The History Lesson Hidden in Johnson Hartig’s Dazzle Ship Velvet

In his two much-loved collections for Schumacher, fashion designer Johnson Hartig has brought the bold and colorful sensibility of his line, Libertine, to a series of wildly imaginative wallcoverings, fabrics and trims. Among Hartig’s most popular fabrics is Dazzle Ship Velvet, a striking geometric cut velvet that comes in four fabulous colorways. Used on a throw pillow, it’s an eye-catching accent; in a larger dose on a chair or a sofa, it’s guaranteed to lift the mood of an entire room. Yet the origins of Dazzle Ship’s evocative name may be as intriguing as the design itself.

Johnson Hartig for Schumacher Collection | Photo by Paul Costello

At home in Los Angeles, designer Johnson Hartig layers boldly patterned textiles—including his own Dazzle Ship Velvet—with aplomb. The bedroom’s walls are upholstered in Magical Ming Dragon, another design from Hartig’s collection for Schumacher.

Paul Costello

So what is dazzle ship? Hartig explains that during World War I, the British camouflaged their large naval ships by painting the sides with abstract designs—black-and-white stripes, blue-and-gray zig-zags and elaborate swirls—in a concept referred to as “dazzle camouflage.” The idea was not to conceal the ships (if anything, the large-scale patterns made the vessels even more noticeable) but to obscure their true shape and position.

“The original dazzle ships amaze and delight me,” Hartig says. “The idea was that the radical, almost cubist painted patterns would confuse the enemy, making it more difficult to figure out the boat size, distance, speed and even which direction they were traveling in. The Germans wouldn’t know where to aim their missiles.” Hartig says he saw an echo of these brilliant graphic motifs in the repeated pattern of the cut velvet he designed with Schumacher.

  • Mauretania with Dazzle Camouflage

    The RMS Mauretania, a British ocean liner painted with dazzle camouflage during World War I, bringing troops home from Europe in December 1918.

  • USS West Mahomet

    The USS West Mahomet in port, November 1918.

  • HMS Furious

    The British aircraft carrier HMS Furious, 1918.

  • SS Alloway

    The SS Alloway, July 1918.

As a naval strategy, dazzle camouflage produced mixed results—though both the British Royal Navy and the United States Navy went on to launch thousands of dazzle-camouflaged ships over the course of the two world wars. They even tried out the concept on aircraft.

From a purely artistic standpoint, however, there’s no denying the visual appeal of such wild graphic motifs rendered on a monumental scale. The concept of dazzle camouflage is in fact credited to an artist, the British marine painter Norman Wilkinson, and many artists of the day were in turn moved to paint seascapes featuring these remarkable vessels.

  • Arthur Lismer - Olympic with Returned Soldiers

    Dazzle camouflage has been inspiring artists on both sides of the Atlantic since its earliest use. British-born artist Arthur Lismer painted this expressive depiction of the RMS Olympic, a British ocean liner used as a WWI troop ship, in 1919.

    Canadian War Museum 19710261-0343
  • Burnell Poole - American Ships in Dazzle Camouflage

    American Ships in Dazzle Camouflage by American artist Burnell Poole, 1918.

    Royal Museums Greenwich

For Hartig, the appeal of dazzle ships doesn’t end there. “In 1983, the English electronic band OMD released Dazzle Ships,” he says, “and it was one of my favorite records when I was a kid.” (The album’s cover art is an interpretation of a dazzle camouflage pattern.) Proving that there is more to a name than meets the eye, Dazzle Ship Velvet pays homage to a fascinating moment in design history—viewed through the fresh, modern lens that is signature Hartig.

Shop the Full Johnson Hartig Libertine Collection >

Related Posts

View All →