Marion Dorn (1896-1964)

Born Marion Victoria Dorn

Sector: Household Goods (Textiles)

Marion Dorn was a groundbreaking textile designer who was born and educated in the United States but had her most successful years, artistically and commercially, in Britain between the wars. Most famous for her rugs, which can be seen in iconic Art Deco and Modernist buildings, she also designed curtains, upholstery fabric, wallpaper, scarves and theatrical costumes and illustrated books and magazine articles. Her clients included London Underground, the Savoy Hotel Group and P&O Liners as well as influential private customers. In 1934 she was one of the first textile designers to set up her own business, Marion Dorn Ltd.

Marion came from a wealthy and progressive family and spent four years studying graphic design at Stanford University in California between 1912 and 1916. Then she moved to San Francisco to live with her former tutor, Henry Varnum Poor. They married in March 1919 and later relocated to the East Coast where Marion started producing hand-drawn batiks and hand-printed textiles. She had early successes, with her work featured in a 1920 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on American Industrial Art.

Her marriage did not last and in 1923 Marion set off for Europe with a friend. In Paris, she was exposed to the textile designs of Raoul Dufy and Sonia Delaunay and it was there that she reconnected with the London-based American graphic artist Edward McKnight Kauffer, whom she had met in New York in 1921. They fell in love, he left his wife, Grace, and young daughter and Marion moved to London to live with him.

Marion Dorn (1896-1964) Textile designer and maker
Marion Dorn. c. 1936, by Carl van Vechten. From Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University (c) Van Vechten Trust
The backdrop is her design for Warner and Sons, ‘Scallop Shell’.

Kauffer had already built a name for himself designing posters for transport companies, retail stores, exhibitions and Hilda Leyel‘s Golden Ballot and had an established network in London. The couple collaborated on projects throughout their careers, in the early days working on theatrical productions. Marion designed costumes for the touring productions of the Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre that criss-crossed the country, while Kauffer did the sets. They also created sets and costumes for a production Henry IV at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead in 1925.

Marion’s batik work soon caught the eye of power couple Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland, then editor and fashion editor of Vogue respectively. They were influential advocates for Marion during the 1920s and 30s, using their books and columns to promote her work.   In May 1925, Dorothy featured five of her designs in a double-page spread and gave her more coverage in October. Where Vogue led, others quickly followed. Soon Marion’s fabrics were being stocked by Elspeth Anne Little in her shop, Modern Textiles, alongside designs by Paul Nash and Enid Marx.

When socialite Cynthia Noble set up an interiors business in Hanover Square in November 1926, Marion supplied some of the furnishings. Five months later, Dorothy Warren opened her eponymous art gallery at 39a Maddox Street and Marion decorated the bathroom of her adjoining flat with batik friezes. (The gallery would become infamous in June 1929 when it staged a show of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and was raided by the police who confiscated 12 of the 25 works under obscenity laws.). In 1927, two of Marion’s batik works were displayed on the Modern Textiles stand at the International Exhibition of Arts and Crafts in Leipzig.

In 1928, Marion had a breakthrough when the Wilton Royal Carpet company asked her to design rugs for them. This was the first of a series of partnerships with commercial textile manufacturers that enabled Marion to take on large, high-profile commissions.   Although some designs were made in limited editions of ten, many of Marion’s rugs were space-specific, the design made in light of the size, scale, colour scheme and function of the room in which it would be placed. They were as much a work of art as what was on the wall.

The economist and Bloomsbury Group member John Maynard Keynes had always had a good eye for art.  In 1918, when the collection of Eduoard Degas was being auctioned off, he persuaded the British government to bid for a number of pieces that now form part of the National Gallery collection and snapped up a Cezanne for himself.  A Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1929 he commissioned Marion and McKnight Kauffer to re-decorate the Senior Combination Room. The futurist look of Marion’s brown and cream velvet curtains and Kauffer’s rugs was later admired by Einstein and the patterns were made publicly available. Marion’s other successful projects included scarves for Fortnum & Mason and ten illustrations for a new translation of William Beckford’s ‘Vathek’ published by the Nonesuch Press, four of which are shown here. 

The design explosion of the 1930s
The 1930s was a golden age of textile design in Britain.  New customs duties rules were introduced in November 1931 in response to the global economic slump.  The Abnormal Importations Act put hefty tariffs on a range of goods manufactured outside the British Empire, incentivising local sourcing.

This coincided with, and accelerated, the commercialisation of a new textile manufacturing process, hand-screen printing.  Up until now there had been two main techniques. Machine-roller printing used a range of designs engraved on copper rollers. To generate a return on the capital invested in the core manufacturing equipment and each engraved roller, large volumes of cloth had to be printed. Hand-block printing offered more opportunity for experimentation but was a slow process, limiting the quantities of fabric that could be made. Hand-screen printing offered a middle-way.  The design, which could include paint-brush and dappled effects, was stencilled onto a large screen, a relatively low cost process that then enabled the design to be transferred as a repeat onto longer lengths of cloth.  Manufacturers like Warner Textiles and Edinburgh Weavers were prepared to invest innovative designs and Marion was one of the first designers to benefit.  

Magnolia and Ivy prints designed for Edinburgh Weavers in 1936 and 1938, (c) V&A Collections

Texture was a signature of Marion’s rugs and textiles. A lot of the effect in the rug she created for Syrie Maugham‘s famous White Room came from the pattern created by different weaves. She also paid meticulous attention to colour, working with around 500 different shades including multiple shades of white, cream, beige, brown and black.

Marion Dorn Ltd was set up in 1934 with the headquarters at 10 Lancashire Court, just behind Bond Street. The directors were an interesting and influential crowd. Rose Taylor was a buyer for Fortnum & Mason’s fashion department and had recently established her own clothing brand. Eric Craven (E.C.) Gregory was an early patron of Henry Moore and ran Lund Humphries, a printers and publishers.  In December 1933 he staged the first exhibition in Britain of the work of May Ray in his basement art gallery.  Kathryn Hamill Cohen was a former Ziegfeld Follies star who was also a good friend of Serge Chermayeff, co-designer of the De La Warr Pavilion. She later had an affair with Patricia Highsmith that provided the inspiration for a short story filmed as ‘Carol’ by Todd Haynes in 2015 with Cate Blanchett. Kauffer was also a director.

Commercial collaborations
During the 1930s, Marion worked on prestigious private commissions and large-scale commercial projects. A key client was the Savoy Hotel Group, now being run by Helen Lenoir‘s step-son, Rupert D’Oyly Carte.  His Devon home, Coleton Fishacre, (where one of Marion’s rugs can now be seen) was designed by Oswald Milne and in 1931, D’Oyly Carte gave him the commission to extend Claridges and bring it into the 1930s. Marion provided some dramatic rugs for the entrance and other public areas. She also designed carpets for the Berkeley Hotel and the Savoy including a 600m sq carpet for the Savoy Grill, in a futurist design of orange, cream and brown to symbolise heads of corn.

Pale green carpet designed by Marion Dorn in a geometric design of swirls and squares at Coleton Fishacre © National Trust / Ken Hartley

Other commissions included rugs for the new BBC building at Portland Place, the grand entrance hall of the modernist extension to Eltham Palace and Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary. Through McKnight Kauffer’s work for Crawfords Advertising Agency during the 1920s Marion had become friends with Ashley and Margaret Havinden and was part of their network that between the wars. Old Bleach Linens was a client of Crawfords during the 1930s and by 1936 Marion started making designs for their fabrics, too.

Marion’s carpets in Claridges and the 1st class lounge of the RMS Orion (c) RIBA

Over at one of Cunard’s competitors, the family-run Orient Line, the directors had agreed to let Colin Anderson manage the design of their new liner, the RMS Orion. A fan of the Bauhaus, he wanted a sleek look that would bring the feel of travel on the seas into line with the modern hotel experience. The architect he eventually chose, Brian O’Rorke, had already asked Marion to do some of the interior design for Ashcombe Tower in Devon. Marion and Kauffer both worked on the Orion, launched in December 1934, and their role was later recognised by Anderson as pivotal. Kauffer designed an engraved glass mural for the dining room, floor inlays and a range of graphics including luggage labels while Marion designed the rugs for the main first-class public rooms. They collaborated again on the RMS Orcades in 1937.

Marion’s fringed ‘Lodore’ fabric

Oliver Hill was another architect who was a fan of Marion’s work. They worked on Joldwynds, a large private house in Surrey, and he commissioned several carpets for the public areas at the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. Marion’s textured fabric, ‘Lodore’, created a dramatic curtains for the spiral staircase at the centre of Holthanger Manor (now known as Cherry Hill) in Wentworth, Surrey. When Marion was deemed ineligible for inclusion in the Exhibition of British Art in Industry at the Royal Academy in 1935, Hill incorporated her textiles into his room so her work was seen.

Marion and Betty Joel both contributed to the interiors another Hill house, Landfall, in Poole built between 1936 and 1938 and in 1937, Marion was featured in Betty Joel’s Jubilee exhibition highlighting women’s interior design work.

In 1936, Frank Pick came calling. He had been driving the look and feel of London Underground’s design since the early 1900s, commissioning many posters from McKnight Kauffer over the years and adopting Harry Beck’s new graphic map. Now Managing Director, he wanted new fabric designs for the seating.

Between 1937 and 1939 Marion created eight fabric designs, which were made in hard-wearing moquette and her only textile designs that were mass-produced.

Colindale Leaf, one of Marion’s moquette designs for London Underground

Even regal bottoms sat on her designs: she provided carpets, draperies and upholstery in tweeds and shades of brown for the Royal Train that was presented to King George VI and Queen Eliz­abeth at the beginning of their reign.  By the late 1930s, Marion was working with all the leading of the architects of the day and was starting to reach wider markets as Heals stocked textile designs she had made for Edinburgh Weavers. As the decade drew to an end, she was riding high but the Second World War was soon to bring her career in Britain to a close.

Return to the U.S.
In 1940, an invasion of Great Britain started to look like a real risk and the American Embassy urged US citizens to leave the country. Marion and McKnight Kauffer returned to New York. where Marion continued to work on designs for wallpapers and carpets. She took new design inspiration from Mexican and Latin American history and found a new partner in Edward Fields’ carpet company. Her commissions for Fields included rugs for the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, New York and the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in 1960.

Although Marion is often referred to as ‘Mrs Dorn’ in newspaper articles during the 1920s and 30s, it was not until 1950 that she and Kauffer were finally married. He died four years years later. In 1962 Marion decided to move once again, this time to Morocco, where she set up a studio in Tangiers. It was to be a short-lived venture: she died there two years later in 1964.

Although she left Britain in 1940, she was not forgotten by her industry colleagues.  In 1957, she was made an Honorary Member of the British Society of Industrial Artists, at that point the only American and only the second woman to be so honoured. Her rugs, both originals and replicas can still be seen in houses managed by English Heritage and the National Trust and her contribution to British design history is commemorated with a blue plaque in Chelsea.

This article draws on the work of Dr Christine Boydell, her 1996 book ‘The Architect of Floors: modernism, art and Marion Dorn designs’ and her 1995 articles ‘Free-lance Textile Design in the 1930s: An Improving Prospect?’ in Journal of Design History, Vol 8(1), P.27-42 and ‘The Decorative Imperative: Marion Dorn’s Textiles and Modernism’ in Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850-the Present, 19, P. 31-40

Other sources include:

The Leeds Mercury 16/3/1925; Vogue, 1925; Westminster Gazette 27/10/1926; 30/11/1926; 25/4/1927; Daily Mirror 25/2/1929; Britannia & Eve 1/10/1929; Westminster Gazette 13/1/1930; Daily Mirror 14/1/1930; 17/4/1933; New York Times 7/2/1957; 29/1/1964

‘Travelling Players’ by Eleanor Elder (1939); ‘Alistair Morton and Edinburgh Textiles: visionary textiles and modern art’ by Lesley Jackson (2012)

‘Marion Dorn, Textile Designer’ by Valerie Mendes (1978) The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1890-1940 P.24-35; Exhibition guide to Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers published by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (1978); ‘The Ship-owner as an Art Patron: Sir Colin Anderson and the Orient Line 1930-1960’ by Veronica Sekules (1986) The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850-the Present P.22-33

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