The life work of Marie Gudme Leth

Marie Gudme Leth (1895-1997)
(1895-1997) Se tidslinje
Design Museum Denmark, Copenhagen Se kort

By Charlotte Jul, skribent, editor and curator, 2006

Pattern intricacy 

Wow! Marie Gudme Leth is the uncontested master of Danish textile design. Her patterns are intricate, prolific, unique, exotic and even trendy today when nature and patterns are once again important elements of fashion, art and living. Gudme Leth set a fashion and made a regular science of composition, form, colours and textile printing. All her patterns were drawn by hand and printed on textile in a long and arduous work process that could take weeks. One of her patterns, Calicot, was even converted into a wallpaper by the Dahl Brothers wallpaper factory. 

Light and hard work 

The life work of Marie Gudme Leth is important because it comprises several landmarks. She made textile printing a recognised art form and hyped up the craft.

As a teacher at the School of Decorative Art in Denmark (Kunsthaandværkerskolen), she influenced a whole generation of students, including Arne Jacobsen’s wife, Jonna, who created a number of beautiful textiles in collaboration with Arne in the 1950s. On top of that Gudme Leth was an ambitious and independent woman who was passionate about her craft - a feminist in today’s perspective.
Her obvious fascination with and travels to ‘unknown’ places such as Java, Mexico, Turkey and Egypt made her atypical. Many of her works reflected this inspiration. Through her participation in three world exhibitions in 1937, 1939 and 1955, she contributed to the world fame of Danish textile design. 

Who’ll be first? 

To Gudme Leth, nature with its birds, leaves and flowers was a treasury of incredible colours and shapes. Her Swedish counterpart was Josef Frank and their idioms with nature as the primary source of inspiration are very alike. Josef Frank has experienced a great renaissance in recent years and like Gudme Leth he was incredibly productive. Frank created more than 200 different patterns of which some are now available through Svensk Tenn in Malmoe. Finnish Marimekko has also seen a revival in the last four years - and the market is ready for more! I prophesy that Marie Gudme Leth’s wallpapers and textiles will have a similar renaissance. They can be seen by appointment at the Danish Museum of Art & Design in Copenhagen. I wonder who will be the first to put her textiles into production? 

Cherry, textile print, 0,79 x 4,5m, 6 colours, vistra (cellulose fiber). Designmuseet. Photo: Pernille Klemp og Ole Woldbye.
Marie Gudme Leth's sketch for the later work, Calicot. Designmuseet/heir: Hanne Backhaus. Photo: Pernille Klemp og Ole Woldbye.

Did you know?

Marie Gudme Leth's pattern Cherries with colorful birds between the cherry and fresh fruit were the most popular of Gudme Leth's textile printing- not least because Queen Ingrid chose this particular pattern for her three princesses' children's rooms.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Design and Arts, 2006

Today, there is a great deal of talk about a breakthrough for Danish fashion. In reality, it is largely a breakthrough for Danish textile art and a breakthrough that started with Marie Gudme Leth. There were others in her generation: Ruth Hull worked even more experimentally, and Axel Salto, who was a major pioneer in all area of applied art, introduced many new ideas from Vienna. However, Marie Gudme Leth was a skilled teacher and communicator, who opened a school for textile printing founded on knowledge and innovation. 

When printing textiles and tapestries, there are several challenges: First and foremost, the basic material affects the final result: linen, cotton and wool work differently with colours and it is a chemist’s role to determine the ideal collaboration between material and colour. Textile designers are thus often good at cooperating with engineers. However, the repeat pattern is a design challenge. The repeat pattern is the pattern that is extended across the material or paper and it is vital that this give a harmonious impression, whether it involves stripes, checks or more complex patterns where the interfacing in itself is a poetic challenge. Nowadays, these basic issues are extended to include strategic ‘flaws’ in the textile, or practically invisible patterns. However, none of this would have been possible if Marie Gudme Leth had not had a vision of an innovative, experimental textile print academy in Copenhagen.


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