Ralph Higbee

Erin Dowding

In the inaugural Mary L. Brandt Memorial Lecture for interior design students at Parsons School of Design, Dorothy Liebes shared a few of her textile samples while introducing members of the studio. Before moving on, Liebes pointed out one more person: “And hiding back there, is Mr. Higbee. Mr. Higbee lays out everything.” [1] Ralph Higbee, most readily described as very shy and quiet, held the titles of design assistant, studio manager, studio director, head of production, and weaver over the 23 years he worked with Dorothy Liebes (Fig. 1). Loyal, deeply trusted, dedicated, and often by Liebes’s side, he laid out everything, from jobs and roles and schedules in the early 1950s onward, to the closing of the studio and the distribution of its abundance of materials after Liebes’s death in 1972.

Higbee started as a weaver. He came to Liebes’s San Francisco studio in 1949 through Louise Fong’s daughter, Vanita, who was his friend and classmate at the University of California, Berkeley, where Higbee studied decorative art and wrote his thesis on the design motives of Guatemalan narrow weavings. [2] Higbee developed samples in a range of color combinations and structures, often working on architectural projects that used his ability to handle heavier and larger-scale designs, including commissioned blinds and screens (Fig. 2). In the early 1950s, for the Delegates Dining Room of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Liebes designed eight-foot-high screens to be “used as temporary walls to divide the main dining room into four intimate rooms.” [3] The screens were a massive physical undertaking, requiring bamboo reeds to be inserted into the warps on an extra-wide loom. In her unpublished autobiography, Liebes wrote, “My chief assistant, Ralph Higbee, wove the dividers.” [4]

In the early 1950s, as Liebes prepared to transition fully to New York City, Higbee took on the role of production manager in the West, overseeing the San Francisco studio in Liebes’s absence. He was given the responsibilities of allotting jobs, answering production letters, deciding on colors, warping, meeting clients, and writing estimates for projects. [5] Liebes and Higbee corresponded several times a week, and Liebes’s respect for Higbee’s work is shown in a letter in which Liebes expresses to him, “(I) will certainly lean very much on your judgement because I know that you truly have my best interests at heart.” [6] She added, “You’ve been so loyal, and have stood by, and (I) appreciate it more than I can say.” [7] 

In 1955, Higbee showed further loyalty by moving across the country to continue working as studio manager in New York City and assisting Liebes with translating her designs into more affordable powerloomed collections (Fig. 3). In turn, Liebes championed Higbee. In a 1952 letter to Higbee, Liebes encourages him to consider applying for a Fulbright grant, to get in some “European travel and experience” and to “not give up hope on a Fulbright for either Italy (which is a wonderful textile country) or India.” [8] In 1963, when DuPont filmed a television commercial for one of its yarns in the Liebes studio, Liebes had Higbee featured at the loom, promoting both his skill and his name to a wide audience of viewers (Fig. 4). [9] In 1969, under the encouragement of Liebes, Gira Sarabhai invited Higbee to Ahmedabad, India, for six weeks to work as a textile consultant to her family’s Calico Textile Mills. [10] In introducing Higbee to clients, Liebes would provide his strengths, as she did for Frank Mawby of the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company: “Ralph Higbee is a gifted designer, although very quiet and shy. He knows a great deal about techniques. . . . He was an honor scholarship student at Rhode Island School of Design, taught design in the Art Department at the University of California, and he has been with my Studio for many years. He is my number one design assistant.” [11]

Writing to Frank Mawby in 1958 about the rug samples her studio created for his company, Liebes stated, “Technically speaking, [each one] constitutes not only a design but almost a creative painting”; furthermore, she added, “The ones that Ralph Higbee created were absolutely museum material.” [12] Indeed, Higbee’s designs were shown in exhibitions over the years. For the 1956 exhibition Textiles USA at the Museum of Modern Art, the Liebes studio submitted ten entries. Out of those, it was the tenth listed—four yards of fabric in hot pinks, oranges with red braid designed and woven by Ralph Higbee—that was accepted. [13] Under Liebes’s organization, Higbee also had a carpet sample included in the DuPont-sponsored Nylon Rug Designs Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition. In this show, Higbee’s work sat in good company with fellow Liebes studio members Bittan Valberg, Esther Puccinelli, Jane McNinch, and Kamma Zethraus and with established textile designers Jack Lenor Larsen, Trude Guermonprez, and Anni Albers. [14]

It is Ralph Higbee who also plays a crucial role in the preservation and documentation of Liebes’s legacy. For the 1970 Dorothy Liebes retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, Higbee assisted with the preparation and information needed. Director Paul J. Smith, in the exhibition catalog, thanks Higbee, saying his “cooperation made the research and the collection of the material a pleasure.” [15] After Liebes’s death in 1972, Higbee continued to work in the studio, meticulously responding to inquiries and correspondence, working on remaining contracts and orders, and eventually handling the closing of accounts and the studio itself. Higbee had found a home in the Dorothy Liebes Studio, and he stayed on “to manage the business operations and finally brought them to a close, ensuring that her remaining works found homes in museum collections so that Liebes’s remarkable story and contributions would be remembered.” [16] It is through Higbee’s care and stewardship that there is a wealth of Liebes’s samples in the collections of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Oakland Museum of Art; and the Museum of Arts and Design, and that teaching institutions such American River College Textile Library and Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, now the Design Center at Thomas Jefferson University that can actively use Liebes’s work as tools for students and researchers. 



[1] According to the Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, this lecture took place in the 1963–64 academic year for third-year Parsons students in the Interior Design program, with Liebes invited to give the first lecture in honor of Liebes’s friend Mary Brandt. “Mary Brandt Memorial Lecture,” Digital Archives, The New School, https://digital.archives.newschool.edu. 

[2] This slim profile providing the thesis title notes that Higbee received his BA in 1948 in decorative art and was originally from Meadow Grove, Nebraska. It is listed in the University of California, Berkeley Eighty-Eighth Commencement program book for the ceremonies held on June 15, 1951, at the George C. Edwards Track Stadium. 

[3] In Dorothy Liebes’s unpublished manuscript of her autobiography, she writes of her strong belief in the United Nations and that “it was gratifying to be asked to weave some screens for that building.” Series 4, Box 4, Folder 11, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 

[4] Series 4, Box 4, Folder 11, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[5] The duties of the Textile Department were clearly defined by a list correlated with each member’s name in a two-page document titled “Assignment of Work” after some studio members moved to NYC to help establish the new studio and others moved on. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 37, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[6] Dorothy Liebes, letter to Ralph Higbee, January 27, 1953. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 35, Dorothy Liebes Papers.  

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Dorothy Liebes, letter to Ralph Higbee, May 9, 1962. Liebes writes that she is “looking into the Fulbright thing all over again” and that she knows Senator Fulbright. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 33, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[9] DuPont Show of the Week announcement, 1963. Series 7, Box 14, Folder 22, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[10] Statement from Dorothy Liebes in a letter to the India Consulate General, April 3, 1969, attesting to Higbee’s employment, sufficient funds, and the temporary position in India to gain visa approval to travel to India. Series 5, Box 12, Folder 36, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Letter written on February 28, 1958, by Dorothy Liebes to Frank Mawby on the progress of her contract to create ten designs a month for Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company. Series 5, Box 6, Folder 1, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[13] Items listed on a receipt from the Museum of Modern Art submitted for entry to the “American Textile Exhibit” dated May 8, 1956, and given by hand from RH (assumed to be Ralph Higbee) to Greta Daniel. In green pencil, the others are crossed off and the word “winner” is written below the tenth entry with an arrow pointing to it and the information providing the description of the fabric. Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[14] Files, correspondence, and gallery lists for the Nylon Rug Designs exhibition sponsored by DuPont, which Liebes organized and promoted, eventually getting the Smithsonian to sponsor it to travel around the country from 1956 through 1962. Series 5, Box 8, Folder 24, Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

[15] Director Paul J. Smith in the introduction to the 1970 exhibition catalog Dorothy Liebes (New York: Museum of Contemporary Crafts, 1970), 2.  

[16] 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), 200. 


Fig 1 A page from a magazine article with two images. On the left is a woman in a sky-blue dress and hat pointing to swatches of yarn while a man in a white shirt, black tie, and black pants stands next to her, looking at where she is pointing. The picture on the right shows a sample of a pile rug with a light-blue outer edge around a square of deep blue and a square of red inside it nested in the middle.

Fig. 1 Dorothy Liebes (left) and Ralph Higbee (right) reviewing yarns to be used in a project for pile rugs ca. 1964; From Irv Leos, “Dorothy Liebes: Idea Factory,” Modern Floor Coverings, February 1964; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Fig 2 Black-and-white photograph of an extra-wide loom with a row of three weavers on one side and three weavers, including Dorothy Liebes, in the middle on the opposite side. In the front is a man in short sleeves working on feeding reeds into the weft of the fabric.

Fig. 2 Dorothy Liebes with studio weavers, including Ralph Higbee (front right), working on an extra-wide loom for woven blinds and screens in Liebes’s East 63rd Street studio, New York City, circa 1963; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Fig. 3 A color photograph of an opened address book showing typewritten names, addresses, birthdays, and phone numbers along with handwritten annotations. On the right-side page is a list of names under the heading Studio Personnel: Current.

Fig. 3 A page from Dorothy Liebes’s address book listing the studio personnel along with their addresses and birthdays, including Ralph Higbee, who lived a few blocks from the Liebes studio; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Fig. 4 Announcement for The DuPont Show of the Week, 1963; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Erin Dowding

Erin Dowding is an MA candidate in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program at Parsons School of Design. She is a curatorial capstone and research fellow in the Textiles Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.