It is no wonder that many prominent American architects and interior designers of the mid-century years (such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy, and Samuel Marx) approached textile designer Dorothy Liebes (1897-1972) for collaboration and advice. After all, she knew what was needed for the modern interior to escape the cold and impersonable realm of early German modernism, and her brilliant solutions came to shape a new identity of the American home; just as those collaborators wanted. Liebes’ story is the story of many American designers who were drawn to modern industrial design before discovering that only handcraftsmanship could save the interior from appearing industrial and commercial and thus, they would subsequently live a dual professional identity.
While the name Dorothy Liebes may be unfamiliar to many, this textile designer was not only one of the most influential talents of the 20th century, but also became the engine behind the American interior look—popular in the decades before and following the Second World War. She was celebrated in her own lifetime, but over time design history began to leave her name outside of its narrative. Now, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum presents the first monographic exhibition highlighting this tastemaker in a comprehensive and fascinating exhibtion and book. Titled after her recipe for creating a successful color scheme for both home and fashion, A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes features 125 exquisite textiles in fashion and furniture, as well as documents, photographs, and period videos demonstrating the scope of her influence and impact in the world of design.
The home textiles of that era were heavily textured, had jeweled colors, lush materials, and luxurious appearance; Liebes should be credited for that distinct look. In fact, it came to be called the ‘Liebes Look.’ She was responsible for devising a new style of window treatments, shades, and drapes for the modern interior. Her commitment to her medium and turning textiles into important components of the modern interior is impressive.
This exhibition is not only fascinating for the newly unearthed information but is also enjoyable and beautiful to look at. Regarding the colorful jeweled tones, Liebes famously said, “all people love colors.” The wooden panels of the museum—the former home of industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie—serve as the perfect backdrop for the gems to be presented. The exhibition and wonderful publication are largely based on the extensive papers which Liebes left for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, which reveals the amazing scope of her collaborations with architects, industrial designers, fashion designers. She contributed the textiles to many of the most iconic American interiors of all time, including Adrian’s Hollywood Salon, Doris Duke’s Shangri-La, the Frist Class Observation Lounge of the SS United States and American Airlines Flagship 747, the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, the Marco Polo Club at the Waldorf Astoria and endless more.
There is a great deal to discover in this show. I was fascinated to learn that Liebes was commissioned with a wall piece for Elsa Schiaparelli’s showcase at the 1937 Paris Exposition. She was also selected as the artistic director of the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, to which she invited Marcel Breuer to contribute a set of his plywood seatings. In addition to the famed handwoven fabrics that she created in her studio, she also created affordable fabrics for companies such as DuPont Textile Fibers; it is no wonder that her ultra photogenic studio was the most photographed of that era. She also created the upholstery fabric for the turquoise seats of the 1957 Chrysler Plymouth Fury. It is my hope that this show will have many visitors from outside the world of design because it is a testimony to the power textile has to make a difference.