Toss Pillows and TV Cushions

Susan Brown

Toss pillows were a mainstay of the Dorothy Liebes Studio’s output (when did we shift to the angrier-sounding throw pillows?) (Fig. 1). An assortment of varicolored and glittering Liebes pillows was often seen arranged along the built-in wooden banquette seating that was a common feature of many Frank Lloyd Wright homes, including the Della Walker House in Carmel, California; Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona; and the Usonian Exhibition House in New York City. Liebes was also an early proponent of the conversation pit—a sunken seating arrangement lined with dozens of pillows—and had created one for DuPont’s display at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart in 1960. “It is designers such as . . . Liebes who have rescued pillows from the dustbin they once shared with doilies and anti-macassars. Today’s pillows are fresher and more adventurous than their predecessors ever dared,” Budget Decorating wrote in 1968. [1] Their simple, unadorned forms and focus on color and texture separated them from the fussy cushions of previous decades (Fig. 2). Liebes’s gift for display also enhanced their appeal. When the Design Center for Interiors opened in New York in 1958, Liebes had a six-by-three foot booth, but made the most of the tiny space by filling it floor to ceiling with a tower of pillows in graduated sizes. [2] The stack was flipped and suspended from the ceiling for a display at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1965 (Fig. 3). [3] For Moving to Easy Street, a home fashions show for the Fashion Group of New York, she enlisted a burly man to hold up a pair of scales with each side weighted down by pillows rich with metal threads (Fig. 4). “Although a cheerful moving man . . . may not always be available,” Home Furnishings Daily noted, “his place could be taken by a mannequin.” [4]   

The TV cushion was a response to two inventions—television and foam rubber,—and was produced by Liebes client DuPont. Each large, square floor cushion was filled with a solid block of foam rubber, firm enough to provide comfortable floor seating. Television disrupted traditional furniture arrangements that were designed to facilitate conversation, requiring family and friends to gather instead around the small screen. “For example, on election night I had about thirty people sitting around on the floor and only five pillows to go around,” Liebes wrote. [5] The concept of using pillows for seating did not originate with her. In 1952 she wrote to her studio manager, Ralph Higbee, “What do you think of making some floor cushions? Eddie Wormley . . . stacked three foam rubber pillows, in three different colors, and it looked simply beautiful.” [6] Rather like stacking tables, the three cushions could be used as a single pouf or dismantled to provide seating for three. Higbee agreed that the idea was a good one, stating, “I think we would have little trouble getting retail stores to handle,” and adding, “Did I tell you about the time I returned the TV pillows to the San Francisco Museum? As I got out of the taxi a lady was starting across the street and when she saw the pillows she dashed back and wanted to know which store was selling pillows like the ones I was carrying.” [7] 

Higbee’s instinct was correct, and within a few years the cushions were being sold through local retail outlets including Nettle Creek, America House, Gump’s in San Francisco, Marshall Field’s in Chicago, and Edward Fields in New York. Frank Lloyd Wright included the TV cushions in his Usonian Exhibition House in 1953, as part of an arrangement of seating around the fireplace (Fig. 5). The studio’s “Orders Completed” ledgers from the late 1950s reveal a constant stream of toss pillows going out to interior designers William Pahlmann, Alfred Auerbach, and Stanley Wollner. They also proved an ideal gift, and many important clients wrote to thank Liebes for their handwoven pillows.  

Though not inexpensive, toss pillows and TV cushions nevertheless offered an opportunity for those who could not afford Liebes’s custom upholsteries or draperies to have her distinctive handwoven fabrics in their homes (Fig. 6).


[1] JoAnn Coker Harris, “The Fine Art of Pillow Throwing,” Budget Decorating, Fall 1968. 

[2] “Design Center,” Home Furnishings Daily, September 22, 1958. 

[3] JoAnn Coker, “She Weaves Good Taste into Our Homes,” Charlotte Observer, September 19, 1965. 

[4] “Perfect Balance,” Home Furnishings Daily, October 15, 1958. 

[5] Letter from Dorothy Liebes to Ralph Higbee, November 21, 1952. Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. 

[6] Ibid.  

[7] Letter from Ralph Higbee to Dorothy Liebes, November 26, 1952. Dorothy Liebes Papers. 

Fig. 1 Color photograph of a room with shelves filled with colorful spools of yarn, fabrics, carpet samples, and pillows.

Fig. 1 The Dorothy Liebes Studio as photographed for House Beautiful, October 1966; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Fig. 2 Black-and-white photograph of a striped pillow on a light-colored sofa; small end table with dragon statuette, pack of cigarettes, lighter, and ashtray.

Fig. 2 Sofa cushion designed by Dorothy Liebes, ca. 1958; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Fig. 3 Yellowed newspaper clipping with photo of a woman looking up at a stack of pillows.

Fig. 3 JoAnn Coker, “She Weaves Good Taste into Our Homes,” Charlotte Observer, September 19, 1965

Fig. 4 Yellowed newspaper clipping with a photo of a man holding an oversized balance scale with pillows stacked on each side.

Fig. 4 Clipping from Home Furnishings Daily, October 15, 1958; Scrapbook 1958, Dorothy Liebes Papers

Fig. 5 Black-and-white photograph of a living/dining room with furniture and floor pillows around a stone fireplace.

Fig. 7 Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Exhibition House, New York City, 1953; ESTO

Fig. 6 Color advertisement for Marshall Fields & Co., with multicolored pillows stacked on the floor and arranged in a grid on the wall.

Fig. 6 Color advertisement for Pillows by Bloomcraft, Chicago Tribune Magazine, October 25, 1964

Susan Brown

Susan Brown is Associate Curator and Acting Head of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, where she has curated over a dozen exhibitions including Fashioning Felt (2009), Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay (2011), Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse (2016), Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints that Made the Fashion Brand (2021) and A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes (2023).