The colourful Mr Klein and his house

The colouful Mr Klein
One of the Klein fabrics bought at the closing down sale at Waukrigg Mill in the late eighties.

With a lifelong love of colour and family links to the textile trade, Dorothy Bruce has long been drawn to the work of Bernat Klein. His legacy also includes the A listed modernist High Sunderland, the Klein family home, now carefully restored.

Amidst all the grinding news, tit-for-tat politics and endless barefaced lies from certain politicians, it was refreshing to come across an interesting piece of information in a recent arts mailing: a link to the website of a foundation committed to developing the legacy of Bernat Klein and the modernist house near Selkirk that he commissioned from Peter Womersley, an architect who was greatly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater, in southwest Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. The foundation’s website is here and on it are links to articles on Klein and High Sunderland, Klein’s home for 56 years.

Klein was a colourful character, not in the sense that he was flamboyant, outspoken or personally attention- seeking, but because the fabrics he created were bursting with the colours and sometimes even textures, of the natural world around him. Colour was everything to Klein.

Born in the Serbian part of Yugoslavia, where his parents had a shop selling fabrics, and educated in Czechoslovakia, Israel, and at Leeds University, intrigued and influenced by the pointillism of Seurat, Klein in the 1960s became one of Britain’s most famous designers, and the toast of Paris. Top fashion houses such as Chanel, Dior, Cardin, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent embraced with enthusiasm his vibrantly coloured mohair and velvet tweeds, with French couture describing Klein’s fabric as ‘Fantasy’.

Klein started his own company Colourcraft, weaving rugs, head squares and ties, in 1956 moving to the High Mill, now part of the Scottish Borders Campus of Heriot-Watt University.

Klein shocked the Borders textile industry with his daring colours and yarns, textiles that in the words of his daughter Shelley “popped and fizzed”, at a time when a new post-war generation cried out for something different to muddy brown and sludgy green tweeds, and centrally heated offices and homes demanded lighter weight fabrics than those designed for hard wear during Scottish winters. As well as vibrant and shimmering colour combinations Klein also introduced mohair into his textiles, a yarn he particularly liked to work with.

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Velvet ribbon from the Klein sale at Waukrigg Mill.

And to return to politics for a moment and the unionist taunt of a border between Scotland and England making foreigners of relatives and friends. Klein’s daughter Shelley certainly didn’t feel borders, place of birth or language made her father a stranger to her. “There are thirty-nine years between us, one world war, five languages [Klein spoke German, Serbo-Croat, Hungarian, Hebrew, Yiddish and of course English], and two countries, but Beri and my mother, Peggy, have given me the only two things truly worth having: love and security.”

Shelly also writes that her father was the most familiar man in her life but with keys to a different world. What a wonderful way to describe someone born in another country.

Making his home in the Scottish Borders whilst working for Munrospun, Klein became obsessed by colour, and came to believe colours were as important as words as they could prompt a kaleidoscopic range of emotions.

My father was a textile buyer with a grandfather a tailor who sat cross-legged on a platform in his workshop whilst sewing, and whose mother, when young, worked in his grandfather’s tailoring business, hand stitching the lapels of suits — a highly skilled operation. So I come from a family with thread and fabrics in the blood, with a love of the tactile feel of cloth and yarns. Therefore I can understand Klein’s fascination with colour and texture, and how to him these became his means of expression, his words.

Klein’s enjoyment of the Borders countryside led him to painting, mostly abstracts though sometimes landscapes, and these provided inspiration for the colours and weaves of his yarns and tweeds. In 2015 there was a retrospective exhibition, Bernat Klein: A life in colour featuring tapestries by Bernat Klein woven by Dovecot Studios.

“As I painted the gentle Borders countryside in the spring, absorbed the blue evenings of late summer, caught my breath at the incredible richness of its clear coppery autumn and finally brooded along with its morbid winters, I kept on seeing everything in terms of colours and cloth. Colour was all around me, pursuing me, cajoling me, asking to be admitted into my life.” (Bernat Klein, Eye for Colour, 1965)

Klein was obsessive about High Sunderland. So determined was he to preserve its verticals and horizontals that he even banned his daughter from putting pots of herbs on the kitchen window sill, though chives were just about acceptable because of their vertical nature.

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His daughter Shelley Klein brings out this obsession in her book The See-Through House: My Father in Full Colour, describing living at High Sunderland as akin to living in a work of art, with a close friend describing the house as “a Mondrian set within a Klimt”. To Shelley it was almost impossible to separate her father from the house. “My father was the house. The house was my father.” Beri, as she called her father, constantly expressed his pleasure in the house’s design, believing it the most exhilarating place in which to live.

Klein’s Studio, again commissioned from Womersley, at High Sunderland was completed in 1972, giving him a place close to home where he could work and entertain business clients. In the late 1980s because of the recession Klein had to sell the Studio and close Waukrigg Mill. At the closing down sale I bought lengths of aquamarine slubby, open-weave tweed and other textiles and made curtains with them. Somewhere I also have a length of hot pink Diolen,a printed jersey which featured patterns that were a blow up of photographs of his paintings. A mohair cardigan in vanilla and peach colours, knitted by one of the 250 hand knitters throughout the Borders who worked for the company, kept me warm for many winters.

The Studio was eventually bought by Scottish Borders Enterprise, then sold to a property developer and is now derelict. The Category A building is listed on the Buildings at Risk register.

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Klein’s Studio, now derelict.
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Side view of the derelict Studio.

But happily High Sunderland, after Shelley Klein eventually brought herself to sell it, has a new lease of life.

“In 2017, the by then Category A-listed house was bought by Juliet Kinchin and Paul Stirton, Scottish historians of architecture and design. Juliet was a curator at MoMA and Paul was a professor at the BARD Graduate Center in New York. After 13 years in the USA they wanted to return to Scotland and at first had no intention of buying a Modernist house. But they found High Sunderland ‘breathtaking’, particularly the experience of being surrounded by an ‘arena of foliage’ in its setting of spruce and beech trees.”

Interestingly, this article in the Architects’ Journal goes on to say the new owners had “paintings by Selkirk artist William Johnstone to hang on the panelled walls.” Johnstone had been a friend of Klein’s and had written that, “Mr Klein is a most remarkable person. He is a painter trained in the European tradition, a superb colourist; he is a technologist and designer of cloth, and is a manufacturer able to weave his own designs in his own mills. A Renaissance figure in modern times.” (Bernat Klein – Oil Paintings, William Johnstone, March 1966)

Further information on High Sunderland, the Studio, and Womersley’s other Border buildings (eg the stand at Gala Fairydean) can be found here.

In 1945, in the aftermath of a war in which he had lost many close family members, Bernat Klein left Jerusalem and travelled to Britain on the SS Franconia, a Cunarder White Star line vessel built by John Brown’s yard on the Clyde. The Franconia was the ship used as headquarters for Churchill during the 1945 Yalta conference to discuss Europe’s post-war reorganisation. It was the same ship my aunt and uncle also travelled on during their sojourn in the tropics. Amongst the memorabilia that has come down to me is a post card of it.

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What a small world we live in!

A Bernat Klein Foundation exhibition ‘Colour, Texture & Destination’ :  An exhibition celebrating the creative and cultural legacy of Bernat Klein (1922 – 2014) will run at the Borders Textile Towerhouse, Hawick from Monday 28 June – 24 December 2021. Tickets can be booked here.

Juliet Kinchin
Juliet Kinchin is Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. She has worked as a curator in Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow where she was formerly the Founding Director of the graduate program in Decorative Arts and Design History. She has also held faculty positions in the history of art and design at the Glasgow School of Art, and the Bard Graduate Center in New York in 1999 and 2002-03.

Paul Stirton Paul Stirton is a professor of modern design history at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, and editor of West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, published by the University of Chicago Press. Educated at the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, his research interests focus on Victorian Britain, and on Central Europe, especially Hungary, in the early 20th century. He has published widely in these fields.

Photographs of Klein textiles and Klein’s studio, Dorothy Bruce