Follow the Thread

a textile & costume history blog from the Design Center at Thomas Jefferson University

Dorothy Liebes, part 2: Collection Highlights

09.06.2023

T&CC 1976.18.2, woven blind sample, Dorothy Liebes, mid-20th-century

by Ann Wilson

Read part 1 for background about Dorothy Liebes and a re-cap of our visit to A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum of Design.


“Imagine a time…when color and texture played no part in fabrics, when, as Jack Lenor Larsen put it ‘the insipid pale tints of the depression prevailed.’ It would take a pioneering spirit to experiment with new materials and daring color juxtapositions, to initiate a new era of limitless design possibilities, bringing about the climate of freedom we enjoy today. That pioneer was Dorothy Liebes.”1

Sigrid Wortmann Weltge
Professor, History of Art and Design
Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science
“A Legacy of Color & Texture: Dorothy Liebes 1899-1972,” Interweave, Summer 1979

Image at left, House & Garden, July 1949

The Dorothy Liebes collection at Thomas Jefferson University

Of the many talented people who worked in Dorothy Liebes’s studio, it was Ralph Higbee whom she regarded as her “number one design assistant.”2 He worked with Liebes for 23 years, starting out as a weaver in her San Francisco studio, and eventually becoming the manager of her New York studio. Letters and other documents in the Dorothy Liebes papers reveal her deep appreciation of him, and he in turn worked closely by her side and remained dedicated even after her death in 1972. Mr. Higbee managed the closing of the Liebes studio and distributed her designs to museums and educational institutions throughout the U.S. The Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, our predecessor institution, was one of those recipients. It is Ralph Higbee we have to thank for our robust collection of nearly 700 Liebes designs.

Rigid weft examples

Higbee is pictured below next to Liebes and four studio weavers (who for some mysterious reason are weaving in formal halter dresses!). This photo captures them working on a very wide woven blind or screen. Long pieces of wood were inserted as weft across the extra-wide loom.

Dorothy Liebes and the New York Studio Weavers working at the extra-wide loom, c. 19633

Our collection includes examples like the one they are weaving. To show how they filter light, I photographed these samples against the floor-to-ceiling windows of our building which look out onto the woods of the Wissahickon Valley.

Inspired by Japanese matchstick blinds,1 Liebes’s studio made samples like the ones below using a variety of rigid materials, including wood, bamboo, metal slats, and even Lucite dowels.4

T&CC 2001.5.40
T&CC 1996.93.6
2001.5.41
1976.18.6

Idea Fabrics

The bulk of our Liebes collection consists of “idea fabrics.”5 These are small swatches designed to showcase her unique and modern mix of materials, color, and texture with possible translation to powerloom mass production. The gallery of objects below exemplify the “Liebes look,”5 characterized by:

  • bold color combinations
  • metallic or reflective threads, yarns, or foil
  • nontraditional weft materials (rick-rack, ribbon, faux leather, foil, plastic, etc.)
  • use of synthetics, often in combination with natural fibers
  • textural novelty yarns like chenille and bouclé

Click on the image to see enlarged detail.

Automotive Industry

The swatches pictured on the left (T&CC 1996.94.21) are noteworthy because they were accompanied by the note: “fabrics sent to Chrysler, July 1957.” Dorothy Liebes had her hands in many industries, including automobiles. For their limited edition 1957 Plymouth Fury, Liebes created a gold and silver Lurex interiors fabric for Chrysler.

Draperies

Among our larger Liebes samples are full draperies or swatches for home decor. Sections of looped fringe are a distinctive feature of these designs.

T&CC 1976.18.9

Access our online collection

If this blog has whet your appetite for more Dorothy Liebes designs, our entire Liebes collection of 676 objects is available to the public online through JSTOR. For inquiries about visiting our collection in person, please contact us.

Once you’ve explored the work of Dorothy Liebes, her continued relavance and influence can be seen in nearly every aspect of the design world. The next time you’re shopping and you spot a rug with glimmers of metallic yarn, or decorative placemats woven with bamboo, or a vibrant orange and hot pink plaid, give a nod to Dorothy.

T&CC 2001.5.57, carpet sample, Dorothy Liebes, mid-20th-century

References

  1. Weltge, Sigrid. “A Legacy of Color & Texture: Dorothy Liebes 1899-1972.” Interweave, Summer 1979, pp.25-29.
  2. Statement from Dorothy Liebes in a letter to the India Consulate General, April 3, 1969, attesting to Higbee’s employment, sufficient funds, and the temporary position in India to gain visa approval to travel to India. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 36, Dorothy Liebes papers, circa 1850-1973, bulk 1922-1970. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  3. Dorothy Liebes papers, circa 1850-1973, bulk 1922-1970. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  4. Winton, Alexandra Griffith. “Color and Personality: Dorothy Liebes and American Design.” Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 48, no. 1/2, 2009, pp. 4–17. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40649412. Accessed 1 Sept. 2023.
  5. Blaszczyk, Regina Lee. “Designing Synthetics, Promoting Brands: Dorothy Liebes, DuPont Fibres and Post-War American Interiors.” Journal of Design History, vol. 21, no. 1, 2008, pp. 75–99.

Special Collections Technician, Textile & Costume Collection, Thomas Jefferson University

Images of objects in our collection are copyrighted by Thomas Jefferson University. For inquiries regarding permissions and use fees, please contact: thedesigncenter@jefferson.edu.