Bernat Klein: A Life in Colour

A new exhibition at Edinburgh's Dovecot Gallery celebrates the work of renowned artist and textile designer Bernat Klein, as part of EAF

Feature by Leonie Wolters | 01 Aug 2015

When artist and textile designer Bernat Klein moved to Scotland in 1948, his impression of the native garb was not all that positive. He appreciated the brighter tartans – he surely wouldn’t have been taken with any of the toned-down grey or ‘weathered’ designs – but thought that all the tweeds people wore were insufferably drab, tinted as they were in sludge greens and mud browns. For a man who grew up surrounded by the warm hues of what is now called Serbia, attended art school in Jerusalem, worked for the British intelligence service during World War II, studied textile design in Leeds, and whose daughter described his life as having been "long and colourful" when it ended in 2014, it was clear something needed to happen.

What happened next is going to be displayed as a retrospective at Dovecot Gallery in Edinburgh, between 31 July and 26 September. The exhibition, called A Life in Colour, is part of the Edinburgh Art Festival and will be comprised of Klein’s myriad media that use colours and textures in unusual yet highly successful ways. Most famous are the intricate tweeds using ribbon and mohair that Klein designed for fashion houses such as Chanel, Dior, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent, but as well as those there will be his pointillist-inspired oil paintings, velvets, jerseys and printed materials, and the monumental tapestries he created with the Dovecot Tapestry Studio in 1971. From a suite of 10 tapestries made, three including Highland Pool are part of the National Museums of Scotland Bernat Klein collection, and Sea and Sky was sold at a Christie’s auction in 1994 in Glasgow. Five of the remaining tapestry works will be made available for sale during the A Life in Colour exhibition.

The exhibition emphasises the huge role Klein played in the story of the Scottish textile industry. The company he set up in Galashiels in 1952, Colourcraft, employed 600 people at the height of its sway over continental catwalks. It was there that the threads were woven which sparked the love affair between Chanel’s two-pieces and Klein’s wonderfully outrageous textiles. When he opened a copy of Elle magazine in 1962, he was shocked to see a Chanel suit made out of one of his tweeds in its glossy pages. At the time, he didn’t quite realise the huge consequences this would have for his career, but soon many other designers wanted to get their hands on his textured textiles too, and in 1968 his tweeds graced the Chanel runway in Paris. Without Klein, our fashion-shorthand for ‘wealthy, stylish lady’ may have been very different. More generally, he managed to take his adoptive home’s traditional, somewhat stiff textiles, and make them into something that epitomises luxury and has a huge world-wide appeal.

When the majority of fashion houses relocated their production to lower-income countries in the 1980s, Klein had already branched out and set up his own cottage industry employing hand knitters, continuing to produce textiles as well as his own clothing line. He also reinvented himself as a design and colour consultant, which seems like an apt title for a man who once told an interviewer that "my passion for colour has grown almost into an obsession… I think that colours are as important in our lives as words are." The continuation of local production and the transfer of knowledge Klein achieved now enable the slow comeback Scottish textiles are making in the production lines of European fashion houses. In 2012, Chanel held a Métiers d’Art show in Linlithgow, celebrating the brand’s long-standing fondness for all things tweedy, but also committing to an increase in the use of Scottish-spun wools.

In addition to the retrospective, Dovecot Gallery will be hosting a panel discussion on the work of Bernat Klein which is open to the public. On 4 August, from 6pm til 7pm, Lisa Mason from the National Museum of Scotland and Alison Harley from Heriot-Watt University will offer more insight into Klein’s influence and legacy. Both institutions will have their own privileged perspective on his work, since the National Museum acquired Klein’s archives in 2011, and in 2003, textile design powerhouse Heriot-Watt decided to award him with an honorary degree. These credentials should surely convince you to celebrate the end of normcore with a retrospective celebrating a mind that created glitzy opulence in an unlikely place. Ditch the mum jeans and the black crop top, and go absorb some colour – in the metaphoric sense, since dyes used in Klein’s textiles are of a quality that means they will probably not rub off on you.

Bernat Klein: A Life In Colour, Dovecot Gallery, 31 Jul-26 Sep with a panel discussion on 4 Aug, 6-7 pm, £8-10