WHY I LIKE THIS by Emily Candela
Lace is defined by its holes, usually a repeating pattern of open spaces in the fabric. So you might say that lace is largely about the holes in lace, about the repeated punctuation of its own solidity. But I see this particular lace as being about the ‘holes’ in everything - the sense in which all materials appear to disintegrate into something less solid when viewed at an extreme level of detail, at the scale of atoms.
That’s because this lace is based on a diagram of the arrangement of atoms in a crystal. It is derived from the underlying atomic structure of the mineral apophyllite. The lace was unveiled back in 1951, one of dozens of designs for everyday household items based on scientific drawings of atomic structures produced for that year’s Festival of Britain by the Festival Pattern Group. This was a pioneering collaboration that brought together designers and scientists who were active in the field of X-ray crystallography, which was then relatively new.
Using a technique that involved shining X-rays through crystals, these scientists were, at the time, illuminating the material world at a scale smaller than ever before: the minute architecture of atoms making up molecules and crystals in all kinds of materials from minerals such as apophyllite to organic substances like proteins.
Many X-ray crystallographers drew intricate diagrams of atomic structures as part of their method of working them out. Each material studied by these scientists revealed a unique – and often beautiful – pattern of atoms. Someone who was keenly aware of their beauty was the Birkbeck College crystallographer Helen Megaw. She sensed a resonance between the patterns of atoms underlying materials and patterns in design, such as the repetition of poppies across a William Morris wallpaper. And it was a suggestion from Megaw that birthed the Festival Pattern Group’s ambitious effort to incorporate X-ray crystallographers’ diagrams into the designs for everyday household goods.
With Megaw serving as scientific consultant, the Festival Pattern Group created myriad products - from wallpapers patterned with the structure of boric acid and upholstery bearing that of insulin to neckties inspired by the arrangement of atoms in aluminium hydroxide. My favourite, however, is the lace. Thin and patterned with holes, it embodies a facet of the atomic world that the other Festival Patterns could not: the way materials that we experience as resolutely solid, such as the mineral apophyllite with its glassy green surfaces, appear to dissolve into their delicate atomic constituents at the sub-microscopic level, like the airy embroidery of lace.
Emily Candela is a design historian and an artist. She is a PhD candidate across the Royal College of Art History of Design department and the Science Museum, supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award. She is a tutor in the Critical and Historical Studies department at the Royal College of Art and host of the radio show ATOMIC radio, broadcast on Resonance FM 104.4 and through The Exponential Horn in the Virgin Media Studio at the Science Museum’s Media Space. ATOMIC radio Episode 4: A ‘Women’s Science’ tells the story of the Festival Pattern Group, which produced this apophyllite lace.
Images: Sample of white lace with apophyllite pattern, mounted on black card. Part of a collection of 83 samples produced by the Festival Pattern Group for the 1951 Festival of Britain, Designed by H. Webster for A.C. Gill, based on a diagram by W.L. Bragg © Science Museum / SSPL; Apophyllite © Parent Géry