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Vibrant Visions: Pochoir Prints in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library
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Introduction by Stephen H. Van Dyk and Carolyn Siegel

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, has a rich collection of vibrantly colored illustrated books and periodicals that were created using the pochoir stenciling process. The pochoir process, characterized by its crisp lines and brilliant colors, produces images that have a freshly printed or wet appearance. This display provides a brief history and description of the pochoir process along with select examples of pochoir images from the library's collection that illustrate costume, interior, and pattern designs produced in France from 1900 through the 1930s.

Pochoir plates were regularly used in French fashion journals, such as Le Jardin des Dames et des Modes and the Gazette du Bon Ton: arts, modes & frivolités, created by well-known artists such as George Barbier, to illustrate costume styles and set the tone for haute couture in the first half of the 20th century. Pochoir images are also contained in illustrated French industrial design, interiors, textile, and architecture folios produced primarily in the 1920's and 1930's that document and promote the Art Nouveau and Art Deco style. The work of major period furniture designers and architects, such as Eileen Gray, René Herbst, Robert Mallet-Stevens, and Charlotte Perriand are colorfully documented in these folios. Similarly, French pattern books of this period, consisting entirely of pochoir images of floral, insect-animal, and geometric forms, were created to inspire primarily fabric, interior and wallpaper designers. Featured in this display are the floral and geometric patterns of Edouard Benedictus' Relais , insect motifs in E. A. Seguy's Papillons and Insectes as well as abstract forms created by Sonia Delaunay in Compositions, Couleurs, Idées.

Pochoir is a refined stencil-based technique employed to create prints or to add color to pre-existing prints. It was most popular from the late 19th century through the 1930's with its center of activity in Paris. Pochoir was primarily used to create prints devoted to fashion, patterns, and architectural design and is most often associated with Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The use of stencils dates back to as early as 500 C.E. and was also used in Europe from the 1500's onward to decorate playing cards, postcards and to create simple prints. It was, however, the increase in popularity of Japanese prints in the middle of the 19th century that spurred the refinement of the use of stencils culminating in the development of pochoir. At the peak of its popularity in the early 20th century, there were as many as thirty graphic design studios in France, each employing up to 600 workers.

Pochoir begins with the analysis of the composition, including color tones and densities, of a color image. Numerous stencils were designed as a means of reproducing an image. A craftsman known as a découpeur would cut stencils with a straight-edged knife. The stencils were originally made of aluminum, copper, or zinc but eventually the material of choice was either celluloid or plastic. Along with this transition of stencil materials, there was a shift away from the use of watercolor towards the broad, soft, opaque layers of gouache. The technique was further refined in an effort to create the most vivid, accurately colored reproductions. Stencils created by the découpeur would be passed on to the coloristes. The coloristes applied the pigments using a variety of different brushes and methods of paint application to create the finished pochoir print.

One of the most significant texts about pochoir is Jean Saudé's Traité d'enluminure d'art au pochoir (1925). Saudé offers an explanation of its technique and purpose. He included images that illustrate the process as well as examples of pochoir prints that demonstrate the most basic uses of pochoir to the most complex applications of the technique. Charles Rahn Fry in his "The Stencil Art of Pochoir" identifies trademarks of pochoir. He states that the thick paint medium, gouache, causes a build up against the stencil's edge resulting in a surface elevation that can be both seen and felt. The visible bristle traces result when a brush is moved straight across a stencil-a visual and tactile element resulting from the manual execution of the print. With varying pressure on the brush, a shading, or gradation, affects the printed results. Textural variety is achieved by varying the technique for applying the paint: daubing, spraying, spattering, or sponging are the most common choices. Transparent watercolor can be imposed on top of a thick opaque gouache to create a unique contrast. These elements typify the unique quality of each pochoir print.

The manual aspect of pochoir has been both one of its most valuable attributes and one of its greatest failures as a medium. Pochoir is both labor-and time-intensive, making it an expensive and slow process of printmaking. As a result, techniques such as lithography and serigraphy, mechanized in nature, have replaced pochoir as a method of reproduction. Pochoir has been used in conjunction with other medium such as engraving, lithography, or photography as a means of adding color to a print. Each print is unique because it is done by hand; each remains vivid in both a tactile and visual sense.

This SIL On Display consists of more than 35 images of pochoir prints that capture the vibrant colors and lifestyle of the late 19th and early 20th century held at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library. Included are designs for interiors and furniture, decorative book bindings, fashion plates, and an array of colorful patterns.

The bibliography provides a select list of resources containing pochoir plates in the collection and also articles and books on pochoir history and technique. A good introduction to pochoir can be found in: Art Deco prints 1900-1925 (Princeton University Press, 2000); Pochoir by Elizabeth M. Harris (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977); and Reba W. Williams' "Pochoir Printing" American Artist 53: (1989) pp.70-75.

Smithsonian Institution Libraries On Display