Doris Duke’s Shangri La

Charlotte von Hardenburgh

During the 1930s and ’40s, Liebes worked on several commissions in Hawaii, including the postwar redecoration of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the residential interiors of prominent businessmen Atherton Richards and Philip Spaulding. Perhaps her most acclaimed commission on the island was to create drapes, portières, and upholstery for the living room of Shangri La, Doris Duke’s home (Figs. 1A–1E). This space is the only existing interior to have Liebes’s original textiles still in situ. [1] Therefore, it offers a rare opportunity to see how the texture and color of the extant textiles interact in the environment for which they were designed. 

Perched on Diamond Head with uninterrupted views of the Pacific, the Waikiki home of the American heiress was built after Duke’s honeymoon travels across India, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, and Iran (Figs. 2A–2C). During the trip, Duke amassed an extensive collection of Islamic art and originally planned to display her acquisitions at a vacation home in Palm Beach, Florida, designed by the architect Marion Sims Wyeth (American, 1889–1982). [2] However, the final stop on the honeymoon tour was Hawaii, and after spending time on the islands, Duke decided to relocate her planned vacation home from Palm Beach to Diamond Head. During this period, Hawaii was a territory of the United States, and the journey to reach the remote location from California took five days by boat, making it an ideal spot for Duke to escape from her heavily publicized life. Construction of the colossal residence began in 1935 with Florence Hayward (American, active 1930s–1950s) as the interior designer and Wyeth, who had worked on various commissions for Duke’s father, as the architect tasked to create a home that was both Mughal-inspired and modern (Fig. 3A & 3B). [3]  

To inspire Liebes’s work on the textiles, Hayward sent the weaver building plans and images of sculptures and carvings collected by Duke. [4] In Liebes’s unpublished memoir, she references the custom work for Shangri La, stating that she “worked out a pattern in bleached white cotton, studded with loops about an inch and a half long” (Fig. 3). [5] The excerpt later mentions that when Duke viewed the preliminary textile samples at Liebes’s San Francisco studio, she appreciated how the raised bands mimicked a bas relief—very similar to the effect created by Shangri La’s carved stone arched doorways that frame Liebes’s custom portières (Figs. 4A & 4B). The Shangri La commission was the first of many times when Liebes would work directly with a client’s art collection as the inspiration for her custom textiles. The project is a remarkable example of Liebes’s distinctive handwoven textiles being created in tandem with an established art collection, a modernist American interior, and a notable client. 

A fringe panel in the collection of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, was exhibited simply as “Shangri La” during Liebes’s lifetime, including in her 1970 retrospective at that museum, and Liebes described it as having been designed for Doris Duke’s Hawaii home (Fig. 5). However, evidence has not yet come to light indicating that this design was ever actually produced (Fig. 6). [6] Duke’s home was a refuge base for soldiers during World War II, and perhaps this panel—which is dated 1947—was intended as a postwar update for the island oasis but was never produced. 

This research was made possible with major support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. Travel costs were partially funded by the Parsons School of Design 2021–2022 Research Fund Award. Thank you to Kristin Remington, the Digital Assets & Collections Manager at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, for being a warm and knowledgeable host during the research endeavor at Shangri La. Gratitude is also extended to Alyssa Russell, history PhD candidate at Duke University, for her assistance in sharing correspondence and images related to Doris Duke and Shangri La. 

NOTES

[1] Shangri La is the only interior that we have been able to identify as still having original Liebes textiles.

[2] Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins, Doris Duke’s Shangri La: A House in Paradise (New York: Random House, 2012).

[3] John Stuart Gordon, “Curtain Walls,” 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), 31.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dorothy Liebes, autobiography (unpublished ms.), 193. Series 4, Box 4, Folder 9, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

[6] Gordon, “Curtain Walls,” 31.

a tan couch with saffron and blue pillows are positioned within an ornate living room, yellow curtains hang in the background and a large wooden lattice screen covers a large window

Fig. 1A Interior image of the living room of Doris Duke’s Shangri La, 1937; Architect: Marion Sims Wyeth (American, 1889–1982); Interior design by Florence Hayward (American, active 1930s–1950s); Drapes, portières, and upholstery designed by Dorothy Liebes; Photograph taken by the author, December 2021.


an octagonal wooden side table is positioned next to a couch that is upholstered with a fabric of tan loops. square orange pillows are set on the couch and a yellow curtain with bands of looped fringe is on the right.

Fig. 1B Interior image of the living room of Doris Duke’s Shangri La, 1937; Architect: Marion Sims Wyeth (American, 1889–1982); Interior design by Florence Hayward (American, active 1930s–1950s); Drapes, portières, and upholstery designed by Dorothy Liebes; Photograph taken by the author, December 2021.


a couch upholstered with a fabric of tan loops is next to a yellow curtain with bands of looped fringe. the curtain is positioned within a window that shows a view of green grassy lawn with palm trees and the ocean in the background with a clear blue sky

Fig. 1C Interior image of the living room of Doris Duke’s Shangri La, 1937; Architect: Marion Sims Wyeth (American, 1889–1982); Interior design by Florence Hayward (American, active 1930s–1950s); Drapes, portières, and upholstery designed by Dorothy Liebes; Photograph taken by the author, December 2021.


a tan couch with saffron and blue pillows are positioned within an ornate living room, yellow curtains hang in the background and a large wooden lattice screen covers a large window

Fig. 1D Interior image of Doris Duke’s Shangri La, 1937; Architect: Marion Sims Wyeth (American, 1889–1982); Interior design by Florence Hayward (American, active 1930s–1950s); Drapes, portières, and upholstery designed by Dorothy Liebes; Photographs taken by the author, December 2021.


a tan couch with saffron and blue pillows are positioned within an ornate living room, multiple blue ceramic vases are on shelves in the background

Fig. 1E Interior image of Doris Duke’s Shangri La, 1937; Architect: Marion Sims Wyeth (American, 1889–1982); Interior design by Florence Hayward (American, active 1930s–1950s); Drapes, portières, and upholstery designed by Dorothy Liebes; Photographs taken by the author, December 2021.


black and white image of a long hallway with several arches. a woman stands to the right and appears minuscule compared to the grand height of the ceiling.

Fig. 2A Doris Duke at the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque; 1647–53) in Agra, India, during her honeymoon with James Cromwell, 1935. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Duke University Libraries.


newspaper clipping with a black and white image of a man and a woman standing in front of the taj mahal with the headline "duke millions saves hindu art"

Fig. 2B Page from James Cromwell’s honeymoon scrapbook, 1935; Doris Duke Photograph Collection at David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Duke University


a woman wearing a fur coat and hat descends the stairs of an airplane

Fig. 2C Doris Duke arriving at the Newark airport at the end of her honeymoon trip, January 13, 1936; Doris Duke Photograph Collection at David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Duke University


Piece of yellow paper with handwritten notes

Fig. 3 Shangri La notes by Dorothy Liebes, circa 1937; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC


an arched doorway with cream curtains on either side of the doorway and colorful tiles framing the arch. the doorway leads into an ornate living room.

Fig. 4A Liebes’s hand-woven portieres next to the tiled doorways of the living room at Shangri La, Photograph taken by the author, December 2021.


black and white photo of an arched doorway with light-colored curtains on either side of the doorway

Fig. 4B Doris Duke’s Shangri La, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1937; Architect: Marion Sims Wyeth (American, 1889–1982); Interior design by Florence Hayward (American, active 1930s–1950s); Drapes, portières, and upholstery designed by Dorothy Liebes; Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Duke University Libraries


a large textile panel in a cream color with sections of looped fringe

Fig. 5B Shangri La, 1947; Designed by Dorothy Liebes; Cotton, rayon, metallic yarn; Museum of Arts and Design, New York, Gift of Dorothy Liebes Design and Ralph Higbee, through the American Craft Council, 1973.2.8


two textiles with looped fringe, one is ivory in color, the other is more yellow.

Fig. 6 (left) Shangri-la, 1947 Designed by Dorothy Liebes; Cotton, rayon, metallic yarn; H x W: 8 ft. 9 in. × 52 in.) Museum of Arts and Design, New York, Gift of Dorothy Liebes Design and Ralph Higbee, through the American Craft Council, 1973.2.8 compared with (right) 1937 Dorothy Liebes panel hanging at Shangri La: (H x W: 11 ft. × 63 in.), Photograph taken by the author, December 2021


Charlotte von Hardenburgh

Charlotte von Hardenburgh is the American Women’s History Initiative Research Fellow at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Her research contributes to the exhibition and publication A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes. In addition to conducting her research and curatorial work, von Hardenburgh teaches undergraduate courses at Parsons School of Design focused on modern design history and typography. She is currently based in New York City.