A recent weekend break to sunny Manchester led us to discover the work of an overlooked design pioneer, Tibor Reich, whose centenary is being marked in a remarkable retrospective exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery.

For those unfamiliar with the Whitworth, it houses Manchester University’s stellar art collection, and was recently shortlisted for European Museum of the Year 2016. The building is a modernist glass oasis in the centre of the post-industrial city, with one of the best museum shops we have ever encountered (think lots of Scandi homeware and chic stationery).

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Tibor Reich fabric swatches at The Whitworth

On the first floor is an exhibition that spans the career of the textile designer Tibor Reich, who hailed from Hungary, but was forced to emigrate to Britain during the Second World War, and in doing so brought colour and texture into the suburban post-war British home. Having studied in Vienna, the designer was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus movement. His interest in good design for the masses led him, in 1946, to set up Tibor Ltd. Shortly afterward he opened a factory to produce fabrics in an abandoned 19th century mill in Stratford-Upon-Avon, helping to revitalise Britain’s ailing textile industry.

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Tibor Reich in front of his Clifford Mill factory in Stratford-Upon-Avon

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Reich’s innovation lay in his ability to create pattern not simply through shape and colour, but also through texture, which meant his fabrics took on a three-dimensional quality and a desirable tactility that had been missing from the austere British sitting room. His early watercolour designs have the playful, light touch of Matisse about them. His fabrics were highly sought after, and could be found draped on some of the most fashionable designer furniture of the 1950s, such as Ercol and G-Plan pieces.

'Kenilworth', designed by Tibor Reich, Hungarian, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1962

‘Kenilworth’, Tibor Reich, 1962

The Hungarian designer is perhaps best-known for his ‘Fotextur’, a unique design process he developed in order to create new patterns, by tracing over positive and negative photographs of natural phenomena such as leaves and wood grain, which he rearranged to form psychedelic patterns.

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Tibor Reich – exploring textures

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‘Fotextur’ Advert, Late 1950s

One design, ‘Atomic’ was created using the first images of the experiment to split the atomic particle, demonstrating Reich’s interest in up-to-the-minute innovation. His fabrics were used in the interior of the Concorde aeroplane, and several venues taking part in the iconic Festival of Britain.

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Concord interior fabric, designed by Tibor Reich

Our favourite piece was his ‘Flaming Onion’ freestanding mosaic fireplace, designed for his family home Tibor House, which introduced humour and continental design, to the British stately home.

“The first imaginative use of the English open fire in a modern home. Architects can now work on from here” Dr Jacob Bronowski

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The Flaming Onion mosaic fireplace, Tibor Reich’s House, 1957

This charming exhibition pulls back the curtain (and the rug) on a true British design legend. With the news that the designer’s 22 year old grandson, Sam Reich, is poised to relaunch Tibor’s textile archive, expect to hear a lot more about this inspiring British brand.

‘Tibor Reich’ runs at the Whitworth Gallery until Aug 2016.

Written by Issy Muir.