The textile designer Pat Albeck, who has died aged 87, was once labelled “queen of the tea towel”, and her talent saw her design ceramics, wallpaper, tableware, children’s book and a range of merchandise — including those tea towels — for the National Trust. Behind her huge, funky glasses and winsome smile was a woman who represented the epitome of the English craft world in a way that was both innocent and refreshing.
Albeck, who produced over 500 merchandise designs for the National Trust from 1967, was a student at the Royal College of Art when she had the rare accolade of having her Apples and Pears print bought by the influential photographer Elsbeth Juda, co-founder of the textile and fashion journal, The Ambassador. In her final year, she worked for Horrockses Fashions and sold them some of her designs.
Her Daisychain design for John Lewis — a nod to William Morris, the artist who had featured strongly in her childhood — was a best-seller for 15 years, regularly produced in different colourways, and in later life she mentored many younger designers who ended up at the top of their professions.
Born in a Hull suburb, Judith Patricia Albeck was the youngest of the four daughters of Polish-Jewish emigrés Max and Sarah Albeck. The couple had arrived in Britain in 1910 from a village near Warsaw where Max’s father had been the local rabbi. Despite his successful manufacturing furrier business in Hull, Max had radical tendencies and subscribed to Anarchist Fortnightly. Something of his love of the socialist artist William Morris must have penetrated his daughter’s consciousness as she grew up. Their home in Anlaby, Hull, where she lived since she was three, contained stained glass, murals and rugs commissioned from local art students, and a Little Red Riding Hood theme dominated her bedroom. Overprotected by her mother, she was not allowed to learn swimming, but liked hockey and netball. After Beverley High School for Girls her father pulled strings to get her into Hull College of Arts and Crafts and in 1950 she won a scholarship to the RCA in London to study Printed Textiles, soon becoming a star student. Two years later her work was displayed in the Imperial Institute’s first industrial design show, Art for the Factory. She also met her husband, Peter Rice, a theatre design student, while at college. They married in 1954.
Her first professional job was with Horrockses, and many of their subsequent fashions using Albeck’s textiles became collectors’ items. Her fruit and stripe design was adopted by Sir Hugh Casson, then RCA head of interior design, for his office curtains.
She decided to go freelance in 1958, designing patterns on dresses, furnishing fabrics and wallpaper. She subsquently started designing sheets and tea towels, as well as working for Minton, Spode and Masons in Stoke, and Royal Worcester — winning a Council of Industrial Design award for one of her patterns.
The birth of her son Matthew in 1962 — the same year she won a travel scholarship to Australia — inspired nursery textiles, wallpaper and children’s books, . Further opportunities, including a position as colour consultant to Marks and Spencers, continued to present themselves and she produced a textbook, Printed Textiles for Oxford University Press in 1969.
Her designs exuded a touch of Beatrix Potter, whether it was cats cooking with huge wooden spoons, or gardening and decorating. She created her famous cats tea towel (pictured, left) for the National Trust in 1990. Then came lawnmowers, ladders and paintbrushes, but she mainly veered towards the floral and fruity, as well as conveying a real sense of rural England.
An introduction to the artist Mary Fedden initiated the long-term relationship with the National Trust in the 1970s. Many of her designs were for specific properties and as well as the famous tea towels, there were table mats and co-ordinated products, including desk accessories.
Interviewed on Desert Island Discs by Kirsty Young on March 27, 2015, her wide-ranging creativity seemed to resonate with her choices: Sinatra, Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Chopin.
When her son married ceramicist Emma Bridgewater in 1987, Albeck continued to design for both of them. Flower paintings became cut paper pictures in the 80s and 90s which were exhibited in London earlier this year, linked to the Chelsea Flower Show.
Albeck worked literally until the end of her life. She sat on design committees and was an examiner for many art schools. Her archives are in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Peter predeceased her in 2015 and she is survived by Matthew and her grandchildren Lil, Kitty, Margaret and Michael.
Judith Patricia Albeck: born March 17, 1930. Died September 2, 2017