The Twentieth Century Society

Obituaries: Bernat Klein

by Elain Harwood

Bernat Klein was a Yugoslavian-born textile designer who made his home in Scotland and was taken up by some of Europe’s leading fashion houses. His interest to the C20 Society is not just in his textiles, but as one of Peter Womersley’s most important clients.

Klein was born in 1922 into a Jewish family of textile wholesalers at Senta in northern Serbia. He was educated in Czechoslovakia but, fearful of war, his parents sent him aged fifteen to study in Jerusalem where he attended the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in 1940–­42. An English university seemed the next step to a career in textile design, so Klein set to learn English, and briefly worked for the British government translating broadcasts from occupied Europe.

In 1945 he emigrated to Leeds, where he completed a degree in textile technology before designing woven fabrics for ties and handkerchiefs in Bolton, and then in Edinburgh for Munrospun. The company relocated to Galashields in 1950, where Klein began his first company, Colourcraft, making scarves in 1952 for retailers such as Marks & Spencer with £500 borrowed from a friend. His forte was colour, bringing brilliant reds, purples and yellows to tweeds and incorporating mohair and ribbons into the woven woollen fabric; inspired, he wrote in his 1965 book Eye for Colour, by artists such as Georges Seurat, Paul Klee and Oscar Kokoschka.

His breakthrough came when in 1962 his tweeds were taken up by the Paris fashion houses, first Chanel, and then Balenciaga, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent. Klein’s company expanded rapidly and by 1965 was employing 600 people, with a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco among the shareholders. However, in 1966 he resigned and set up on his own again, and he and his wife Margaret (née Soper), whom he had met in Leeds, later set up a knitwear company with some 250 hand-knitters.

Klein’s textiles featured strongly in High Sunderland, the timber-framed house built for him by Peter Womersley in 1954–57, after he saw the latter’s Farnley Hey built near Huddersfield. It was this commission that led Womersley to move to Galashiels, and further work in the Borders followed, creatively culminating in a studio building for Klein close to his home in 1971–72. Womersley controlled the design and fixtures, even selecting the site, but Klein provided the colour through his furnishing fabrics, first in rich reds and browns, later superseded by textured creams and travertine floors. High Sunderland also had its own studio, an orgasm of brilliantly-hued wools and swatches of tweed that spilled across its great work table. Klein sold the separate studio in 2002, and by 2013 it was a building at risk.

High Sunderland remained beautiful, however, filled in latter years by Klein’s paintings rather than by textile designs. He claimed that ‘colours are as important in our lives as words are’, but when the Society met him on Aidan Turner-Bishop’s seminal tour of Womersley’s work in 2002 he proved an engaging, larger-than-life raconteur and among the most convivial of hosts. We came away laden with his books, Eye for Colour and Design Matters, aware that we had met not only one of the great post-war architectural clients but also a great man.

Bernat Klein, born 6 November 1922, died 17 April 2014.