Louise and Vanita Fong

Erica Warren

In 1930, Dorothy Liebes opened her first studio at 526 Powell Street in San Francisco. Once word had spread about her striking handwoven wares, architects and interior designers sought to fill their spaces with textiles from Liebes’s looms. She relied on Ruth MacKinlay—a friend from college—to assist with the increasing number and scope of her commissions. The next employee to join the studio was not recruited, but rather “simply appeared at the door one day and said she would like to work in the studio.” [1] Louise Fong, whom Liebes described as “petite and charming,” was from a Chinese American family with deep roots in San Francisco and had read about the studio in the newspaper (Fig. 1). Louise joined the duo of Liebes and MacKinlay, helping with a variety of studio tasks: stitching, sewing, typing letters, and mailing out bills. [2]  

Eventually Louise (known as “Louisa” by Liebes and other colleagues) became the bookkeeper for the bourgeoning business, and Liebes recognized that the success of the studio owed a great deal to Louise’s acumen (Fig. 2). [3] In a 1947 letter to Liebes—who was at the time in New York setting up the new offices—studio director Jean Beauchamp provided a detailed “efficiency report” on all the studio employees. She praised Louise as “my Rock of Gibraltar,” and went on: “Her long experience with the studio, and her good memory, [are] a wonderful help . . . I can depend on her to do the right thing.” [4] Later, when Liebes had relocated to New York and Ralph Higbee was managing the San Francisco studio, Liebes wrote to him affirming Louise as “the best bookkeeper for the organization in the west,” and in an addendum to the letter, continued to sing her praises: “If it weren’t for . . . a Louisa Fong in my life, I would have been in the bread lines long before this.” [5]  

Liebes had no children of her own, but the children of her employees frequently visited the studio. Louise often brought her daughters, Vanita and Dorothy, along to her workplace. [6] The elder daughter, Vanita, worked in the studio after school and during summers after beginning her studies at the University of California, Berkeley, while Louise’s infant daughter Dorothy—Baby Dodo—could be found entertaining herself in a basket of yarn (Figs. 3, 4). In her efficiency report, Beauchamp noted of Vanita: “She is competent and quick to do reed weaving, and is also anxious to do any kind of weaving . . . She does a beautiful job of mounting samples, and keeps them completely caught up.” [7] 

Liebes and Louise remained close friends throughout their lives. When Louise died in 1971, Liebes wrote to her daughters: “We are desperate in grief! We all love the Fongs and dear Louise—even Pat [Liebes’s husband] wept! And of course [you] know how much of life was filled with you girls and the studio. It really was Louisa’s studio and I never think of it without her” (Figs. 5, 6). [8] Liebes’s close and trusting relationship with Louise Fong was critical to her success as an entrepreneur starting out in business and reflects the priority she placed on relationship-building in every aspect of her life.  



[1] See Liebes, autobiography (ms.), 191; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.  

[2] Ibid.  

[3] Erica Warren, “Fission: Design and Mentorship in the Dorothy Liebes Studio,” in A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes, eds. Susan Brown and Alexa Griffith Winton (New York: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023), 196. 

[4] Jean Beauchamp, letter to Dorothy Liebes, June 23, 1947. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 29, Dorothy Liebes Papers.  

[5] Dorothy Liebes, letter to Ralph Higbee, August 6, 1952. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 34, Dorothy Liebes Papers. Louisa Fong also was listed as “Assistant Treasurer” on the incorporation documents prepared in 1949. Nordlinger, Riegelman & Benetar, letter to Jean Beauchamp, April 20, 1949. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 30, Dorothy Liebes Papers.  

[6] See Dorothy Liebes, autobiography (unpublished ms.), 192. 

[7] Jean Beauchamp, letter to Dorothy Liebes, June 23, 1947. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 29, Dorothy Liebes Papers.

[8] Dorothy Liebes, letter to Vanita Fong, July 27, 1971. Private collection.

black and white photo of two women standing at a warping drum inside a weaving studio. one woman is holding the threads of the drum while the other woman observes.

Fig. 1 Louise Fong and Dorothy Liebes at the warping drum, 1940s; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

black and white photo of a woman smiling.

Fig. 2 Louise Fong, 1940s; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

a color image of a woman waeving at a loom, another woman looks on while holding a basket of weaving materials

Fig. 3 Dorothy Liebes and Vanita Fong in the studio, "Weaver of Dreams," Collier’s Magazine, April 13, 1946; Offset lithograph on coated paper; Private collection

a color image of two women wearing matching blue work coats. one woman is seated taking notes and the other is perched on a high top stool. behind the two women, a baby is playing in a basket of yarn.

Fig. 4 Dorothy Liebes with Louise Fong and her Infant Daughter, Dorothy Liebes Studio, San Francisco, California, 1946; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

a yellow piece of paper with cartoon sketches of people wearing matching blue work coats. their names are noted along their legs.

Fig. 5 Hello To Everybody!, circa 1945; by Dorr Bothwell (American, 1902–2000); Ink and gouache on paper; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This painted sketch by artist and Liebes studio worker Bothwell depicts members of the studio in their signature blue smocks.

black and white image of a group of people holding a sign that says "to mama with love 1946"

Fig. 6 Dorothy Liebes Studio employees, 1946; Back row: Tammis Keefe (far left), Marion Phal and Ruth MacKinlay (third and fourth from left), Jean Beauchamp (second from right); middle row: Fern Davies and Kay Geary (third and fourth from left), Esther Puccinelli (third from right) and Louise and Vanita Fong (far right); front row: Daren Pierce (left) and Harry Frost (right); All others are unidentified at the time of publication; Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Mrs. Ivy Wellington, 2004.9.1

Erica Warren

Erica Warren is a decorative arts, design, and textiles scholar and currently is an assistant instructional professor in the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. Her exhibitions include Bisa Butler: Portraits (2020) and Weaving beyond the Bauhaus (2019), both at the Art Institute of Chicago. Among her recent publications are the essays “Following the Thread: Black Mountain College and Weaving in the United States, 1934-1956” for the exhibition catalogue Weaving at Black Mountain College (2023) and “Beyond Weaving: Transdisciplinarity and the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop,” published in Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture (2021).