Call Me Mother

From the 1930s through the ’60s, Dorothy Liebes’ influence was everywhere. Her textile work could be found in Frank Lloyd Wright homes and in the United Nations’ Delegates Dining Room; at the Plaza Hotel and the Waldorf Astoria; aboard the S.S. United States ocean liner and the American Airlines flagship 747; as well as in Hollywood movies and on high-fashion runways. Yet her name is relatively unknown in the worlds of fashion and design today.

Before this fall, I was completely unfamiliar with her work. Why?

Dorothy Liebes in her Powell Street studio, San Francisco, California, 1938. Photography by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Image courtesy of Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.

A new exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, titled, “A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes,” aims to answer this question. On view through February 4, it is the first monographic exhibition of her work in more than 50 years, and educates visitors on all the various ways the “mother of modern weaving,” as she’s been called, left her mark on American design. 

“Liebes had unparalleled influence on what modern design in America meant through her work as a designer, consultant, educator and mentor,” says Alexa Griffith Winton, manager of content and curriculum at Cooper Hewitt, who co-organized the who with the museum’s associate curator and acting head of textiles, Susan Brown. “We are thrilled to share the full spectrum of her achievements with new audiences and to add her contributions back into the history of 20th-century design.”

The work of female creatives has, unfortunately, always been missing from historically male-lead artistic institutions. But the nature of Liebes’ craft also means that she was more likely to be left out of the conversation. Oftentimes, it is designers who are the subject of exhibitions and headlines—the big, recognizable names, as opposed to those more behind-the-scenes, like Liebes, actually creating the fabrics for their garments. The exhibit does a great job of showing how one could not exist without the other, and the close partnerships Liebes had with some of the biggest names in fashion and design. 

One of the first pieces you’ll encounter in the show, for example, is a wall panel that Liebes—who was always sharply dressed herself, with a pillbox hat on her head—dedicated to fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Featuring handwoven tape measures and large metallic scissors, it won the grand prize for textile design at the 1937 Paris Exposition.

Installation photo of “A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes.” Photography by Elliot Goldstein. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

Liebes worked with a number of fashion designers throughout her career, including Pauline Trigère, Adrian, and Bonnie Cashin, who used her fabrics for their designs. Liebes became known for her use of vibrant colors, rich textures, and her unique incorporation of shiny, shimmering materials like metallic threads—a style that would later become known as the “Liebes Look.” Hollywood filmmakers were especially interested in her textiles for these reasons. The way they caught the light and added a textural dimension to a shot is evident in black-and-white films like Eastside, Westside (1947), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner. 

“We can weave with unlimited materials—string, trimmings, braids, ribbons, oilcloth, cork, wood strips, reed, lace, paper, pine needles and leather,” she told Woman’s Day in 1944. “We can use all kinds of scraps, which is not only good citizenship in the conservation sense, but conducive to exciting and interesting textures.”

Architects, of course, also appreciated Liebes’ understanding of movement, material, and light within a space. She collaborated with some of the most prominent names of her time, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy and Samuel Marx, on commissions ranging from private homes to the United Nations Delegates Dining Room, which featured woven room dividers of her design. One of my favorite interior works of hers are the opulent curtains she made for the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, which provided an intimacy to the space, but also a glimmering sense of luxury.

Although she contributed to the look and feel of these more exclusive spaces, including the First Class Observation Lounge aboard the S.S. United States, Liebes also felt strongly that her work be accessible at a wide range of price points. She designed the 1957 Chrysler Plymouth Fury upholstery fabric, for example, and a line for United Wallpaper. She was also a consultant to major brands like Lurex and DuPont Textile Fibers, allowing her to become more of a household name over time.

Overall, my visit to Cooper Hewitt brightened my day significantly. To be in a room with so many vivid colors and sparkling, innovative textiles was “a feast for the eyes,” as Andre Leon Talley would say. To celebrate the life’s work of a woman who’d been otherwise forgotten to recent  history added a layer of pride to the whole experience as well. I hope more New Yorkers discover it this fall, and others can experience the digital exhibit online as well, if they’re curious. 

Dorothy Liebes’ Studio, New York City, ca. 1957. Image courtesy of Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, and Smithsonian Institution.

The final section of the exhibit is dedicated to Liebes’ studios in New York and San Francisco, and the creative, experimental environments she fostered. It makes you want to be a part of her world. I left feeling inspired, and also more aware of the fabrics around me, and on my body. How boring so many of them are! We could no doubt use more of the Liebes Look in our lives today.

That’s no typo. Just Deserts is a column by Emilia Petrarca for Family Style about those who never got their due—or perhaps too much of it.