NEW YORK — The industriousness of one of America’s most accomplished multidisciplinary designers, Dorothy Liebes, is on full display at a new exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum here.
As a textile designer, weaver and color authority, she collaborated with such talents as Bonnie Cashin, Adrian, Frank Lloyd Wright, Raymond Loewy and Samuel Marx from the 1930s to the ’60s. Working across sectors, Liebes had a hand in fashion, interiors, costume design, transportation and industrial design, combining vivid colors and interesting textures to help modernize mid-20th century design.
On view at the Upper East Side museum through Sept. 4, “A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes” showcases textiles, fashion, furniture, personal documents and photographs. Featuring more than 175 works — including textiles, textile samples, fashion, furniture, documents and photographs — the exhibition reveals her agility and hints at her interest in early modernist paintings.
A natural networker who traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad to understand what other designers did, Liebes kept up with them as the years ticked by, according to Alexa Griffith, who curated the exhibition with Susan Brown. Liebes’ archives feature Christmas cards from notables like Noguchi and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Her Rolodex was filled with other famous names like Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey and Pauline Trigère — many of whom weren’t merely business contacts but genuine friends like Cashin, who Liebes teamed with again and again. A good amount of her contacts were compiled in the lead-up to Liebes serving as the executive director of the decorative arts pavilion at the Golden Gate International Exposition, which was staged in her home state in the late 1930s.
Nature was another primary inspiration source, whether that be how Lurex could be used to resemble sunlight sparkling on the water or a panache for the green and blue palette akin to the colors of trees and the sky, Griffith said. Enthralled by textile history, Liebes jetted off to Guatemala and other countries to learn about age-old techniques. Closer to home, she sought out authorities at the Institute of Fine Arts on such subjects as Persian velvet experts while studying for her master’s in New York. Her curiosity extended to European designers like Elsa Schiaparelli.
Not just interested in aesthetics and architecture, she was intrigued by how textiles functioned within interiors to shape space and control light, according to Brown. Her own personal style was another point of distinction and media descriptions. That elan helped facilitate her providing fabrics to manufacturers of hats, shoes and handbags.
“Fashion was very much a through line from the beginning of her career,” Brown said. “Although she did have a complex relationship with it. She was interviewed and recognized as a design authority in shelter magazines. But fashion, of course, attempted to withhold the names of the people who designed the textiles.”
Noting how there are few examples where the textiles designer is named in the fashion context, she said an exception is Liebes’ collaboration with Cashin for skirts, where they are equally identified for that project. The Cooper Hewitt show demonstrates how design history has moved on from antiquated stereotypes, where women were not recognized for their contributions.
Liebes gravitated toward textile design early on, and she also grasped the business side by recognizing opportunities and what added value she could offer, such as luxurious textile fabrics for interiors that manufacturers and interior decorators could serve up to their clients.
While working in Hollywood, Liebes met Cashin, who was working as head costume designer at Twentieth Century Fox at that time. “The story goes that Bonnie saw a beautiful fabric on a chair and said she wanted to make a coat out if it,” Brown said, adding that led to custom work and a close friendship.
Liebes’ textiles weren’t just sought out by the esteemed Head, but they were by others like Cedric Gibbons and Travis Banton. The New York transplant also crafted interiors for Hollywood power players like Joan Crawford.
Despite “hunting and hunting” for the 18-minute “Beauty by Design” film that was made when Liebes worked with DuPont, the curators have yet to find it. Although there are a few video clips featured in the show, they are hopeful more footage may surface since Liebes regularly appeared on TV.
As for why Liebes “vanished from the narrative of American design history shortly after her death,” it was partially related to her not having had any children “to maintain her legacy or to set up her estate,” Brown said.
Cashin discussed trying to keep the studio going after her death, but that proved to “not be possible,” Brown added. In addition, the early ’70s sparked an interest in fiber art, she added. And being undefinable may have been a deterrent. “The scope of her career is so huge that it’s been a little hard for people to find a way in,” Brown said.
Having spent 15-plus years researching Liebes’ work, Griffith agreed. “She was deeply interested in design in the broadest sense and was really participating in that conversation, from carpet consulting to international work, like trying to revive the textile industry after the war and her fascinating work in fashion with Cashin. There are so many interesting elements to her story that it resisted a conventional design history narrative. As much as she was omnipresent in magazines and newspapers during her life, all of the work that she did with Wright or Marx was deleted in favor of the story of the legend of the architect.”
Liebes opened a design studio in San Francisco in 1930 and maintained it for years. Her first marriage to Leon Liebes, whose affluent family owned the department store H. Liebes & Co., ended in divorce. Her unpublished memoir described how he could not tolerate her wanting to be a designer, and she could not accept that, Griffith said. “According to her, that’s why she left that marriage in the middle of the [Great] Depression with her clothes and loom.”
After wedding the American journalist Relman Morin, Liebes and her new husband moved to the East Coast, where she set up a New York studio in 1948 that became her main one after running two became “really overwhelming,” Brown said. “Although she was a California girl through and through and had always hoped to retire there, unfortunately she died in New York before then.”
A “fairly exquisite” ’50s hostess apron with rows and rows of metallics from the collection of fashion historian Sandy Schreier is a standout statement in the show, Brown said. Another attention-getter is one of the collaborative Cashin skirts that once belonged to Gypsy Rose Lee and is now part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection.
All in all, the joyfulness with which Liebes approached her work could inform future generations of designers, according to Griffith. “You can see that this was someone who was very optimistic about American design and had a great passion for it. The crossover between fashion and interiors is an interesting story for young designers to think about,” Brown said.
Liebes’ reputation for innovative fabrics resonates today, when renewable and sustainable materials are of interest to “try to reverse some of the damage that the fashion industry has caused to the environment,” she said.
After leaving her first husband “with anything that she could get her hands on for financial reasons,” the designer faced material shortages due to World War II rationing that led to her experimentation with alternatives to silk and other fabrics. Later during the post-war period, an alliance with DuPont enabled her to shape the fibers and synthetics world by getting her innovative fibers into carpets, upholstery, handbags and fashion through her many personal connections, Brown said. She would also get feedback about what worked and what didn’t.
“That part of her work makes her very contemporary in feeling,” she added.