Marianne Straub was born on 23rd September 1909 in Amriswil, Switzerland. Much of her childhood was spent immobilised in a tubercular ward. She developed an exceptionally good memory for pattern, texture and colour and in 1928 she gained a place at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich to study weaving. Heinz Otto Hurlimann, who had been trained at the Bauhaus, taught her hand weaving techniques and in her final year she also studied stage design. When she found out that both Swiss textile colleges barred women, Straub came to Bradford to study power-loom weaving at the local technical college – the only woman on the course. Although it normally took three years, Straub passed the City and Guilds exam in weaving mechanisms in only nine months.
Straub then joined Ethel Mairet RDI at her studio at Gospels where she learnt hand spinning and dyeing techniques. The two women became firm friends and Straub would often join her former teacher on trips to Europe. As well as writing an obituary for Mairet for the RSA Journal in 1952, Straub helped with the management of the contents of Mairet’s studio until these became one of the foundling collections of the Crafts Study Centre in 1977, of which Straub remained a trustee until 1992.
From 1934 to 1937 Straub worked for the Rural Industries Bureau producing hand-woven prototypes for their seventy-two Welsh woollen mills. She became head designer, then managing director, for Helios until it was taken over by Warner & Sons in 1950, when she moved to Essex and became their resident designer. For twenty years she experimented with yarns and dyes and designed fabrics for the company. RDIs who sought out her designs include Gordon Russell, Dick Russell, Misha Black, Ernest Race, Robin Day and Hardy Amies. Russell described Straub as ‘a very warm and lively minded person, and a designer of great integrity’. Numerous ships, aeroplanes, trains, hospitals and public, collegiate and government buildings used her fabrics. The moquette she designed in 1964 for London tubes and buses was still in use in the year 2000. She also designed the curtains for the Regatta Restaurant at the Festival of Britain (1951).
Straub served as Secretary on the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers (SIAD) International Relations Committee (1945) and was Chairman of the SIAD Fashion and Textile Groups from 1953 to 1955. She was appointed Royal Designer for Industry in 1972. Straub supported the RSA’s Design Bursary Scheme and in 1979 she joined Lucienne Day RDI to critique award winners in the ‘Fashion and Fashion Textiles’ section for that year. She was a great champion of the RSA’s ‘Young Designers into Industry’ scheme, which ran from 1985 to 1990.
Awarded the first Textile Institute design medal (1972) and the Craft Council’s best crafts book of the year award for Hand Weaving and Cloth Design (1977) and an OBE in 1985, Straub received the Misha Black Memorial Medal in 1994. This ‘champion and friend of students’, said former RDI Master, Lucienne Day in her speech, was ‘a pioneer for women too’.
An inspirational teacher with an exceptional empathy with the students Straub taught at the Central School of Art & Design (1956-64), Hornsey College of Art (1964-68) and at the Royal College of Art (1968-74), as well as lecturing at a number of other colleges. Many students said that what she taught them about cloth made a fundamental difference to their lives as designers. Four of her former students wrote the obituary for Straub for the RSA Journal, and two of them, Kay Cosserat and Mary Restieaux, were appointed RDIs.
To mark her fiftieth year as a designer the RSA held the first retrospective exhibition of her work in 1984, which then travelled around the UK. This show included her ‘Silverton’ fabric that the RSA had used for the refurbishment of the Fellows’ Library in 1960. The Design Council published a monograph on Straub – the first textile designer to be included in their series on eminent 20th century British designers.
Marianne Straub died in Switzerland, at the age of 85, on 8th November 1994.
Original image reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-S-87-1