The art of textile design radically transformed after World War II as America’s economy boomed and optimism bloomed into consumer society. In Southern Arizona, artists Harwood and Sophie Steiger were pivotal in this artistic revolution. Incorporating bold dramatic colors and graphic motifs inspired by the plants and animals of the Sonoran desert, mesoamerican graphics and iconography of the American Southwest, they transformed the market by producing elegant hand-screened fabric that made contemporary regional design accessible in the post-war era.
Harwood Magnus Steiger was born in January 2, 1900 in Macedon, New York to Helene Leupolty and Henry Steiger. His childhood was spent in Fairport New York. Interested in art from a young age he enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology to study painting. His first job was as a color consultant for a dye plant factory in Rochester before he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, at the Summer School at Westchester, and the West End Art School at Provincetown. He was a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts and during this period he designed candy boxes and wallpaper.
He taught art at the Oswego Training School at the State Continuation School, and by 1926 he was an instructor of illustration in the School of Fine Arts of the Mechanics Institute in Rochester. After working on the World’s Fair, he was selected to design the Chinese Government exhibit and decorations in the Sesquicentennial Exposition at Philadelphia. In 1927 Steiger traveled to Nova Scotia for the summer and designed a cabin in Parker’s Cover at the Bay of Fundy, where each summer he would return with artist friends to develop new work. Steiger, like the rest of the country was swept into the throws of the Depression, but his entrepreneurial spirit and artistic ability helped him weather the economic storm.
By 1930 he was living in Fairport, New York and in 1931 he moved to New York City and opened a studio on East 4th Street which later moved to 12 East Tenth Street in Greenwich Village. Harwood’s work was gaining acclaim and he began to show with the Morton Gallery in New York in early 1935. In June of that year his watercolor painting “Castle in Queens” was featured in the New York Times. His work was included in the 1936 Whitney Museum of American Biennial and was part of 17 pieces acquired for the institution’s permanent collection.
Continuing to teach, he opened a summer art school at Martha’s Vineyard. His artistic style drew on the social mores and themes of the era. Like Thomas Hart Benton, who also summered on Martha’s Vineyard, Harwood’s artistic style was on the forefront of the Regionalist art movement. He worked primarily in watercolor, sculpting his fluid figures in thick washes of color, using sharp dark lines to give his work a punctuating weight. His art explored the everyday experiences of ordinary people, a stylistic choice associated with the Work Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA, the largest and most ambitious of the New Deal agencies during the Great Depression, developed public work projects all over the country. In 1938, Harwood completed a mural for a post office in Fort Payne, Alabama. In late 1938 through early 1939, Steiger completed a residency at the Research Studio in Maitland, Florida that culminated in the exhibition of twenty watercolors. In 1939 two of his works were shown as part of the Whitney’s Annual Contemporary American Watercolors and in one of his watercolors were displayed in the 1941 the museum’s Annual Exhibition of Sculpture, Watercolors. Drawings and Prints.
His Martha’s Vineyard summer studio drew students from all over the country, including an attractive young schoolteacher named Sophie Halbwachs, an artist in her own right.
Sophie was born in August 5, 1895 in Sackets Harbor, New York, to a French born father Charles Halbwachs and German born Mother Louisa Glatacler. In 1920, Sophie still lived with her parents, 3 sisters and 2 brothers on 77th Street in Brooklyn, New York and worked as a teacher
Sophie had an an artistic curiosity with a particular interest in botanicals and herbs. Her art reflected this interest. Plants and flowers were a central theme of her painting, utilizing watercolor to create delicate washes of tone and depth. It was this interest that drew her to Steiger’s summer class. The couple married in Edgartown, Massachusetts on August 5, 1940, on Sophie’s 45th Birthday. The Steigers moved to farm near Red Hook, New York where they planted a hillside nut grove and a herb garden. An article on herbs written by Harwood appeared in House and Garden Magazine
In 1956, after a trip through northern Mexico, the Steigers fell in love with Arizona, and built a home and studio in Tubac, a small village 45 miles south of Tucson. The climate, history, and landscape reshaped their artistic interests. Tubac at the time of their arrival was becoming an artist colony with noted residents of the post WWII era including Marjorie and Dale Nichols, Hugh Cabot and Eral Dravis.
Their studio: Harwood Steiger / Harwood Steiger Hand Painted Fabrics was a boutique production space that provided a long printing room and a showroom. The couple worked closely in the design, development, and production. Their fabrics were a hit, earning national and international attention.
Harwood would draw a design, and Sophie would decide if the work should be transferred to fabric, choosing the type of fabric and its base color. Harwood chose the silkscreen dye and would cut the designs into lacquer films. The stencils were placed on the silk screens and the dye brushed through the screens, a separate film and screen for each color.
The new fabric design was a departure from Harwood’s earlier art but retained a familiar graphic sensibility. These new functional works reflected both Harwood’s and Sophie’s artistic interests – dozens of fabrics were decorative abstractions of botanical themes, others ruminations on desert animals and cactus. The couple produced 36 yards of fabric at a time, repeating the silk-screen process over and over down their long studio table.
Over three decades the Steigers created a vocabulary of graphic fabric patterning that became part of southern Arizona style. Their work offered a functional modernist interpretation of the Southwest. Although the designs are undated, the work falls into a series of sub-categories including pattern, panels, borders and stand-alone pieces that represent: the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert; graphic representation inspired by mesoamerican cultures; abstract patterns, basket weave designs using repetition of graphic images; ditzy patterns with botanical and desert elements scattered across the fabric; floral patterns and geometric patterns.
Over three decades the Steigers created a vocabulary of graphic fabric patterning that became part of southern Arizona style. Their work offered a functional modernist interpretation of the Southwest. Although the designs are undated, the work falls into a series of sub-categories including pattern, panels, borders and stand-alone pieces that represent: the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert; graphic representation inspired by mesoamerican cultures; abstract patterns, basket weave designs using repetition of graphic images; ditzy patterns with botanical and desert elements scattered across the fabric; floral patterns and geometric patterns. The Steigers’ masterful use of ink and fabric color are highly considered and give the designs a powerful identity. Despite the diverse subjects matter, broad array of different patterns and Harwood Steiger Fabrics have a distinct and recognizable graphic signature and have stood the test of time.
By 1958 Harwood was an active part of Southern Arizona’s arts community. In February he was part of an exhibition at the Tucson Art Center presented by the Tucson Fine Arts Association called “Discover Crafts in Tucson”. The show presented the Harwood Steiger fabrics along side other noted tucson textile designers including Berta Wright, Ruth Brown, Julie Brix and Catharine Lancaster. In 1959, examples of the Steigers’ work was shown in the Tucson Art Center exhibition “Crafts as Art in Tucson”.
By 1959, Harwood Steiger fabrics were being sold at the noted desert designer Leionne Salter’s Arizona Studio. In Tubac the Steigers were integral in launching the Tubac Festival of Arts and in 1961 Harwood Steiger fabrics were honored with an award from the Festival. In the late 1960s the popularity of the fabrics was surging. High-end dress shops including Arizona Originals in Tucson promoted the availability of Harwood Steiger fabric for custom designs. The fabrics designs had become part of the graphics identity of Southern Arizona and the America Southwest.
Sophie died in March 1979 and Harwood in August 1980. The studio continued on under the direction of relatives and former employees for a number of years but innovation and new designs stoped. The influence of Harwood Steiger is still present, not just in the tablecloths, curtains, dresses, and upholstery that sprinkle the interiors of houses throughout the southwest, but in a rich sophisticated style that continues to express the vision of post WWII Arizona. In 2018 the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation presented the first exhibition of the Harwood Steiger fabric designs as part of Tucson Modernism Week.
Since 2012 the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation has been the exclusive curator of ‘Harwood Steiger’ making prints available to the public for educational purposes as well as licensing prints for commercial artists.