'The See-Through House: My Father in Full Colour', by Shelley Klein (published by Chatto & Windus)
Perhaps all memoirs about a parent are actually the story of being a child, and in the case of Shelley Klein's book, the story is multi-layered because not only is it about her father Bernat Klein – and her family – but it is about the house in the Scottish Borders in which she grew up: High Sunderland.
The structure of the book takes the reader on a comprehensive journey through the architecture of the house – including plans and illustrations – with each section dedicated to a different space, such as Living Room, Library, Dining Room, Kitchen, explaining how the collaboration between Bernat Klein and the architect Peter Womersley came to create such a Modernist masterpiece. That, however, would simply be the functional layout for living – the bare bones. At the heart of the book is the relationship of the author to her father, and to his house.
If you were around in the 1960s and interested in fashion, male or female, you will know as soon as you open this beautifully designed book and look at the endpapers exactly who Bernat Klein was. You may have imagined it was a brand name, and indeed it was – a famous one – but Bernat Klein was also a husband, and father to three children, of whom Shelley is the youngest.
Bernat Klein, born in 1922, was a Serbian Jew, originally from what had been Yugoslavia, who grew up in a family experienced in producing textiles, though this was not the path his family expected him to follow, having religious studies in mind. In Jerusalem, however, he found the Bezalel School of Art and Craft and his career trajectory was totally altered, and because of this so was British fashion in the 1960s. Klein went on to Leeds University to study textile design in 1945 (where he met his wife to be, a knitwear designer herself), and then to work for Munrospun in Scotland. By 1952, he had set up his own company in Galashiels: Colourcraft.
It was a serendipitous coming together of like minds when, in 1955, Bernat Klein met the architect Peter Womersley, who lived in the Borders. He had designed a house for his brother in Yorkshire, seen by the Kleins while driving past, and it seems that Klein knew at once that he wanted a house of this nature. Womersley, a graduate of the Architectural Association, drew on ideas from the Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright, yet developed his own signature with High Sunderland, which he completed in 1957.
While, in its use of materials and in its sense of integrity to the landscape, the house is Modernist in style, it deviates from this somewhat in its decorative aspects and rather greater use of colour, in glass and on wood. The colours were carefully selected to settle the house into its surroundings of hills, fields and woodlands. Thus it both blends in and stands out. It has at once a luminous presence, while at the same time – because of the vast amount of clear glass – it also disappears into the landscape. Growing up in such a house – and, ultimately leaving it – is the story that Shelley Klein has chosen to tell.
About her memories of growing up in the Scottish Borders, she has this to say: 'My thoughts are that they are Scotland's hidden gem. Visitors always seem to skip them on the way to the Highlands and Islands, whereas to my mind they will always be among the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Living in a glass house brought the outside inside, and from childhood onwards gave me a profound love of nature. I would spend hours down by the River Tweed. Similarly, in my walks in the hills and woodlands, I would spend hours in all weathers, breathing it all in'.
This landscape provided the inspiration for Bernat Klein's phenomenal success in the 1960s, when he sold Colourcraft and started a new enterprise in his own name, beginning rather small with scarves, but moving on to fabrics and womenswear and menswear. He experimented with materials, with weaves, presiding over all aspects of the making process. Klein was also a painter, an admirer of the French pointillists, and fascinated by the effect that different shades and tones had on each other, which he brought into his innovative weaving.
In 1963, Chanel's spring collection, and then a host of other designers, featured Klein's mohair fabrics, knits and tweeds, all of which – in their textures and colours – echoed the natural features that surrounded High Sunderland. As the author writes in the book: 'My father was in love with this landscape, with his life here and with the house he lived in'. The house was used for fashion shows and photographic shoots, illustrated in the book, with models posed by large windows, seated on modern sofas featuring Klein fabrics, abstract sculpture in the background, with the strapline: Bernat Klein Scotland
The domestic side to living in High Sunderland – the see-through house – was as open as its architectural plan: no doors (until in her teens Shelley Klein rebelled); the 'adult' part of the house and the 'children's' part were separated by the family spaces; if you could see out, it also meant a sense of exposure to the world outside. Everything had its place in the design.
When the author left her home in Cornwall to live at High Sunderland and look after her elderly widowed father in the years before his death, he preferred that she keep her comfy antique furniture out of his sight. As in his weaving of fabrics, searching, overseeing, perfecting, so did Bernat Klein ensure that the structure of his life, including his house and family, was a known and stable entity, as much in his control as possible. Looking back on his youth, including the loss of his mother at Auschwitz, and other family history that Klein uncovers and discusses in her narrative, one might find reasons for desiring a life that was open to the beauty of nature and which had no dark corners.
On her return to High Sunderland, Shelley Klein faced that struggle of all 'children' who go back home: how to hang on to that precious sense of yourself as an adult, especially when confronted with a strong personality in a parent, one who is much loved and, as ever, expresses an enthusiasm for living and a sense of adventure, not to say argument. Their 'dialogues' over matters large and small, set out in the form of a conversational script, capture the warmth and humour that imbued their relationship and bring to life the unusual man who was her father.
To some extent, the book itself is a record of the struggle that Klein confronted, to locate herself as an individual without losing the presence of her parents: 'In many ways, the physical act of writing the book kept both my parents and the house alive for me. Finishing the book and having it published therefore is another type of letting go. I can't say I feel freer, but perhaps what I've learned is that the house will always be with me, just as my parents are always with me. I now have a physical object, which represents the house, and therefore, as you say, it's a safe place in which my memories reside'.
Bernat Klein, who died in 2014, was awarded a CBE in 1973, and he acted as a Commissioner on the Royal Fine Art Commission in Edinburgh. There is a Klein archive in the National Museums of Scotland, which seems entirely fitting for an artist who put Scottish fashion on the map, from the 1960s and even to the present day. There are key pieces in the Fashion and Style Gallery at the museum in Edinburgh. High Sunderland won a Design Council Award in 1968, and has the highest designation, a Category A listing, for buildings in Scotland. The adjoining Studio, however, has been a building 'at risk' (though perhaps now in hand).
Shelley Klein's recently published book, a story of a family, a father, a house, including the historical loss of generations past, is curiously a book for the times in which we are living right now. Every day we are made aware of the need to accept a different reality, to adjust to the loss of a life as we knew it and to look at ways to deal with inevitable changes to our lives. We have seen the ill effects of our interaction with the natural environment, and have a greater appreciation of simply being out of doors, having cleaner air. If one supposes that a house can be a monument to living harmoniously with nature, then High Sunderland fulfils that premise.