Art by the Metre: Jenny Steele’s Wallpaper for Crosby Library

Natalie Bradbury

Our Library of Light, wallpaper design, 2019

Our Library of Light, wallpaper design, 2019

Wallpaper – or a lack thereof – can reveal a lot about a place and the people who use it.

When Crosby Library opened in 1968, the striking modernist building in the Borough of Sefton near Liverpool was decorated with a wallpaper which matched its ambitions to be a new type of library: bold, lively and forward-looking. Over time, as tastes changed, the wallpaper was painted over – until the removal of a large bookcase revealed a section remaining upstairs on a wall of the reference library. 

More than 50 years later, artist Jenny Steele has created a new wallpaper design, which is to be installed around the existing wallpaper, both complementing the original and highlighting aspects of the building’s architecture and uses. “I wanted to make something about the history of the building that would bring people in and celebrate its past,” she explains. 

Steele’s practice, which includes print-making, sculpture, textiles and furnishings, spans the art and design worlds, bridging the gap between the decorative and functional, beautiful and useful. Her commissions often begin with painstaking research into places and their heritage. In 2017, she created new sculptures inspired by the Art Deco glamour of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, which were installed throughout the building. Currently, she’s working on a new artwork in Liverpool exploring the luxury travel experiences offered onboard Cunard Liners, which once departed from the city for exotic locations.  

Steele’s wallpaper in Crosby is her first permanent public artwork and her first artwork in a library. It came about through The Human Library, an initiative in Sefton Libraries which aims to bring people together and promote wellbeing through community-based learning and skill-sharing such as cooking, sewing and growing. Artists including Ciara Phillips and Emily Speed have been commissioned to lead participatory art projects with local communities. Steele was approached after The Human Library curator Maria Brewster saw how wallpaper she designed for the café at the Tetley in Leeds “lifted the space up” (Brewster).  

Design for Crosby Library, c. 1968

Design for Crosby Library, c. 1968

I meet Steele in her space at Rogue Studios – an independent artists’ studios housed in a converted primary school building in South Manchester – where we’re surrounded by colourful patterns, stacks of textile swatches, newly upholstered furniture, watercolour sketches and trial runs for designs. She takes me through images of the original plans for Crosby Library, giving me a potted history of the building. 

The library was designed by municipal architect G. Ronald Mason and was in planning for four years before finally opening in 1968. It followed the Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1964, which stipulated that every borough had to have a library. When it first opened, there was a children’s library as well as a gallery space with a stuffed bird collection named after collector Colonel Charles Echalez, who retired in Merseyside. A civic hall was added in the 1970s, which was an important local venue for amateur dramatics.

Crosby Library (interior), 2019

Crosby Library (interior), 2019

“It was designed as a community-based library, so it was not solely for learning, but was very open with lots of meeting rooms which hosted clubs,” explains Steele. “There was a lecture hall with talks about local history among other topics, as well as free training and evening classes. Because it was a community space it was a place for people to meet and learn from each other.” 

Although the library is in the modernist style, Steele describes it as a “softer modernism,” rather than the “hard edged brutal concrete” commonly associated with the era in the public mind. She likens it to a greenhouse because it’s covered in windows, all of which adds to a sense of openness. In the past, it’s been used as a period film location because all the original fixings are still in place, including the doors, handles and glass.

As we leaf through archival images, Steele enthusiastically draws my attention to styles, shapes and outlines that have caught her eye. She highlights an abundance of circular shapes, from the building’s footprint to the lights and the windows to patterns reminiscent of starbursts and even a shape suggestive of a rocket, which she explains reflects a theme common in 1960s pattern design: the desire to go to space. Steele’s wallpaper design is a composite of small details such as these, collaging together and borrowing from seemingly minor aspects of the building; from foliage to floor coverings and the colour of the lettering used on signs to encapsulate the library’s atmosphere.

Preliminary sketch of the terrazzo flooring in the entrance rotunda at Crosby Library, 2019

Preliminary sketch of the terrazzo flooring in the entrance rotunda at Crosby Library, 2019

Although she hasn’t identified the exact origin of the library’s original wallpaper, Steele visited the extensive wallpaper archive at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester and met with the textile and wallpaper conservators there. Through this research she discovered that it was very similar to the bold designs of ‘Palladio’, a higher-end range produced for architects between the 1950s and the 1970s.

What struck Steele was the quality and craftsmanship of the wallpaper, which was screen-printed, in contrast to the mass-produced wallpaper most of us are familiar with today. “The old wallpaper is really detailed and decorative when you look,” she explains. “There is a very fine gold grid pattern and larger circles. It would have seemed quite forward-looking at the time.” Whilst the wallpaper which remains features interlocking geometric patterns in deep oranges, reds and browns, a version of the same wallpaper in teal – a very common colour at the time – was also installed (then later painted over) on the ground floor. Despite its fall from fashion, which caused the majority to be painted over, today’s librarians are proud of the wallpaper, which has been cleaned with advice from a conservator.

Steele’s design is not just an abstract reimagining of the building’s bricks and mortar, or a modern take on retro patterns, however. It’s clear that the building’s social aspirations and functions have inspired her just as much as the architecture.

“I’m looking at a period when I wasn’t there,” reflects Steele. “People are very positive about that time even though they worked very hard. The country was growing, and it felt like anything was possible. I want to revive the architect’s original intentions – architecture was conceived to improve people’s lives.”

Our Library of Light (detail), 2019

Our Library of Light (detail), 2019

One aspect of the period which particularly caught Steele’s imagination was images of female librarians from the library’s archive, which are incorporated into her design. “Librarianship as an occupation really grew in the 60s, particularly for women,” she explains. “It was seen as progressive and socially acceptable.”

In spite of the era of optimism in which the library was conceived, Steele is aware of the challenges facing libraries today in the wake of sweeping cuts to funding and public service provision. During the project, Steele has become immersed in the life of the building, running workshops with families and the library’s poetry group, most of whom are retired. “The library is amazing,” she enthuses. “They have constant activities on. There is so much going on and it is such an important public venue. You never see it quiet – there are always a lot of people studying here. It’s a social lifeline.”

This spirit of communal activity, learning and sharing suffuses Steele’s work. Although she admits the library’s interior is “quite tired and in need of repair,” she hopes to “create something visually bold that will command the room and lift the space.” Above all, she wants her section of wallpaper to “make you look at the architecture a bit more and appreciate how important it is as a reminder of the time and period in which it was built.”

Jenny Steele’s wallpaper will be installed at Crosby Library, Merseyside this summer (2019). Follow The Human Library and Jenny Steele online for launch details. All images courtesy of the artist.

Our Library of Light is commissioned by The Human Library, a collaborative arts programme in two library settings: Bootle and Crosby, which serves the communities of Waterloo, Seaforth & Litherland. Organised by Sefton Library Service with artistic director Maria Brewster, the project's philosophy is that everyone has “gifts of the heart, the hand and the head” to offer their community. Artists projects, commissions and happenings help local people find and share these gifts.  The Human Library is a Sefton Libraries project funded by Arts Council of England.