One of the hidden gems of the Department of Special Collections and FIT Archives (SPARC) is the large collection of what we like to call ‘books of design and ornament.’ These types of books, which feature patterns and designs suitable for reproduction, date back at least to the middle of the eighteenth century when Thomas Chippendale published his 1754 book of designs for furniture and cabinetry, Gentleman and cabinet-maker’s director: being a large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and modern taste.
Throughout history, books like Chippendale’s were intended to serve as sources of inspiration for fellow designers and artisans who used the imagery in the application of their craft. During the Art Deco period in particular, these books were often created specifically with the textile and wallpaper industries in mind.
All of the images featured here have been rendered by pochoir, a labor-intensive hand-stenciling technique. Each color appearing in the design represents a single stencil that required meticulous alignment by the coloriste who applied layers of watercolor or gouache to each individual page. The medium is prized for its lushness and unparalleled vibrancy of color, and because of the inherent time and expense required, pochoir was used to illustrate deluxe publications that were intended for an elite readership. The technique was in its heyday during the early twentieth century and limited edition artist books and luxury fashion publications of the teens and twenties are two other segments of the publishing world that embraced pochoir.
The medium sadly faded out of use at the end of the twenties; even niche livre de luxe publishing houses were forced to succumb to the pressure of maximizing profits by way of mass-production. SPARC is home to some of the rarest examples of ‘books of design and ornament’ in the world, including these breathtaking examples from the Art Deco period.