When Art Influences Design

In 1965, Yves Saint Laurent’s mother gave him a book where the young designer discovered the modern painter Piet Mondrian.

In Mondrian’s paintings, Saint Laurent saw how the rhythm of color could be combined with a bold and forceful line. He would translate this building process into a thick jersey dress, unveiled that same year. The dress design was based on Mondrian’s signature geometric compositions from the 1920s, which marked a breakthrough in modern painting.

For the dress, Saint Laurent pieced together blocks of color suspended in a geometric framework of black lines. The simplicity of the final cut makes it easy to miss the masterful construction. The flat modernist design is animated and given volume by the female body. This ideal meeting of color and architecture remains a pillar of Saint Laurent’s style.

The designer would next turn his attention to the artists of his own time, who embodied the youthful spirit of Pop Art. Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol found inspiration for their boldly colored imagery in advertising, comic books, and ordinary mass-produced objects. Experimentation, humor, and a sense of freedom also emerged in popular music and film—and, through Saint Laurent, in fashion.

“I participated in the transformation of my era,” he later said. “I did it with clothes, which is surely less important than music, architecture, painting . . . but whatever it’s worth, I did it.”

Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style—featuring the Mondrian-inspired dress—will close at VMFA on August 27, 2017.