Furnishing fabric, 'Rock Carving', cotton, designed by Alexandra Mackenzie and screen-printed by Annan Fabrics, Sydney, c. 1945
The use of Australian imagery in decorative arts has its roots in the late 1800s, in the years leading up to the centenary in 1888 and federation in 1901. With the rise of modernism in Europe in the early 1900s, and its predilection for African and other exotic motifs, it is perhaps not surprising that Australian artists of the time, in search of a national style, began to look to the art forms of Australian Aborigines.
The work of fabric designer Alexandra (Nan) Mackenzie is characterised by strong colours, clear lines and a preferred use of Australian imagery. The example shown draws inspiration from the Aboriginal artistic tradition of carving or painting pictures on rock, and from some of the Australian fauna that recurs in Aboriginal art and mythology.
Having graduated in the 1930s in drawing, painting and general design from the National Art School at East Sydney Technical College, Mackenzie began designing textiles. With her friend Anne Outlaw, whom she met through the Society of Arts and Crafts (NSW), Mackenzie established a screen printing studio in Mosman, Sydney, in 1941. They called the business Annan, from their two names, and set about acquiring basic equipment and the requisite practical skills.
While an intimate knowledge of the mechanics of screenprinting and dye mixing was obviously necessary in order to produce well-printed colour-fast fabrics, it was also fundamental to Mackenzie¬?s design philosophy, which held that good design was dependent on appropriateness and a thorough knowledge of the particular processes involved in making a finished article. Outlaw¬?s creative contribution to the business was in dye mixing, a highly skilled task that allowed no margin for error.
In spite of supply problems and various other difficulties, during the war years in particular, Mackenzie and Outlaw achieved a remarkably wide range of excellent colours and found that their bright fabrics sold readily. Because their designs were bold and colourful, and they used sturdy cotton and colour-fast dyes, most of their fabrics, like Rock carving, were well suited for curtains or other domestic furnishings, although some were made up into dresses, beachwear and ties.
Over the years Mackenzie and Outlaw received several offers to go into large-scale commercial production, but preferred to retain independent control of the studio through concentrating on individual projects and commissioned lengths for the large retail stores. In the postwar years, in the face of a flood of inexpensive imported American prints, it became much more difficult to keep the business viable, and Annan Fabrics became increasingly dependent on architects¬? commissions for printed fabrics for both public and private interiors, Mackenzie and Outlaw, who could screen-print an average of thirty-six metres a day, produced a wide range of fabrics for hotels and theatres, airline terminals, ocean liners and government buildings. The vast majority of these featured Australian flora or Aboriginal motifs in their designs.
However, despite the superb quality of their work and their undoubted success, the business was never financially secure. Living from commission to commission, Mackenzie and Outlaw were just able to keep afloat until 1954, when they were forced to close the studio over the production of street decorations for the royal visit. Having won the subcontract, they worked on nothing else for months and were unable to sustain the loss when the subcontractor declared himself bankrupt.
Christina Sumner, Curator Decorative Arts & Design, 1991
'Decorative Arts and Design from the Powerhouse Museum', Powerhouse Publishing, p.125
This fabric piece was designed by Alexandra Kirkwood (nee Mackenzie) and screen-printed by Annan Fabrics in about 1945.
Annan Fabrics was established as a screen-printery in Mosman in 1941, and operated for 14 years. It was set up by Nance Mackenzie (later Mrs Alexandra Kirkwood, 1912-98) and Anne Outlaw (1891-1991). Mackenzie was the designer, Outlaw managed the business and mixed the dyes, while both women screen-printed the fabrics. They were often commissioned to make textiles for public buildings, in a manner that said something about Australia. Mackenzie drew on Australian wildlife and flowers for her designs, and also, in response to current interests, adapted Aboriginal motifs or designs that used Aboriginal themes.
Alexander Mackenzie 'Nance' (1912-1998) studied design at East Sydney Technical College but stopped during the depression. Nance joined the Society of Arts and Crafts of New South Wales which provided a forum for the discussion of design trends.
Before emigrating to Australia in 1922 Anne Outlaw (nee Simpson) (1892-1991) worked for British Prime Minister Lloyd George at 10 Downing St. She received an MBE and OBE in 1919 for her work during the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of World War 1.
Annan Fabrics was formed in 1941 when Mackenzie and Outlaw decided to go into business together and purchased a disused building in 1 Vista Street, Mosman. The designers had a strong relationship with Sydney architects and designers and completed many commercial commissions using their 'national' motifs. The company survived until 1955 when it went into receivership after a commission for 1500 street banners for the Queen's Royal Tour, went unpaid due to bankruptcy of the contractor.
Ref: Mosman Art Gallery, 'Australian Accent : the Designs of Annan Fabrics and Vande Pottery in the '40s and 50's'