The Liberty Fabrics archive is bursting to the brim with Liberty prints and sketches – all hidden away in oversized books, piles of labelled boxes and perfectly preserved paintings. The archiving department has the important task of ensuring every design is documented and stored safely in the ever-growing database. We spoke to in-house archivist Anna Buruma about the importance of the archive, and what it means to the future of Liberty Fabrics.
Part of the Liberty design practice since the 1880s, the archive is home to pattern books, paintings, drawings and photographs – and with well over a century of print designs to draw upon, it remains a mystery quite how many it might hold in total. “We always quote the number 45,000, but the exact number isn’t actually known”, archivist Anna Buruma explains. “Liberty has always used their archive, so prints kept being reworked – making the counting game very difficult.”
The archive is a constant source of inspiration for Liberty Fabrics’ in-house design team. Historical artworks are redrawn and rescaled into rich new interpretations, sitting alongside studio-fresh designs painted and drawn from scratch – ensuring that the team are always putting in as much as they’re taking out. The range and depth of prints within the Liberty archive is overwhelming in scope, with designs from across the last century and a half, from the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements to ‘70s-era Bauhaus graphics and ‘90s grunge florals.
Not currently open to the public, the archive is primarily a print reference library. Each design is kept in as many forms as possible, from original artworks and woodblocks to fabric bases, colourways, swatchbooks, fent books, and digital screen separations. Conservation is key, and the archivists work hard to keep precious materials safe – the Liberty archive is treated as a living breathing thing, requiring care and attention to be properly preserved.
Anna Buruma's interest in archiving began as a mature student doing an Art History MA at The Courtauld Institute of Art. In her words: “I was very, very lucky… One of my tutors who is a textile historian thought I would make a good archivist (she recognised my nerdish side!) and when she was asked to set up a project to catalogue the Liberty archive, she put me in place.” After joining initially as a freelancer tasked with whipping the Liberty archive into shape, Buruma became a fully-fledged member of staff in 1998, and has been organising and preserving the it ever since.
Buruma tells us that “Liberty has some very quirky prints buried in the archive… the Victorians and the mid-20th century designers put in some playful and sometimes plain weird designs. Those are the ones I like best, because they are so unexpected.” The archive has played host to creatives ranging from Manolo Blahnik and Marc Jacobs to Richard Quinn, Vivienne Westwood and Zac Posen. Designers tend to find it an inherently personal experience, discovering offbeat gems alongside beloved design icons. Buruma recalls the sense of wonder expressed by designer Junya Watanabe as he stepped foot into the archive – “he thought he had landed in a sweetie shop!”
The textile archive is in storage and is for the business only, it is not open to the public. Liberty has given, on permanent loan, the documentary archive to Westminster Archives: 10 St Ann’s St, London SW2 2XR, telephone 020 7641 5180.