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A Dark, A Light, A Bright

The Designs of Dorothy Liebes

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

By Joanna Seifter, February 15, 2024

In her essay for "House and Garden", fiber artist Dorothy Liebes touted the 1940s as “the age of good color,” referring to how “today, as never before, science has given people on all economic levels an endless palette.” According to Liebes, the potential wielded by artificial dyes and synthetic fabrics meant that artists were no longer limited to using earthen hues made with affordable natural materials, potentially introducing greater stylistic diversity while minimizing barriers to accessibility in fashion. 


Liebes, a consultant and founder of professional textile studio Dorothy Liebes Design, Inc., mass-produced her clothing and home goods designs while creating large-scale installations for luxury hotels and ocean liners. In the 1950s and 60s, Liebes shifted away from her more individual, elaborate tapestries for lucrative clients like Doris Duke and the United Nations, prioritizing the production of home goods like pillows and rugs, based on the post-WWII-ideal of creating and sustaining a homefront worth returning to. “Decorative textiles comprise a very real part of the Home picture,” explained Liebes, “and never before have Homes, both concretely and as a symbol, had more of a hold on men’s minds.”  


A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes, Liebes’ stunning retrospective at Cooper Hewitt, details how Liebes’ radiant, variegated textiles not only embodied the post-Bauhaus modality of elevating weaving to the standards of fine art but also extended this progression, synthesizing fine art and the commercial sphere. The exhibition’s display cases, cradled in wood with strands of yarn stretched above, sometimes across entire rooms, evoke the looms Liebes fashioned her tapestries with. Blocks of color speckle each gallery’s white walls, mirroring Liebes’ sample swatches peppered throughout the exhibition. 

In line with Cooper Hewitt’s objective as a design museum, A Dark, A Light, A Bright flourishes, which are completely singular and inspired without slipping into ostentation, adapting to contemporary audiences’ desire for cohesive yet unobtrusive exhibition design. Similarly, the exhibition’s collection encompasses how Liebes’ textiles accommodated the emerging needs of mid-century modern consumers. Most notably, the exhibition highlights Liebes’ use of varied textures, a response to consumers' burgeoning recognition of “the virtue of a certain amount of abrasive touch, rather than everything being [uniformly] silky and smooth. Liebes’ vertical hanging tapestry Mint Julep (1940, image below), for instance, is a rich garden of consistencies and subtle hue distinctions. Its pale gray teal background presents like an overcast sky, its evenly distributed muted luminosity hinting at, and barely masking, the presence of sunlight. Sunlight eventually pools towards the tapestry’s lower half–first in the occasional band of thin and wide golden threads, and, closer to the floor, in thickened rays of loose stitches and accumulated rows of gold weft. 


Another tapestry, Dobeckmun Dazzle (1948, header image), expands upon Mint Julep’s color palette, abstraction, and texture. Its three endless monoliths are composed of flatly interwoven silver fibers, merging foreground and background. Liebes’ deliberately slackened tension transforms cream-colored stitches into condensed fields of drooping loops, collectively forming thick, high-relief fluffy rectangles and invoking a series of uniform clouds, Corinthian columns, or corrals of sheep. Liebes’ intentional implementation of a muted color palette calls further attention to Dobeckmun Dazzle’s woven variation, like Robert Ryman’s all-white paintings that distinguish the texture of individual brushstrokes from aesthetics or thematic content. 


Liebes’ comments on the “age of good color” may read as optimistic when the present-day fast fashion-dominated commercial landscape cements expectations of design variety, abundant to the point of overconsumption. However, A Dark, A Light, A Bright sincerely champions the beauty and artistry inherent in fashion design, dispelling, or at the very least masking, the contemporary mundanity of mass production. The show’s conclusion, a pattern-generating interactive, provides a much-needed creative outlet for the viewer inspired by Liebes’ textiles, encouraging them to go forth in applying Liebes’ techniques to their work and laying the groundwork for stylistic innovations to come. 

1. Dorothy Liebes, excerpts from “Color as I See It: Dorothy Liebes, Well-Known Textile Designer, Explains her Philosophy of Color.” House and Garden, 1947. Box 4, Folder 5, DLP.

2. Dorothy Liebes, “The Opportunities in Textiles Today,” ca. 1942-45. Box 5, Folder 9, DLP.

3. Dorothy Liebes, letter to A. J. Smith Jr (DuPont), May 25, 1958. Series 5, Box 7, Folder 6, DLP.

Images: Header: Textile, Dobeckmun Dazzle, ca. 1948; Designed by Dorothy Wright Liebes (American, 1897–1972); USA; cotton, synthetic, metallic; H x W: 293.1 × 128 cm (9 ft. 7 3/8 in. × 50 3/8 in.); Gift of the Estate of Dorothy (Liebes) Morin; 1972-75-4


Installation photo (left) of “A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes” at the Cooper Hewitt, New York. Photo by Elliot Goldstein, ©Smithsonian Institution.

Image above: Dorothy Liebes, Mint Julep, 1940. Cotton and rayon, 271.8 x 120.7 cm. Image courtesy Joanna Seifter.

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