Few people wielded as much influence over the texture and color of modern architectural interiors in America as textile designer and weaver Dorothy Liebes (1897–1972). Her collaborations with architects and designers, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy, and Samuel Marx, resulted in the highly innovative weavings she used as drapes, screens, upholstery, and carpets, and that ultimately came to be known as the “Liebes Look.” Her commissions ranged in scope from luxurious textiles for Doris Duke’s Honolulu home, Shangri La, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin to extraordinary room dividers for the United Nations Delegates Dining Room. Her industrial design projects included upholstery for the 1957 Plymouth Fury and the American Airlines flagship 747, and her collaborations with her close friend Bonnie Cashin yielded some of the most distinctive American fashions of the mid-twentieth century.
Dorothy Wright was born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1897. She began her career as a schoolteacher, but she later decided to pursue an arts education, completing a second bachelor’s degree in applied design at the University of California, Berkeley; a summer course in weaving at Hull House in Chicago; and a master’s degree in art education at Columbia University. After marrying department store heir Leon Liebes in 1928, she moved to Paris to train as a textile designer under French master weaver Paul Rodier.
After working abroad, Liebes returned to the United States and opened her eponymous studio in San Francisco. Her business initially focused on custom-designed, handwoven textiles for architectural clients like William Pahlmann, Raymond Loewy, Edward Durrell Stone, Gardner Dailey, and Timothy Pflueger. In 1939 she was appointed director of the Decorative Arts Exhibition at the Golden Gate International Exposition, where she brought together an impressive international cross section of modernist design, displayed as singular objects and within fully furnished room settings.
During World War II, Liebes served as the national director of the American Red Cross Arts and Skills Corps, where she coordinated training for wounded soldiers in weaving and other crafts, taught by professional artists across the country. The end of the war was a pivotal moment for Liebes and her company. Synthetic materials that were created for and used in the war effort were made available for commercial use. Aluminum, in particular, was of great interest to textile manufacturers. Liebes became the official spokesperson for Lurex, produced by the Dobeckmun Co., and her name became synonymous with metallic yarns.
Although Liebes’s handwoven textiles were very expensive, she was a proponent of making good design accessible to all, and her work was featured in six of the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design exhibitions. She worked with industrial producers like Goodall Fabric and Bigelow Sanford Inc. to design power-loomed fabrics and carpets that retained a handwoven quality. She eventually phased out her handwovens business to focus exclusively on consulting for industry.
In addition to interiors, Liebes’s reach extended into the fields of fashion and film. She collaborated with fashion designers Clare Potter, Pauline Trigère, and Bonnie Cashin, all associated with the American Look—a casual, functionally elegant style that fit with Liebes’s own lifestyle as a busy professional woman. Through her connection to California designer Gilbert Adrian, her textiles were chosen by Hollywood costume designers like Edith Head and Travis Banton and were used in the set decoration of such films as Lover Come Back (1946), East Side, West Side (1949), and Adam’s Rib (1949).
Often credited as a vital part of the California Modern movement, Liebes also opened a studio in New York City in 1948, where she lived and worked until her death in 1972. In the 1940s and ’50s, she was one of the most well-known textile designers in the United States. In contrast to the neutral palette of many of her contemporaries, vibrant color and an unexpected use of materials were Liebes’s signature choices. Her richly colored and textured fabrics provided an essential counterpoint to the rigorously severe interpretations of interior space then gaining popular interest in America. She coined hers the “California Look,” which quickly was renamed the “Liebes Look.”
Liebes was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Art and Design) in 1970, and significant collections of her work can be found there, as well as at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victoria & Albert Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Liebes’s papers are at Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.