Susan Brown

Dorothy Liebes’s consulting contract with Dobeckmun, makers of Lurex synthetic metallic yarns, required that she use her contacts to promote the brand. So when Edward Durell Stone, architect of the United States Pavilion at the Brussels Universal and International Exposition in 1958, commissioned her to design the stage curtain for its Theatre for the Performing Arts, she recognized a prime opportunity to showcase Lurex yarns.  

The pavilion was a circular building, 340 feet in diameter, with a tensioned roof supported by what was often described as a “bicycle wheel.” The rim was held up by a colonnade of slender steel columns, and the spokes of steel aircraft cable supported a translucent plastic roofing material. The hub—a cylindrical steel drum—was open to the sky, allowing sunshine or rain to fall on the pond that was the focal point of the open space. A golden mesh fabric filtered light from above (Fig. 1).  

The 1,100-seat Theatre for the Performing Arts, adjacent to the pavilion, continued the white-and-gold color scheme. For the stage curtain, Liebes designed a simple, plain-woven fabric with a white cotton warp offset by a profusion of gold metallics in the weft: five forms of Lurex braids, gimp, and soutache, whose varied widths and profiles reflected and refracted light in myriad ways (Fig. 2). The checkered effect of its basket weave would have been of a piece with the golden plastic mesh that covered the walls and ceiling (Fig. 3). Liebes titled the design Argonaut, referencing the crew of the mythical Greek ship Argo in search of the Golden Fleece—now washable, non-tarnishing, and widely available, courtesy of Lurex.  The 74-foot-wide stage required twenty-two panels, each nine yards long and fifty-four inches wide. The studio logged over 1,200 person-hours weaving the glistening golden curtain, which incorporated 140 pounds of Lurex, donated by Dobeckmun. [1] In a feature article about the project in Handweaver & Craftsman, photographs show the fabric in progress on at least three looms (Fig. 4). One of the only surviving images of the drape in situ is as the backdrop to a model wearing an evening skirt designed by Bonnie Cashin using a Liebes handwoven fabric (Fig. 5). 

Liebes often combined hand- and powerloomed fabrics in a single commission to achieve the maximum impact. In the case of the United States Pavilion, she persuaded textile manufacturer Kandell Inc. to underwrite the cost of 2,500 yards of powerloomed casement fabric. The perimeter wall—one-fifth mile long—was fully glazed, flooding the interior with natural light during the day. That light was filtered through a sheer casement designed by Liebes with DuPont Ondule and nylon yarns and silver and gold strié Lurex; variegated or multicolor yarns were one of Liebes’s innovations in her capacity as color stylist for Lurex (Fig. 6). [2] 

Extraordinarily skilled at cross-promotion, Liebes used this prestigious commission not only to promote her own studio but also to spotlight Lurex, the brand she had been hired to represent, and her strategy was successful. The glittering stage curtain attracted the attention of the design press, and its creation was featured in numerous magazine and newspaper articles, as well as in trade publications like Interiors and America’s Textiles Reporter/Bulletin. [3] This type of indirect promotion was especially important, as there were no commercial displays in the United States Pavilion. American contributions to craft and design were, rather, integrated into a unified exhibit titled Islands for Living, organized by the American Institute of Decorators (AID) and the American Society of Industrial Designers (ASID). The exhibit aimed to provide a glimpse into the American lifestyle by way of its furnishings, appliances, gadgets, and toys. Liebes was among a small group of textile designers whose work was included in the display; they included Boris Kroll, Jack Lenor Larsen, L. Anton Maix, and Herman Miller. [4] Here, too, Liebes incorporated Lurex into four of the six fabrics she showed. “There is no better spokesman for American ingenuity in metallic fabrics than the yarns that launched the trend,” Lurex proclaimed in an ad showing a Lurex yarn snaking around a form reminiscent of the Atomium structure that was the trademark of the fair (Fig. 7). It could also be said that there was no better spokesperson for Lurex than Dorothy Liebes.  


[1] “Dorothy Liebes Designs Fabrics for U.S. Theater at the Brussels World’s Fair,” Handweaver & Craftsman (Spring 1958): 26. 

[2] “Metallic Yarns Beautify Brussels Fair Exhibition,” San Angelo Standard, Tuesday May 6, 1958.  

[3] List of press placements circulated by Ellen Grotto, Home Furnishings publicity director, The Dobeckmun Company. Series 5, Box 6, Folder 39, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. 

[4] Tear sheet for advertisement, “Lurex Speaks for Itself . . . and for America, at the Brussels Fair,” 1958. Series 8, Box 32, Folder 2, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[5] “Industrial Design, Interior Design, and Craft Exhibits,” in US National Pavilion, Brussels World’s Fair, 1958, American Craft Council Archives.

Fig. 1 Black-and-white photograph of a large, open, circular space with trees and a reflecting pool.

Fig. 1 View of pool from balcony, United States Pavilion, Brussels World’s Fair, 1958; Photographer unknown; James S. Plaut Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Fig. 2 Sample of a woven fabric attached to a white card with lettering. The fabric is white with horizontal bands of metallic gold.

Fig. 2 Sample card for Argonaut; Designed by Dorothy Liebes for the Theatre for the Performing Arts, Brussels World’s Fair, 1958; Cotton, nylon, viscose rayon, Lurex; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of the Estate of Dorothy Liebes Morin; Photo Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Fig. 3 Black-and-white photograph of an auditorium, taken from the side, with view of stage, one wall, ceiling, and rows of seats.

Fig. 3 Interior of the Theatre for the Performing Arts, United States Pavilion, Brussels World’s Fair, 1958; Photographer unknown; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Fig. 4 Color photograph of a weaving studio with a wall of cubbies full of colored yarn. Three weavers are seated at looms with their backs to the viewer, overseen by a woman in a blue smock.

Fig. 4 Dorothy Liebes Studio with Argonaut on three looms, New York City, 1958; Photographer unknown; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Fig. 5 Color photograph of a model in a red, short-sleeved sweater and a long skirt with horizontal bands of red and pink, posed in front of a white drape with horizontal bands of gold metallic.

Fig. 5 Model wearing a skirt from the Dorothy Liebes/Bonnie Cashin Skirtings Collection, standing in front of the Liebes-designed theater curtain for the Theatre for the Performing Arts at the Brussels World’s Fair, 1958; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Fig. 6 Black-and-white photograph of a lobby or entryway, elliptical in form, with floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides. A guard stands at left; a couch and two chairs, wall punctuated by text and ornamental trees, and two large bird-like sculptures at right.

Fig. 6 Entrance to the Theatre for the Performing Arts, United States Pavilion, Brussels World’s Fair, 1958; Photographer unknown; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Fig. 7 Advertisement with a light-gray atom-like form, curving black line, and black text on a white ground.

Fig. 7 Tear sheet for advertisement, “Lurex Speaks for Itself . . . and for America, at the Brussels Fair,” 1958; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Susan Brown

Susan Brown is Associate Curator and Acting Head of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, where she has curated over a dozen exhibitions, including Fashioning Felt (2009), Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay (2011), Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse (2016), Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints that Made the Fashion Brand (2021), and A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes (2023).