Farewell to Lucienne Day, Britain's design doyenne | Jonathan Glancey

Fusing abstract art with natural motifs, Lucienne Day created playful and intelligent textiles that have become part of the fabric of everyday life

Knowing Lucienne and Robin Day, an inseparable couple for nearly 70 years, was as much a privilege as learning about their work: Robin's mass-produced, industrially-crafted furniture, including the famous injection-moulded Polyprop chair, and Lucienne's truly brilliant textiles.

For those of us who first learned about modern design in the 1970s and 80s, the Days had, at first, seemed a part of history. While it was impossible to escape Robin's plastic chairs, whether at school or in public halls, Lucienne's painterly fabrics seemed to belong to a bright and optimistic world that coincided with the 1951 Festival of Britain and vanished when the oil ran out, factories worked three-day weeks and the worlds of "Grocer" Heath and pipe-smoking Harold Wilson were about to disappear entirely.

Good design, however, endures. And when, in the early 90s, the designs of the 50s and 60s came back into the spotlight, Lucienne and Robin Day became mentors. They also proved to be good fun – ever willing not just to talk to young people, but to work with them – even to party with them. They were perennially young. Lucienne might talk of her knee replacements – and humorously so – but her eye never failed her. And how well she saw.

By the time my generation caught up with the septuagenarian Days, many people knew just how good a designer Lucienne was. Her first successful commercial design – Calyx for Heals on Tottenham Court Road – dates from 1951. Though it will always be associated with that year's Festival of Britain, it also showed how plugged-in she was to international currents in art. In Calyx alone you can see shades of Kandinsky and homages to Miró and Alexander Calder; all blended with, of course, her own unerring sense of pattern and colour. Lucienne's fabrics are truly as striking, delightful and special today as they were 60 years ago.

Lucienne's special genius was to fuse the British tradition of a love for nature – the 19th-century world of John Ruskin, William Morris, Charles Voysey and the Arts and Crafts movement, with the abstract concerns of international contemporary art. This wasn't an easy thing to do, but it came naturally in her designs for fabrics, ceramics and, more recently, tapestries. These last, in particular, were wonderfully wrought things, tactile masterpieces of geometry, colour and imagination.

The tapestries were never for the mass market, but most of Lucienne's designs held a wide appeal, and sold well – something that mattered very much to her and her husband. Both came from the "nothing is too good for ordinary people" tradition. The idea was that good, intelligent design should be part, parcel and fabric of everyday life. Lucienne was an unfailingly generous person, and a designer who knew how to balance the popular and the refined, or how to make the refined popular. A stretch of Day fabric I own and cherish is from the seat of a beautiful Vickers VC10 airliner. Here was a couple deeply concerned with notions of public service, who were also stylish and fun.

Lucienne had a wonderful way of looking severe, and then breaking into a warm smile and happy conversation. I suppose her best fabrics – and that's pretty much all of them – are a bit like that: disciplined, intelligent, diligently researched, but also warm, playful, colourful and delightful too. Her talent stayed with her for a lifetime, as did her marriage to Robin. He survives her; so does both their lives' work.


Jonathan Glancey

The GuardianTramp

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