him to make a piece.
There is no worry of degradation, as with organic fibers, Collingwood points out. And he found the stainless steel threads to be as soft as silk.