Her designs came to epitomise the Art Deco movement and subsequently changed the use of colour and pattern in interiors. A new exhibition at Tate Modern, the first comprehensive British retrospective of her work, is set to re-energise the use of colour in interior design.
Delaunay’s experimentation in the decorative arts allowed her to escape the purely academic approach and stemmed in part from her East European background, in which the applied arts were considered no less important than painting and sculpture. “She brought art into everyday life,” says Juliet Bingham, the show’s lead curator. “The fact that she worked across all media is one of her strengths.”
Delaunay, like her work, was no shrinking violet. Born in Odessa in 1885, at the age of seven she was sent to live with an uncle in St Petersburg. She attended art school in Germany, and entered into a marriage of convenience with a gay art critic in order to stay abroad. She travelled to Paris in 1906 to join the emerging avant-garde and wed the artist Robert Delaunay.
Together they developed Simultaneism — abstract compositions of dynamic contrasting colours and shape. In 1913, she produced and wore her first dress of bright patchwork colours. In the same year she and her husband showed at the famous Der Sturm gallery in Berlin. Her work expressed the energy of modern urban life, celebrating the birth of electric street lighting and the excitement of contemporary ballets. Iconic examples of these works at Tate Modern include Bal Bullier (1913) and Electric Prisms (1914).
In 1926, she set up her own business with the couturier Jacques Heim, creating clothes, rugs and furnishing fabrics. Her Atelier Simultané in Paris produced radical designs for scarves, umbrellas, hats and shoes. Clients included Hollywood star Gloria Swanson, architect Ernö Goldfinger and department stores, including Liberty and Metz & Co in the Netherlands. She went on designing for Metz until the Sixties.
After her husband’s death in 1941, Delaunay’s work became more geometric. Her painting career continued until her death in 1979 and her influence can be seen today particularly in a profusion of modern designs for rugs.
- The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay is at Tate Modern from April 15 to August 9. Open daily from 10am to 6pm (until 10pm on Friday and Saturday)