Posted:Mar 5, 2022

A Design Fantasy Originating in Vienna

The Colorful World of Felice “Lizzi” Rix-Ueno

Felice Rix-Ueno, detail of the 1963 mural at Actress, the former restaurant at Nissay Theatre; poster color, aluminum leaf, Japanese paper; University Art Museum, Kyoto City University of Arts; Photo by Alma Reyes

The perfect event to welcome blossoming spring colors, Felice "Lizzi" Rix-Ueno: Design Fantasy Originating in Vienna is running through May 15th at Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo (MIMT). This show is the world’s first comprehensive retrospective for Felice Rix-Ueno (1893–1967), an Austrian textile and craft designer who became a symbol of independence for women artists amid turbulent times in the 20th century. Around 370 works have been brought together from the MAK – Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, and the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.

Felice Rix-Ueno, "Printed Textile [Vegetables]" (c. 1955), reproduced in 1987; manufacturer: Yoshichu Co. Ltd.; Kyoto, print, cotton; The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; Photo by Alma Reyes

Rix-Ueno was born in Vienna and enrolled at the prestigious Vienna School of Arts and Crafts (now University of Applied Arts Vienna) in 1912. She studied textile arts, cloisonné, and sculpture, as well as taught by the architect Josef Hoffmann, who founded the Vienna Workshop (Wiener Werkstätte) in 1903 together with the graphic designer and painter Koloman Moser and the entrepreneur Fritz Waerndorfer. The Vienna Workshop gathered influential architects, artists, designers, and artisans working in ceramics, silver, fashion, furniture, and the graphic arts. Evolving from the Vienna Secession (a progressive alliance of artists and designers established in 1897), this studio was considered a pioneer of modern design in Europe. After graduation, Rix-Ueno joined the Workshop as part of the second generation of designers dedicated to decorative, high-quality craftsmanship in utilitarian items inspired by “the rich tradition of the glorious past.” However, she broke away from the studio’s conventional use of straight lines and suppressed colors and developed her own aesthetic, focusing on organic curves, colorful and sophisticated patterns, and objects that visualized familiar motifs such as flowers, birds, animals, and candies. She rendered her designs in soft lines, geometric shapes, and elegant shades. Most of all, she emphasized the concept of “fantasy.” For her, it meant “being unaffected by others, demonstrating imagination, and gaining originality.” The exhibition is based on this same ideology. 

Felice Rix-Ueno, "Printed Textile [Sweet Pea]" (c. 1955), reproduced in 1987; manufacturer: Onogi Seni Kakou; Kyoto, print, cotton satin; The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; Photo by Alma Reyes

While at the Vienna Workshop, Rix-Ueno met the architect Isaburo Ueno, who attended the University of Vienna and worked for Josef Hoffmann's architectural firm. The Workshop at that time was greatly influenced by Japanese arts and crafts, a trend typical of the mid-19th through early 20th centuries. After marrying in 1925, the couple moved to Kyoto and set up an architectural office, remaining in close contact with European architects and designers such as Bruno Taut. Rix-Ueno travelled between Kyoto and Vienna and continued to work for the Vienna Workshop. After WWII, she also guided the next generation of designers in Kyoto, primarily as an educator at today’s Kyoto City University of Arts. She contributed immensely to design education in Kyoto also through the International Design Institute, which she established with her husband. Her designs came to adorn the dining hall ceiling and walls of Kyoto Station Hotel and the visitors’ room in the Kyoto City Hall Municipal Office. Her work has also been featured in the textiles of guest rooms at The Westin Miyako Kyoto (currently in operation), the glass wall (not exhibited at MIMT) and tile work at the café Rix Garden in Kyoto, and a mural for the restaurant Actress at Nissay Theater in Tokyo.

Felice Rix-Ueno, "Printed Dress-Fabric Design 'Bonbons' (2)" (1925–35); watercolor, ink, pencil, paper, gouache; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; Photo by Alma Reyes

Designs such as Printed Textile [Vegetables] (1955) and Printed Textile [Sweet Pea] (1955), used on flowing cotton and satin fabrics, demonstrate Rix-Ueno’s astute artistry in expressing vibrant colors and rhythmical themes. In the first work, a lively arrangement of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, carrots, and peas are studded on a black background, exuding energy and strength. She conveys a similarly positive energy in Printed Dress-Fabric Design “Bonbons” (2) (1925–35). Candies and chocolates are drawn with gentle curves and straight lines, without use of a ruler. They seem to move busily, as if mingling and chatting with each other.

Felice Rix-Ueno, “Purpurnelke (Purple Carnations)” (1924), design for WW-Textile Museum; purchased from Smithsonian Collections Acquisition and Decorative Arts Association Acquisition Funds. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Photo credit: Matt Flynn © Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

One of Rix-Ueno's most famous designs is Purpurnelke (Purple Carnations) (1924). Carnation stems and leaves retain their normal forms, but the petals are abstracted in stunning colors, reflecting Japanese fan designs. This work has been described as an interpretation of "the inexhaustible imagination of fantasy."

Felice Rix-Ueno, mural (partial) of Restaurant 'Actress' at Nissay Theatre 
(1963); poster color, aluminum leaf, Japanese paper; University Art Museum, Kyoto City University of Arts; Photo by Alma Reyes

Among Rix-Ueno's celebrated interior works, the mural for the former restaurant Actress at Nissay Theatre in Hibiya is absolutely exquisite. Togo Murano, the architect for Nissay Theatre, commissioned Rix-Ueno to decorate the restaurant's interior. Together with four of her best students, she produced about 350 paintings for a fantastic work filled with fruits, birds, and flowers that dance across aluminum foil-coated paper covering over 300 square meters. The silver background was later changed by protective material to gold, conveying a luxurious appearance reminiscent of the Rimpa style. Due to renovations, the Actress mural (except for some parts that could not be taken down) was removed in 2005. It is now stored at the University Art Museum, Kyoto City University of Arts.

Felice Rix-Ueno, "Match Box Cover [Lady I], [Lady II], [Gentleman], [Matches]" (c. 1950); wired and non-wired cloisonné, metal, glaze; The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; Photo by Alma Reyes

Rix-Ueno also created designs for ceramics and items like cigarette cases, ash trays, jewelry boxes, bracelets, and matchboxes. She employed cloisonné techniques on many works, bringing them to life with detailed, ornate motifs that include flowers, animals, humans, and geometric shapes.

Alma Reyes

Alma Reyes

Editor, writer, graphic/layout designer, and music artist promotion/event coordinator based in Tokyo, Japan. Holds a Bachelor's degree in Interior Design, studied Computer Graphic Design at University of California Berkeley, Japanese language studies at Osaka University of Foreign Studies, and received her Master's degree in Product Design & Design Management at Kyoto Institute of Technology. Has published over 30 titles as an editor and writer. Interests include design, architecture, art, photography, brush calligraphy, music, piano, concerts, film, theatre, books, poetry, travel, retro, boats, horses, wine, Italian food, and all "uninhibited" elements of life…