Thursday, January 7, 2010

Marion Dorn

The contribution to graphic art made by the Curwen Press in the 1920s and 30s was immense. That story, and the continuing tale of the Curwen Studio, has been well told by Alan Powers in Art and Print: The Curwen Story (Tate Publishing, 2008), and Pat Gilmour in Artists at Curwen (Tate Gallery, 1977). But neither of these excellent books tells us much about Marion V. Dorn, who illustrated the first autolithographed book produced at Curwen, an edition of William Beckford's gothic orientalist novel Vathek, published by the Nonesuch Press in 1929. All of the illustrations to this post are original lithographs by Marion Dorn for Vathek.

Marion Dorn was born in the USA in 1896, and studied graphics at Stanford University. Having become interested in textile design in the early 1920s, she travelled to Paris with fellow designer Ruth Reeves in 1923, to explore the textile revolution being spearheaded by artists such as Raoul Dufy and Sonia Delaunay. There, she met the love of her life, fellow-American Edward McKnight Kauffer. They fell for each other hard. Kauffer left his wife and daughter for her, and they remained together until his death in 1954.

Ted McKnight Kauffer had already experienced professional success in England as a graphic artist, and Marion followed in his footsteps. Not that she wasn't a powerful talent in her own right, but it no doubt helped to have an "in" to a publisher such as Nonesuch, and a printer such as Curwen. Vathek proved to be Marion Dorn's only book project, and the 8 full-page illustrations and two vignettes are the only lithographs of hers that I have encountered. It's a shame, as they are quite beautiful. They are printed on a beige-coloured laid paper, and have the look of a pastel drawing. 1050 copies were published in the UK by Nonesuch, and 500 in the USA by Random House.

Why Marion Dorn did not continue with graphics after this is a bit of a mystery. Although she and McKnight Kauffer did collaborate on various projects, she may have been wary of treading too heavily on his toes.

Or it may be that the success she found as a textile designer - particularly of rugs and carpets - meant that her time was more fruitfully spent pursuing that line. In 1934 she founded her own company, Marion Dorn Ltd, which was wildly successful.

In 1940 Kauffer and Dorn moved back to the USA, neither to have quite the success back in their homeland that they had experienced in Britain.

Marion Dorn is an artist I would love to know more about. She strikes me as one of those women artists of the period - such as Enid Marx or Margaret Calkin James - who were edged out of fine art into the decorative arts, in a way that in the end enriched our culture and enabled them to fulfill themselves, but that was essentially unfair to their talent.

You can see, though, in the Vathek lithographs, a wonderful sense of design, especially in the repetition and variation of motifs, that would transfer readily to a rug, a furnishing fabric, a dress, or a wallpaper design.

Marion Dorn died in Tangiers in 1964.


Jane said...

Wow! I'd not heard of Marion Dorn until your article. Her lithographs are so inventive. The way she creates strong designs and then overlays them with colors, especially the ones where the elements go their own decided ways. I admire her imagination. Do these images have individual names?

Neil said...

So pleased you like them Jane, and respond to them with such sensitivity. No, there are no titles for the images.

Philip Wilkinson said...

I like the way she divides up the rectangle with these big sweeps of colour and tone, and then sets other, more intricate patterns and motifs working on a smaller scale.

Neil said...

They're architectural in all sorts of ways. She was a massive talent, I think. But already veering from a pure graphic art into a more three-dimensional mode. Marion Dorn's carpets in particular graced many a hotel, liner, mansion, and yacht.

Roxana said...

i love them too - so striking and yet so gentle... and such a subtle eroticism in them as well.

thank you, Neil, as always!

Neil said...

Roxana - I think these derive their special quality from the contrast between the delicate pastel surface and the order structure of the composition - a delicious combination of hard and soft elements.

Unknown said...

Hi everyone who loves Marion Dorn. I wrote my PhD on the designer and published a book on her in 1996: Architect of Floors: Modernism, Art & Marion Dorn Designs. It's out of print now, but I still have a few copies if anyone is interested.
Christine Boydell

Neil said...

Hi Christine - Thanks so much for commenting. I'd certainly be interested in a copy of your book, you can email me by clicking on the View my complete profile link at the top-ish right of the home page of this blog and then on email me. The internet, for all its faults and its commercial aspects, does allow kindred spirits and likeminded souls to connect.