From the Victorian era well into the 1930s, lace was an essential element of home decor. In every proper middle-class home, lace curtains adorned windows, and lace tablecloths dressed dining tables.
And manufacturing a substantial share of those home-decorating products was Philadelphia's own Quaker Lace Co. In its heyday, the company was one of the biggest and best-known makers of machine-loomed lace in the United States, with two sprawling factory complexes in Kensington that housed more than 100 giant looms.
Quaker Lace is gone now, pushed out of business by changing tastes, new technologies, and cheap manufacturing in Asia. But Philadelphia is once again a leader on lace, thanks to the Design Center at Philadelphia University's exhibition "Lace in Translation."
The show features works by Canadian metal sculptor Cal Lane, vanguard Dutch design group Demakersvan, and European design star Tord Boontje - all inspired by the Design Center's Quaker Lace Co. collection, which includes lace samples, advertising materials, and 13 notebooks full of original sketches by the company's prolific head designer, Frederick Charles Vessey.
In many ways, the exhibition brings lace from the machine-made back into the realm of the handmade, where it originated.
Lane, for example, applied one of the Quaker Lace patterns in the collection to a 2,000-gallon oil tank for the show, using a welding torch to cut into the metal. Lane, who once made her living as a welder on her way to becoming an artist, created the technique, which she refers to as "lacing out." She's become increasingly well known in the art world for her strangely beautiful transformations of such quotidian metal objects as shovels, wheelbarrows, oil cans, and cars. Lane's term for her welded filigree creations: "industrial doilies."
Also part of the exhibition is the first American installation of one of the Dutch firm Demakersvan's striking chain-link lace fences. Demakersvan (translation: "the makers of"), a young design firm founded by brothers Joep and Jeroen Verhoeven with partner Judith de Graauw, first conceived of the fences in 2003. One of the brothers even went to a lace-making class taught by elderly women to better understand the basic techniques. Now, the fences are fabricated in a workshop in India that uses the skills of former construction workers familiar with bending rebar. (One dramatic application of the fencing, which transforms chain-link from dreary to lyrical, uses the panels as walls to enclose a multistory bike "parkade" at a train station in the Netherlands.)
In Philadelphia, the seven-foot-high, 160-foot-long white-lace fence swoops along the curved driveway of the Design Center, which is housed in a Hollywood-style ranch house given to the school by Goldie Paley, mother of CBS founder William Paley. The fence has proved to be not only an eye-catcher, but also a car-stopper. Said Design Center assistant director Carla Bednar: "We've had people . . . pull up in the driveway to look at it."
All of the exhibition's contributors got the chance to come to Philadelphia to peruse the Quaker Lace collection before creating their designs. Tord Boontje, best known for his lacy "Until Dawn" curtain panels and "Midsummer Light" pendants for Artecnica (laser-cut out of a tough, paperlike synthetic material called Tyvek), seems to have been particularly transported by the experience.
"He had done all of these open, cut-work pieces," said collections curator Nancy Packer. "But when he looked at the collection, he got really fascinated by how structural lace really is. When he went home to France, he had the members of his design studio take classes in bobbin lace-making." (That technique, also called "pillow lace," dates from the 16th century and uses thread, wound on bobbins, that is twisted and braided into a pattern.)
"They also watched spiders making their webs," reports Packer. Indeed, the installation Boontje created for the Design Center gallery space includes a piece of furniture that looks as if it was spun by a gigantic arachnid. Boontje's spiderweb-like tete-a-tete (designed to allow two people to face each other) is hand-knotted out of black cord and hung from a steel frame.
For another room, to hang across the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows, Boontje, who returns to Philadelphia University on Wednesday to give a public talk, designed a raffia curtain that combines crochet, braiding, and macrame to create a lacy web of leaves and flowers.
The curtain, it turns out, was actually fabricated at Philadelphia University by a cadre of fashion and textile design students recruited by Bednar. "Tord gave us a 4-foot-by-4-foot prototype and asked, 'Can you make it?' " she said.
The project involved Bednar's tracing patterns of each of the flower and leaf elements. "Then I made each one myself, so I could see how long they would take to make and how complex they were," she said. After a one-day raffia-making workshop, she sent her troops off with a pattern and a box full of skeins of raffia. The final assembly took 31/2 months of painstaking work to piece the individual elements into a web of braided raffia. Boontje's reaction to the finished piece? "He loved it."
More than a few artists and designers are finding lace particularly ripe for reinterpretation these days. For evidence, take a look the exhibition Web site, whose "Your Translations" section invites visitors to post images and links to works they've been inspired by or created themselves.
There are photos of a lacy-textile installation in the windows of the Baltimore Museum of Art and of lace-pattern-embossed concrete panels designed for a building in Nottingham, England. There are shots of hand-crocheted silver wire jewelry and of a giant doily, laser cut from rip-stop nylon as part of an outdoor art exhibition. There is a link to a "Hand-embroidered blog," which features text stitched onto lace scraps, and to an article about fashion designer Roberto Cavalli's home in Italy, which features retractable steel screens laser-etched with a lacy leaf design.
The Design Center's Packer thinks Quaker Lace designer Vessey, who died in 1948, would have enjoyed all of these lace-inspired innovations.
"I think he would have loved the exhibition," she said of Vessey, who filled those sketchbooks now housed at the Design Center with studies of architectural motifs and Egyptian tomb paintings. "He was inspired by India, Persia, Pompeii, by tin ceilings and metal work," Packer said. "He looked to history, but what he was really interested in was how he could do modern adaptations of those designs."
"Lace in Translation" continues through April 3 at the Philadelphia Design Center at Philadelphia University, 4200 Henry Ave.; open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free.
With the exhibit, the center will host several special events.
From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today through Sunday in the Kanbar Center Performance Space at Philadelphia University, "The Art of Lacemaking" offers free demonstrations of lace techniques, featuring local group Liberty Lacers and special guest bobbin-lace-maker Holly Van Sciver.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the center offers a conversation with designer Tord Boontje. The lecture, free and open to the public, will be held in Tuttleman Auditorium near the southeast corner of Henry Avenue and School House Lane.
Information: 215-951-2860 or www.laceintranslation.com.