Born on 3rd October 1934, Shirley Craven studied at Hull College of Art in the northern city that was to become one of the most heavily bombed cities in Britain during World War II. Despite the challenges of the time (the Craven’s home was bombed along with hundreds of others in the ‘north east town’) she managed to achieve a scholarship at the age of twelve to study art.
Escaping this urban reality, it was the countryside north of the city of Hull that served up her earliest inspiration, in the wide open spaces of the North York Moors. Having spent time there during the war, and with her extended family who resided up there, this area of natural beauty with its heather clad landscapes strewn with sheep and Jurassic coastline would have a lasting effect on her work.
Shirley Craven at the age of 25 in 1959
(Credit: Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives)
Without the assistance of scholarship schemes, it’s hard to know whether Craven would have made it as far as she did, certainly in terms of her academic education (full time student grants were not introduced until 1962). Initially awarded a scholarship to study at Hull Junior College of Art, it was a further scholarship that enabled her to progress to Hull College of Art, where she studied sculpture, painting and textiles. The Princess of Wales Scholarship led her to study at the Royal College of Art (1955-58) where she specialised in printed textiles. Having had to pass a fiercely competitive entrance exam, it was her talent that secured her a place at the prestigious RCA.
Above 1961: Kaplan by Shirley Craven in two colourways
The Royal College of Arts, London
The RCA during this time was a hot bed of designers and artists that would become famous within their own right, including David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield and Barbara Brown – who went on to to teach Zandra Rhodes, as did Humphrey Spender who also taught Shirley Craven. If you take a look at the RCA website you will find a fascinating interview with Rhodes about her time there, including the fact that only twelve places were available each year for textile students! Other alumni from the 1950s include Pat Albeck, the successful textiles designer who had taken a similar career pathway to Craven. Born in Hull, Albeck studied at Beverley High School (not far from the AndersBrowne headquarters) before progressing to Hull College and being accepted to study at the RCA.
Above 1974: Pansy by Pat Albeck for Cavendish Textiles (Credit: Design Council / Manchester Metropolitan University)
Other RCA alumni who went on to provide designs for Hull Traders included Roger Limbrick, John Drummond, Althea McNish and Doreen Dyall (who started at the RCA at the same time as Craven and was a close friend from the off).
During this period, Craven’s work was already making waves, having been featured in Tatler magazine, amongst other press, and in 1957 Wilson Textiles produced her design Furl. 1957 must have been quite an eventful one because it was also the year she married Bernard Holdaway, a fellow student studying interiors.
A year after graduating, Shirley Craven came to the attention of Tristram Hull and Stanley Coren, following an approach made on her behalf by Holdaway. Her work featured in their 1959 collection, ‘Young British Artists Design for the Nineteen Sixties’, and included one of her first commercial designs Heptad, which you can see hanging in the new AndersBrowne showroom on Hull’s Humber Street - opening late October 2020. This wall hanging will be accompanied by a print of this article's cover photo, very kindly printed by the Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.
Above 1959: Heptad by Shirley Craven
Le Bosquet also featured in the collection and achieved a Design Centre Award the following year. Much publicity followed; her work was featured in many prestigious exhibitions and across the national press.
Above 1959: Le Bosquet by Shirley Craven
A Screen Printing Revolution
Before we continue, it’s worth mentioning the fact that the textiles industries had been flagging but designers like Craven helped to boost its fortunes, creating the Mid Century designs that have endured. Silk screen printing has a very long history, originating in China over 1000 years ago but its popularity and usage within Western design industries really took a hold in the mid 20th Century when new processes meant that artists and designers could reproduce their patterns and designs on a larger scale. The advent of photography and photo reactive chemicals during the Victorian age also led the way to printmaking methods still utilised to this day.
Over in Denmark, textile artist Marie Gudme Leth had helped to revive the Danish textiles industry by forgoing traditional block printmaking for new screen printing techniques. Having seen new methods of printing in German factories, she created a process that could be applied to fabric surface design, allowing for the creation of complex, multi colour designs that could be produced on a greater scale. Pioneering new methods of screen printing for industrialisation purposes during the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for new designers during one of Britain’s most exciting eras of textile design. It was against this backdrop and the need for fresh ways of thinking, post war, that designers like Shirley Craven emerged with their exciting new creations.
In post war Britain a new age was dawning. From dark days there emerged a need to shine a bright light on the best of British manufacturing and design. Things didn’t happen overnight but initiatives like the Festival of Britain six years after the war end played a key role in kickstarting the economy. New materials and manufacturing processes, many of which were as a result of the war period, emerged and made way for firms like Hull Traders to bring colour and vivacity into people’s lives.
Hull Traders is known for its textile designs but it actually began life as a showcase for artists working across various mediums and crafts.
Tristram Hull was the publisher and editor who launched and gave his name to Hull Traders, which he founded in Willesden, London in 1957 in partnership with Stanley Coren. Initially they hosted trade events where they showcased British design and craft, especially works created by fresh talent, before specialising in textiles.
The exhibitions presented a broad spectrum of art and design, including furniture, glass, ceramics and textiles. Hull Traders’ first showcase was in the studio of the textile designer John Drummond in October 1957 and was simply called Time Present (You’ll spot this on the selvedge of Hull Traders’ fabrics). Onsite were works by Drummond and the photographer Nigel Henderson who established Hammer Prints Ltd. together with Eduardo Paolozzi. As an aside, Paolozzi also taught at Central St Martins, as it’s now called, and it was said to be he who inspired Althea McNish to change course from graphics to textiles.
In September 1958, Hull Traders provided work by up and coming British designers to the grand Lord and Taylor department store, New York.
In 1960, Peter Neubert took over the company, which is when Shirley Craven was appointed. Neubert had been the company salesman and a shareholder who eventually bought Hull and Coren out. Neubert seems to have immediately clicked with Craven, realising her expertise and artistic vision could be of huge benefit to the new direction he had in mind for the firm. Craven rose from Colour and Design Consultant to Director of the company within two years. She was given the freedom required to focus on the design and textiles side of the business whilst Bernard Holdaway would later design for the firm’s furniture side.
Even as early as 1960, the CoID's Design Journal recognised Craven’s impact on the work produced by Hull Traders, describing the company as producing ‘adventurous and exciting designs’ which they attributed to Craven’s dramatic use of pattern and colour.
By 1961, Hull Traders had acquired a print works in Trawden, Lancashire which gave them greater flexibility to experiment and have complete control over their processes. The rich pigments used in their dyes were essential to the final bold colours, which became a trademark.
Above 1961: Pasco by Shirley Craven (Credit: Design Council / Manchester Metropolitan University)
Shirley Craven at Hull Traders
By 1963 Craven was Chief Designer and a Director of the company. It was here she worked for just short of twenty years, designing in excess of 40 patterns for the firm. Under Craven’s artistic direction, Hull Traders produced limited editions by hand, using pigment dyes rather than vat dyes, which rest on the fabric surface allowing for a more fluid artistic approach.
Above L - R 1961: Phoenix by Craven and Holdaway (created just before the birth of their first child) / 1963: Division, Redland and Sixty Three by Craven (Credit: Design Council / Manchester Metropolitan University)
Over the next two decades, Hull Traders would commission and produce the work of fresh new talent and established artists, such as the esteemed Ivon Hitchens. Of note were Trevor Coleman, Dorothy Carr, Doreen Dyall, Flavia Irwin, Peter McCulloch, Roger Limbrick, Cliff Holden, Richard Allen, Althea McNish, Elizabeth Armstrong (who created Sigma) and John Dummond, many of whom had been involved in the earliest days of Hull Traders.
Shirley Craven had earned a reputation early on for her bold, abstract style regarded as exciting and unconventional, translating her artistic works into large scale pattern layouts and repeats. She was inspired by the world around her, with music and the natural landscape playing an important role and had the means to produce work fairly spontaneously. Having been given the freedom of the factory floor, she could translate her designs quickly, bringing them to life without feeling constrained by bureaucratic processes.
Above 1965: Lomax hand printed cotton furnishing fabric (Credit: Design Council / Manchester Metropolitan University)
Bold and colourful textiles were created by hand in short editions and sold, many to order, to commercial buyers to accommodate large spaces such as hotels where they were used for upholstery and drapes.
With Craven’s artistic drive and Neubert’s business acumen, Hull Traders went on to become one of the 1960’s most fashionable interiors businesses producing awe inspiring textiles and furniture designs.
The 1966 tomotom collection designed by Bernard Holdaway (1934 – 2009) is one of the most well know ranges from this era.
“Bernard Holdaway has been appointed senior lecturer in interior design at Leeds College of Art. Mr Holdaway studied interior design at Kingston College of Art and at the Royal College of Art, where he won a gold medal for outstanding work. He is the designer of Hull Traders’ Tomotom and Trawden furniture and is married to textile designer Shirley Craven.” Excerpt from the April 1968 edition of the Design Council’s Design Journal.
Although not designed by Craven, despite her having creative input, the tomotom series deserves mention for being one of the most easily recognisable ranges from Hull Traders’ furniture side. The range epitomised the mid Sixties throw away aesthetic and use of modern materials in mass produced furniture.
Launched at the 1966 Ideal Home Exhibition, in response to a brief entitled, ‘Old Rooms, New Rooms’, tomotom consisted of cardboard and chipboard furniture designs, sprayed in bold enamel paint colours.
Holdaway’s aim was to create a furniture system that would be low cost to manufacture. His designs were, in part, inspired by the strength of cardboard cylinders used at the core of industrial fabric bolts. The initial results were showcased within a Victorian house setting to indicate the contrast between old and new, demonstrating how modern furniture could be incorporated into the British terrace house. Pre showcase, Holdaway presented a gloss paint sprayed cardboard piece to Neubert who became a champion to the cause. Neubert not only came up with a way to manufacture the items, by sourcing appropriate materials and putting it into production, he was also instrumental in the final name too. The resulting designs also featured PVC cushions, making them wipe down, low cost items and ideal for young families with small children.
The chairs, tables, storage units and lamps had that quintessential Sixties look, circular, simple, modern and were initially sold by mail order. Original colours, chosen by Craven, included royal blue and pillar box red with black, white, yellow, green and purple to follow. The media went mad for the designs, which graced the pages of publications ranging from the Design Journal to The Daily Mail and The Telegraph and glossy interiors magazines. The range made it onto television too, even making an appearance on Doctor Who. This was not furniture built to last generations but was fun, inventive and impactful, feeding new buyers who were eager to consume fresh designs in the throwaway era of Pop Culture.
Above Design Journal ed. 226 October 1967
Above Design Journal 'roll your own' October 1971
(Images above: Design Council / Manchester Metropolitan University)
Award Winning Reputation
Hull Traders went on to produce many ranges of furniture during the 1960s and 1970s but throughout, their reputation for bold textiles continued to grow. Holdaway and Craven would be featured in editorial pieces across the media, which fawned over new influential designers of the age.
Above Design Journal ed. 222 June 1967
Above Design Journal ed. 233 May 1968
(Credit for both images: Design Council / Manchester Metropolitan University)
Shirley Craven’s vibrant painterly work was free flowing, expressing her artistic talents across textiles that would be seen in many a commercial setting. Her use of colour in applied design formed part of the zeitgeist of the 1960s, helping to define the look of the decade.
Cotton Board Design Awards
CoID Design Centre Awards
1960: Le Bosquet, Heptad.
1964: Shape, Division, Sixty Three.
1968: Five, Simple Solar.
Above 1967: Five hand screen printed cotton linen
Above 1967: Simple Solar hand screen printed cotton satin
(Credit for both images: Design Council / Manchester Metropolitan University)
Twenty five years after its exciting beginnings, when the commercial world had soaked up fresh new designers like a sponge, Hull Traders ceased to be. In 1980 Hull Traders Ltd. of Trawden, Colne Lancashire became part of Badehome Ltd., two years later the company was dissolved.
It seems incredible to think that the company didn’t make it into the Eighties. In the decade that saw Habitat opening across the country, one would have thought the vibrant collaboration of artists that contributed to Hull Traders would have seen the company thrive. Sadly, it wasn’t to be but that’s not to say the appreciation for Hull Traders ceased.
As with so many British Mid Century textile designs, the creations that came out of the Hull Traders’ factory are now commanding large sums. Shirley Craven’s work is highly sought after and best savoured in the interior settings they were created for or as wall art where the large scale repeats can be fully appreciated as the works of art they were and still are.
Above Design Journal ed. 290 February 1973. Bottom row, number 5: Above the Clouds by Shirley Craven
Cover photo credit:
Cover photo. By Permission of Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives,
Shirley Craven, designer, with Heptad Design 1959
Comments will be approved before showing up.
Described by the Irish Times as Ireland’s most famous furniture designer, Eileen Gray was born forty years before women in the UK gained the right to vote. She designed the world’s most expensive chair; shook up the Société des Artistes Français with her Avant Garde designs; mixed with Paris’ wealthy and intellectual set during Les Années Folles; flouted gender norms and was openly bi-sexual and became a successful designer, architect and business woman, despite having no formal training. Designer of the iconic E1027 side table and home and Transat chair, Eileen Gray forged a truly outstanding career from the elaborately ornate to pioneering modernist design.