by Ann Wilson
A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes is on view at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. I had the thrill of seeing it recently, along with Jade Papa, our curator. Like many textile enthusiasts, I’d been anticipating this show for a few years since the Cooper Hewitt first announced its plans for a major Liebes show. The promise of the exhibit prompted me to digitize the nearly 700 Liebes objects in our collection here at Jefferson. That experience of handling and photographing so many Liebes objects made my visit to the Cooper Hewitt all the more special, as I’d already spent so much time admiring and studying her designs.
Experience the Digital Exhibition
If you can’t get to New York, the Cooper Hewitt has created a marvelous online exhibit with in-depth articles, background materials, and images documenting the work of Dorothy Liebes.
A Dark, A Light, A Bright presents the full breadth of Liebes’ enormous influence on mid-20th-century design. In a career that spanned 40 years, her reach went well beyond weaving and textiles. Her work impacted nearly every aspect of American modernist design, from interiors to automobiles, and architecture to fashion and film.
Liebes was an innovator who embraced color and experimentation. She broke previously held color taboos by juxtaposing blue and green or pink and orange to create “vibrating” palettes (Blaszczyk). Nothing was off limits when it came to weaving materials. Ribbon, rick-rack and trims, tape, foil, cellophane, faux leather, and novelty yarns like chenille and bouclé became part of her look. Experiments with new synthetic yarns became critical to her work. She also pioneered the use of rigid weft materials like wood, plastic, vinyl, and metal. Non-traditional materials were used alongside natural fibers like wool, cotton, silk, and jute, creating new and exciting textures.
Liebes created interiors for prominent architects (including Frank Lloyd Wright), exclusive locations (the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the UN Delegates Dining Room, luxury ocean liners), Hollywood films, and high-end clientele. She was, however, keenly interested in developing products that would be accessible to the average consumer. She evolved into a powerful business woman, forging relationships with major companies, most notably DuPont. In Dorothy Liebes, DuPont found its most powerful brand ambassador for their new synthetic fibers such as Orlon, Dacron, and Antron. She helped convince consumers of the value and quality of these new synthetics. Her design studio included a staff of skilled weavers who created “idea fabrics” that could be translated to machine looms for mass production. She was able to bring the aesthetic of handcraft to industrially produced materials.
Of the products she promoted, Lurex metallic threads may have been the most critical to the “Liebes look.” Metallic yarns were often the “bright” in her successful formula of combining “a dark, a light, and a bright.” The affordable luxury of tarnish-free Lurex allowed the average consumer to experience the luxury previously only available to exclusive clientele. The pastel Lurex palette advertised below was designed by Liebes and used in the woven textile pictured below. (This may have been my personal favorite among the exhibit objects.)
All of the Dorothy Liebes objects in our collection at Jefferson are woven swatch “idea fabrics” or designs for decor, so it was particularly exciting to see her textiles applied to fashion. Liebes was lifelong friends with fashion designer Bonnie Cashin. The Cashin pieces below feature Liebes fabrics in her signature palettes.
The metallic glimmer in the garments below is created with Lurex. The apron on the left was designed by Liebes and fashion designer Clare Potter (c. 1950). Bonnie Cashin and Liebes collaborated on the ensemble on the right (1958).
Part 2 sneak peak
Stay tuned for Part 2 in which I’ll focus on our collection of nearly 700 Dorothy Liebes objects, including hundreds of “idea fabrics,” window blinds, knits, and more!
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. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25228567. Accessed 16 Aug. 2023.