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The Omega Workshops

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The Omega sign painted in oils on a canvas

33 Fitzroy Square is currently occupied by the London Foot Hospital & School of Podiatric Medicine, but the site has a much more glamorous past. It was here that Roger Fry, the artist and art theorist, gathered together some of the brightest creative forces in 1910's London and founded the Omega Workshops.

Fry was on a mission. He wanted to bring Post Impressionist ideals to applied design, moving away from the elegant, dark and retro curves of the Arts & Crafts movement. He wanted the primary focus of design to be the creative process itself, with busy patterns and vibrant colours. The artist and the artistic journey were to be king. Thus he chose Omega, the last letter of the Greek Alphabet for the name of his workshops. He wanted them to represent the last word in modern design.

The workshops opened in 1913 and were established through bequests and donations from famous figures of the London arts scene, such as George Bernard Shaw. Fry invited Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, leading lights in the Bloomsbury Movement1 to join him as co-directors. Fry, Grant and Bell were the most prolific artists of the Omega Workshops but others included Henri Doucet, Wyndham Lewis, Winifred Gill, Nina Hamnett and Dora Carrington.

The Bloomsbury Group were a group of artists, painters and thinkers who were the enfants terribles of artistic London, during the first half of the 20th Century. They lived their lives in direct rebellion to the stuffy social conventions of Victorian and Edwardian society, but it would be a shame if they were only remembered for their complex friendships and sex lives. They produced groundbreaking pieces of literature, art and design. The best-known Bloomsbury members included writers such as Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, the economist Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey. The artists are less well-known now but produced stunning work, both signed and under the Omega Workshop's name.

Omega was very democratic; artists were paid a fixed wage and were not allowed to sign their work. Instead, the Greek letter Omega was used on products as diverse as ceramics, painted furniture, textiles, domestic glass and jewellery. The products were sold direct to private purchasers on an individual basis, but many of the designs were imitated and mass-produced cheaply. Fry's inability to exploit a good business opportunity and the anarchic way he ran the collective led to a high-profile split. Several artists led by Wyndham Lewis left to form their own group. The Omega artists were preparing for a national interior design exhibition at the time, which only heightened the public nature of the defection.

While Omega was a creative powerhouse, its directors had very little business acumen and this, coupled with the outbreak of war in 1914, meant that its short history was one of financial turmoil. It eventually closed in 1919. The items it produced remain highly collectable. A fine collection of furniture and other items produced by the Omega Workshop can be seen at Charleston, the country home of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

1Fitzroy Square is near to Bloomsbury, the area of London from which the group took their name.

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