Home Arts Dorothy Liebes’ investigation weaves the story of her little-known but colorful career

Dorothy Liebes’ investigation weaves the story of her little-known but colorful career

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Dorothy who? That’s the question design insiders, as well as museum buffs, may be asking when the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York opens the first monographic exhibition in over 50 years on Dorothy Liebes (1897-1972) , the influential textile designer and weaver. Liebes played a key role in mid-century modern American interiors, but now even many experts in the field might struggle to place her.

Liebes employees, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Raymond Loewy, need no introduction. And Liebes herself was amply celebrated during her lifetime. But the full extent of his three decades of A-list commands – which spanned from the United Nations building in New York to the filming of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s 1949 comedy Adam’s rib– disappeared into archives and museum collections after his death in 1972, when his studio closed. A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes uses nearly 200 objects, from code-like sample cards to glamorous existing furniture, to reinstall Liebes as one of the creative geniuses of the time.

Liebes’ Mexican plaid textile, circa 1938, combined natural fabrics, such as wool and cotton, with synthetic fabrics, including cellophane. Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

The curious title references Liebes’ motto on how to design color schemes, and the show manages to bring black-and-white interior photographs of mid-century interiors to life with preserved examples of Liebes’ palette.

Liebes originally planned to be an artist, says exhibition co-curator Alexa Griffith Winton, and “his understanding of color came out of that.” The California native has collaborated with fashion designers, as well as architects, and while a 1958 woven leather sample card – in varying shades of yellow – is a study for a leather pattern suitable for footwear and to handbags, its striking grid shows an artist’s eye at work.

Example Liebes card for Eagle Ottawa Leather Corp (1958) Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

A challenge for mid-century modern architects was what to do with all those glass windows. “You couldn’t have Victorian ruffles,” says Winton, and so Leibes jumped into the fray helping shape “a new paradigm for window treatments.” The exhibition will be rich in examples of Liebes textiles for shades and drapes. In 1950, just after Liebes moved her studio from San Francisco to New York, she collaborated on Henry Dreyfuss’ now legendary redesign of the Persian Room, a nightclub in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel. The show will include a stretch of bright green fabric that Liebes later designed for the space, which used synthetic lurex yarn to suggest lights in the curtains.

Liebes was a persuasive early advocate for the incorporation of synthetic materials into fine textiles, and the Cooper Hewitt is able to rely on his collection for a 10-foot-long sample of the fabulously colored material. called Mexican Plaid. 1938 twill may include traditional cotton, silk and wool, but gets a dose of 20th-century sparkle from cellophane.

A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy LiebesCooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, July 7-February 4, 2024

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