4d7c6a5528016bc6a743c7ca2911ddf3 The artists Nina Hamnett and Winifred Gill modelling Omega designed clothes.

Established in 1913 by Roger Fry, the Omega workshop was one of the first design collectives, well ahead of its time, bringing avant-garde art and design to the domestic Edwardian sphere. Fry opposed the soulless productions made badly and on a vast scale since the Industrial Revolution had arisen. His main aim was to bring the artist and craftsman much closer together so that the spontaneity of the original expression could be retained and so they could earn a living wage from art.

Numerous leading avant-garde artists could be found popping in and out of 33 Fitzroy Square, including Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Percy Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Edward Wadsworth decorating all manner of objects from curtains to fabrics, clothes, screens, walls, rugs, ceramics and furniture. The workshop and showroom was covered in their work:

'The walls were irregularly covered with rhombuses, rhomboids, lozenges, diamonds, triangles, and parallelograms; the carpet was treated likewise, and also the upholstery and cushions. The colourings...in their excessive brightness, crudity and variety...resembled a gigantic glittering kaleidoscope.' (Quote from Arnold Bennett's 1918 novel The Pretty Lady unmistakably referring to Omega.)

owshowroom The Omega Workshops showroom, 1913
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The bright colours, spontaneity and loose behaviour so vehemently on display shocked many within the Edwardian establishment and this dramatic spectacle soon became a notorious place to be seen. Largely inspired by continental art and ideas, and with the aim of breaking down the distinction between fine and decorative arts, the bold colours, simplified form and abstract designs of Cubist inspired rugs or Post-Impressionist style chairs challenged the conventional notions of the domestic sphere.

4a.-Christopher-Farr-Omega-Rug-5-colour Hand knotted Omega Workshops rug, inspired by Cubist ideas.
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vanessa_bell_design_for_omega_rug_d5640174h Vanessa Bell, Design for an Omega Rug. Sold by Christie's in 2012 for £39,000 is indicative of the rarity of Omega work coming onto the market.
Image via Christie's

Some of the best and most explicit works produced were those inspired by Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, which had a dramatic impact on Omega specifically in their clothes and paintings on screens and panels, dancers and acrobats becoming a particular influence. Their fluid forms and poses inspired artists such as Duncan Grant to produce work particularly suited to decorative objects and large scale decoration, where form and object came together as a harmonious whole.

Omega-Room The Omega Workshop room at the 1913 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. The rugs in the photograph were designed by Duncan Grant and Frederick Etchells and the panels were designed by Vanessa Bell, based on the Russian ballet and Matisse’s The Dance.
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2006AW2631_jpg_l Percy Wyndham Lewis, Design for a Screen, first shown at the Omega Workshops in July 1913, depicting acrobats.
Image via V & A Museum

Roger Fry believed that an object should be bought for its aesthetic qualities rather than because of an artist's reputation. Consequently no artist was allowed to sign any piece that was decorated. Each piece was produced anonymously and marked simply with the Greek 'Omega' symbol denoting that it came from the workshop. Production could be haphazard and the quality of the work produced varied, which can make identification of their work today quite difficult, but ultimately this Bohemian centre marked an important point in British design history.

v0_master Duncan Grant, Omega Workshop signboard, 1915
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212f4d07132d0cd66635e47eeace2bae Roger Fry, Amenophis, fabric design.

Although the workshop managed to stay open during the War, it was unsurprisingly eventually an unsuccessful enterprise, closing in 1919. Its buyers were too centred on a rich and cultivated class of patron and it was difficult if not nigh near impossible for Fry and his fellow directors to hold together such a diverse and hot-headed group of artists. However it was a significant moment in design history as there was no other sphere that allowed artists and designers to rub shoulders with wealthy patrons, and to sell their wares directly to the consumer. It was also important as an experimental model beyond the 'Bloomsbury Group', which inspired a design aesthetic and had far reaching influence for British artists and designers for a generation to come.