Tammis Keefe

Kimberly Randall

Born in 1913 in Los Angeles, California, textile designer Tammis Keefe was first a mathematics major at Los Angeles City College. [1] A change in her academic direction was inspired by a 1933 visit to Chicago, where Keefe saw the exhibits at the Chicago World’s Fair and the Art Institute of Chicago. She returned to California and enrolled as a painting major at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. After a stint at Disney Studios, she moved to San Francisco, where she served as an art editor for California Arts & Architecture magazine. It was there that, in the early 1940s, she met Dorothy Liebes, who was at the time seeking fresh ideas for printed textiles. Enlisting artists, designers, and students alike, Liebes was pursuing the most promising printed fabric designs to coordinate with her own woven textiles for her most important client, Goodall Fabrics of Sanford, Maine. [2] Keefe joined the Liebes studio and, with Liebes as her mentor and guide, developed her skills as a designer and colorist. Together, the two women filled gaps in Goodall’s product line with Keefe’s eye-catching and cheerful printed fabrics, which were aimed at the growing market of new homeowners in the immediate post-war period. Of the many talented people who worked at the Liebes studio, Tammis Keefe stands out as a naturally gifted designer of printed textiles; her continued success after leaving the studio is evidence of this. Liebes even saved a newspaper clipping that praised Keefe’s talent as a colorist. In it, Keefe recalled her time working with Liebes at her studio, which she described as “rewarding.”  

Goodall, with its national profile, was important to the success of Liebes’s studio and to Keefe as well. Although Goodall used Liebes’s name and image freely in their advertising, referring to her as a “textile genius” and the “star of Goodall,” this same spirit of generosity was not always extended to other designers of Goodall’s printed fabrics. Keefe was credited for her designs more frequently than other designers, such as Marion Dorn or Marguerita Mergentime, but the inconsistency in credit for her work likely stung. Ultimately, though, it was Keefe’s professional connection to Liebes that allowed her to absorb Liebes’s philosophy that good design could be mass-produced and that the designer’s name was a valuable commodity in the world of manufactured products. In the few short years that Keefe worked at the studio, her designs stood out for their inimitable charm and bold use of color. Avoiding effects that would appear too abstract, bizarre, or esoteric was a conscious decision on Keefe’s part and gave her printed fabrics an approachable modernity appealing to those who were new to design and decorating. [3] 

In some of Keefe’s earliest textiles, she looked to museum objects for inspiration, a common practice among designers in the immediate postwar period. Chinese prints of flowers and pre-Columbian sculptures were cited as sources of inspiration for Goodall’s fabrics. For Keefe, it was a Persian manuscript that inspired her first design for Goodall, which received editorial attention in 1947 from the new trade publication American Fabrics, which credited her for her design titled Persian Horse (Figs. 2A, 2B). [4] Art News Magazine also praised Keefe, noting that “Goodall’s spirted prints on mohair, colored by though not designed by Liebes, are mostly of the museum source type. Tammis Keefe does some of the best of these.” [5] Goodall would continue to advertise that Liebes was the colorist of the company’s printed designs, although it is likely that Keefe experienced few difficulties in this area.   

Keefe’s flexible approach to printed fabrics was illustrated by a trio of other textile designs for Goodall Fabrics: her interpretation of the Roman alphabet, a conventional stripe enlivened by swirling lines, and a bold floral that included the plant’s roots as part of the design. Titled Alphabet, Cadenza, and Geranium respectively, these fabrics were featured prominently in Goodall’s national advertising campaigns during the late 1940s and performed well for the company. Alphabet, with its grid of characters, was styled as a drapery fabric in a casual setting that featured a young couple playing backgammon (Fig. 3). With the curtains forming a backdrop for the pair, the large, embellished letters within rectangles echo the square tufting on the yellow sofa. The tongue-in-cheek “Winning Cast . . . ” headline promised good times for the “clever hostess” who selected Goodall fabrics. Like Liebes, Keefe favored strong, bold color combinations, and Alphabet, in shades of green, deep pink, and yellow green, exhibits Liebes’s color influence. Decorating magazines all agreed that the revival styles of the 1930s in dull colors had no place in the modern home, and consumers were encouraged to trust their instincts and decorate with colors that resonated with them personally. [6]   

This fearless approach to color can be seen in the boldly colored Cadenza (Fig. 4), which had horizontal stripes in shades of blue, pink, and red that could have been overwhelming had not Keefe’s addition of calligraphic swirls and squiggles reduced the horizontal weight of the design. Shown with coordinating red and blue Goodall upholstery fabric on the chairs and pinkish walls, its impact in a room would have been immediate, illustrating that color was indeed used freely during the late 1940s.  

Florals continued to be very popular in the postwar period. Keefe’s Geranium, a large, bold floral that came in six colorways, was advertised as a drapery fabric and was shown with other coordinating Goodall fabrics. Varying from most floral designs, Keefe opted to show the entire plant—roots and all. Her approach to the geranium has a stylistic affinity with another Goodall floral inspired by museum sources, Manchu Peony, that was likely designed by Keefe’s friend, the artist Dorr Bothwell (Fig. 5). [7] Instead of using gradations of color to suggest depth, Keefe let flat areas of bright color give a graphic punch to the design. The colorway below has red-orange flowers, yellow stems, and leaves of teal and dark green, with falling flower petals to fill the spaces between with pops of bright red color (Fig. 6). 

Keefe continued to work with Liebes after both women moved to New York, but by 1949 Keefe had started working as a freelancer for other companies. [8] Just a year later, in 1950, Keefe’s fabric Lemons for Golding Decorative Fabrics was included in The Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design exhibition, and there were other successes, such as the wallcoverings she designed for Thibaut, textiles for Mitchell-David Co., and additional fabric lines for Golding. Despite her success, Keefe began to pivot away from textile and wallcovering design in the early 1950s. By this time, the market had become saturated with brightly colored printed fabrics, and the cacophony of color generated a backlash from design professionals who favored a shift to more neutral tones. [9]. The design profession, now more corporate and multinational, moved away from the suburban postwar homemaker toward the designers and architects of corporate offices, retail spaces, and other large-scale projects.  

For Keefe, the shift began in 1949 when she returned to an earlier form of creative expression and began producing designs for printed accessories like handkerchiefs and scarves. Table linens, kitchen towels, and sportswear for the Marlboro Shirt Company soon followed. Like Marion Dorn, Ruth Reeves, and Liebes herself, Keefe had created her first designs for scarves during the wartime years of the 1940s, when design work was scarce. Scarves, universally popular and more affordable than fashion, presented an easy way to update one’s attire, and designers and artists alike participated in their production (Figs. 7, 8). One of Keefe’s earliest scarf designs for Echo was called Pacific Catch; it was an oversized scarf based on one of her paintings. [10] 

Keefe entered a high-profile arrangement with retailer Lord & Taylor and J. H. Kimball & Company, who printed scarves and squares that featured her signature prominently as part of the design. As a freelancer, Keefe probably liked this arrangement better; she could create a unique design for a handkerchief or any other small accessory, whereas lengths of printed fabric required the development of pattern repeats and different colorways based on the client’s desires. Working from her home studio, she sketched designs no less than five days a week and colored each design based on her own color principles, free from the vagaries of fashion or trends. [11] Instead, she focused her whimsy on sketching her countless ideas for charming and eye-catching accessories; animals, antiques, flowers, food, holidays, and tourist attractions were just some of her sources of inspiration. Even when tissues replaced handkerchiefs, women were encouraged to loop them around a belt or tie them to a purse handle—some even framed them like artwork. [12] Keefe’s spontaneous approach, fueled by her outwardly optimistic nature, remained part of her design practice. Even her so-called strangeness was celebrated by Lord & Taylor in their advertising, which called her designs “weird and wonderful.” [13] She would continue to design affordable accessories for multitudes of women while maintaining a degree of freedom and control in her career until her untimely death in 1960.  


[1] Suzanne Chee, “Tammis Keefe: A Designer During the Post-Second World War Period in the United States” (thesis, Fashion Institute of Technology, 1990), 1.

[2] Goodall Fabrics, Correspondence, April–June 1943. Box 9, Folder 37, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[3] Muriel Barnett, “Fabric Designer Tammis Keefe Sees Best Side of Modern Art,”
Los Angeles Mirror, October 17, 1949.

[4] “Inspiration Is Where You Find It . . .”
American Fabrics 2 (1947): 99.

[5] “Art Into Living: Drapery Fabrics 1947,”
Art News Magazine, March 1947, 57.

[6] Chee, “Tammis Keefe,” 19. 

[7] Beatrice B. Rakestraw and Margaret Furlong, eds.,
Art Index (October 1944–September 1947): 180.

[8] Pat Kirkham, ed.,
Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 161.

[9] Chee, 26.

[10] “To Brighten Late Winter Days,”
New York Times, February 24, 1945.

[11] Eleni, “Handkerchiefs of Distinction Please,”
Evening Star, January 22, 1954, Section B.

[12] Mildred Lensing, “Tammis Dwells Amid Motifs,”
Louisville Courier-Journal, July 22, 1956.

[13] Advertisement for Lord & Taylor,
New York Times, March 20, 1949. 


newspaper clipping with a black and white image of a woman wearing a scarf tied around her neck

Fig. 1 “A Way With Color Pays Off,” article about Liebes, 1949; Box 14, Folder 6, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

magazine advertisement with images of printed scarves

Fig. 2A “Inspiration is where you find it . . . ”; from American Fabrics, 1947; Smithsonian Libraries & Archives

black and white image of a printed scarf with polo players riding horses

Fig. 2B Detail: Persian Horse; from American Fabrics, 1947; Smithsonian Libraries & Archives

color advertisement displaying a man and woman sitting in a living room with green printed curtains in the background

Fig. 3 Goodall Fabrics advertisement for Alphabet by Tammis Keefe; from Interiors, February 1947; Smithsonian Libraries & Archives

color magazine advertisement of a woman standing in front of printed curtains

Fig. 4 Goodall Fabrics advertisement for Cadenza by Tammis Keefe; from House & Garden, May 1946; Smithsonian Libraries & Archives

black and white image of a woman standing in front of a floral-printed curtain

Fig. 5 Manchu Peony by Goodall Fabrics; from American Fabrics, 1947; Smithsonian Libraries & Archives

color magazine advertisment with a man and woman in a living room. the woman is lovingly staring at a man and there are printed curtains in the background

Fig. 6 Goodall Fabrics advertisement for Geranium by
Tammis Keefe; from House Beautiful, April 1947; Smithsonian Libraries & Archives

black and white image of a woman sitting on top of a carpet made of printed scarves. there is a pile of printed scarves on her lap and she is smiling widely

Fig. 7 Tammis Keefe, circa 1955; Photographs of Liebes and Family and Friends, circa 1875, circa 1897–circa 1970, Series 11.3, Box 17, Folder 58, Dorothy Liebes Papers

a square blue handkerchief with two pink roses in the middle. within each quadrant, it says "thank you" in black and there are white swirls surrounding the text

Fig. 8 One of Keefe’s most popular designs was the Thank You Handkerchief, 1950–55; Printed on plain-weave cotton; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Daren Pierce, 1982-79-2

Kimberly Randall

Kimberly Randall is Collections Manager for the Textiles Department at Cooper Hewitt. The textiles collection comprises approximately 27,000 textiles, costumes, accessories, trimmings, and sample books representing twenty-four centuries of textile production across Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Randall has contributed to museum publications and exhibitions, including The World of Radio (2017), Embroidered and Embellished (2019), Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer (2021), and Sophia Crownfield: Drawn from Nature (2022).