In 1951, the SS Independence and her nearly identical sister ship, the SS Constitution, began their voyages from New York to the Mediterranean after seven years of planning and work by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (1904–1972). The project began when John Slater, president of American Export Lines, wrote “a simple scribbled message” to Dreyfus at a busy restaurant: “Would you have time to do some ocean liners?”  Dreyfuss’s single-word reply—“Yes”—led to a new kind of American passenger cruise ship designed to possess “the informality of a country club and the convenience of a de lux hotel service,” heralded as the fastest, safest, and finest ship of its day (Figs.1, 2). 
From the rooms to the striped smokestacks to the placement of sleek stairways running up through the center of the ship, every aspect of the Independence and the Constitution was designed by Dreyfuss, including details such as the ships’ uniforms, china, glassware, menus, ashtrays, matchbook covers, and sugar packets (Figs. 3, 4).  With their integrated planning focused on people’s needs and comfort, the ocean liners were “a floating catalog of new design ideas.”  For the public rooms, leading American artists, including Lyonel Feininger, Edmund Lewandowski, Anton Refregier, and Max Spivak, were commissioned to create murals that conveyed modern American living. These works of modern art were paired with objects and motifs of Americana, including Audubon prints, a collection of early American ceramics, glass, and silver on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a collection of historic ship models in bottles, and a replica of the Declaration of Independence. This pairing presented a “new nautical tradition” and an American definition of luxury.  With these two ships, the media claimed that the United States finally had a luxury liner that could rival European ships in its design, comfort, and style. 
To unify the interior design of the two ships, Dreyfuss created an integrated overall color scheme in tones of grays, beiges, and deep browns, chosen for warmth, familiarity, and utility. Fabric was chosen for durability and ease of cleaning as well as for its appearance. To bring an elevated and dynamic style onboard from a name well known to the American public, Dreyfuss tapped his longtime friend and collaborator Dorothy Liebes to create custom drapery and upholstery for the theaters, First-Class staterooms, and Observation Lounge.
The First-Class theater served as a place for entertainment, including an auditorium and a chapel. Dreyfuss had the 150 chairs upholstered in blue Pantasote imitation leather and blue James Lees two-toned looped Hookset carpeting; the walls were covered in “pumpkin-tinted quartered Bella Rosa Flexwood” between columns lacquered in a golden bronze.  To complement these elements, Liebes designed a handwoven curtain in shades of blue with glowing gold threads running throughout, creating a regal environment for the passengers to gather.
Striving for luxurious comfort, Dreyfuss designed state rooms with convertible sofa beds that could be folded into seating for entertaining and lounging during the day. For these First-Class suites, the Liebes studio created a fabric made of gray chenille combined with metal thread wound around a cotton core. The casual elegance of these rooms included a leather-padded wall, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and handwoven Liebes blinds that slid across the windows within wooden frames (Figs. 5, 6).
The most stunning room of both ships was the Observation Lounge. Here, the focal point was the ceiling. A large, corrugated ring covered in gold leaf concealed the domed lighting and created the illusion of a higher ceiling (Fig. 7). Below this, 125 feet of windows formed an arc giving a view of the sea. At night, when the carpeting came up from the dance floor, motorized curtains covered the windows with handwoven drapes created by Liebes that sparkled with her trademark metallic threads. Liebes’s drapery for this room was so recognizable that Harper’s Magazine identified them as hers without even bothering to verify it, referring to “luxurious textiles by Dorothy Liebes (at least they look like Liebes).”  The curtain dramatically featured thick bands of rich chocolate brown and smoke-gray accentuated with tasteful stripes of silver, gold, and copper (Fig. 8). On the opposite wall, behind a piano and clusters of furniture grouped for intimate conversations, was an illuminated screen created by Emile Norman in which forty translucent acetate panels had real specimens of California flora pressed between them (Fig. 9).
Although the Independence set sail first, the Constitution found lasting fame in popular culture. On January 16, 1956, the first of two episodes of I Love Lucy featuring the SS Constitution aired on network television. American Export Lines paid Desilu Productions, producers of the comedy series starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, to use the Constitution’s exterior to promote their trans-Atlantic cruises. The deck of the ship and its name are featured prominently, which launched the Constitution’s pop culture fame. The SS Constitution is also central to the plot of the romantic 1957 film An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr—the two characters meet onboard. However, the SS Constitution’s ultimate moment of capturing the public’s imagination came in 1956 when Grace Kelly, along with her family, her two dogs, and nearly fifty guests, traveled to the French Riviera on the ocean liner for her wedding in Monaco to Prince Rainier.
With the SS Independence and SS Constitution, Dreyfuss and his chosen collaborators—including Liebes—captured the American imagination. 
- “Gracious Living Afloat,” Interior Design and Decoration, March 1951, 44.
- “Seafaring Interiors,” Institutions Magazine, May 1951, pasted in Dorothy Liebes’s scrapbook. Scrapbook 1951, Series 8, Box 29, Folder 2, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- “Gracious Living Afloat,” 44.
- “Luxury Crossing,” Harper’s Magazine, October 1951, 98.
- The October 1951 issue of Harper’s Magazine featured the SS Constitution in its “After Hours” column with a front page heralding the ship as the first worthy competition to European ocean liners in “Luxury Crossing,” Harper’s Magazine, October 1951.
- “The S.S. Independence: Henry Dreyfuss Floats a Hotel,” Interiors, April 1951, 108.
- “Luxury Crossing,” 100.