Neumann, Vera Salaff (“Vera”)

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Neumann, Vera Salaff (“Vera”)

(b. 24 July 1910 in Stamford, Connecticut d. 15 June 1993 in North Tarrytown, New York), textile designer known for her highly successful lines of home furnishings and signature brightly-colored scarves.

Neumann, popularly known as “Vera,” was the only child of Meyer Salaff, a businessman, and Fanny Shenkow, a homemaker. She was educated at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the Traphagen School of Design, both in New York City. She considered a career as an art teacher but instead became a fashion designer. Disillusionment set in, however, when she was asked to steal designs.

She moved to Greenwich Village and set up a small studio, where she designed children’s furniture and murals for Childhood, Inc. On 11 February 1943 she married George Neumann, a refugee from Austria who had a background in business administration and an interest in textiles; his parents had owned Hungary’s largest textile screen printing business. They had two children. In 1945 Vera, her husband, and their friend F. Werner Hamm formed a partnership and went into the textile-printing business. Vera did all of the designing and color separating and helped her husband with the printing. George Neumann mixed and tested dyes and paints and created new formulas. Hamm was their purchasing agent and sales manager. Their first order—from B. Altman, the prominent Manhattan department store—was for 1,000 place mats in three designs. Early in her career Vera created her distinctive, simple signature paired with a drawing of a ladybug, symbol of good luck.

After this early success, the Neumanns moved into a spacious loft on West Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan, where they began to expand their line from place mats to tablecloths. Soon Vera created an allover pattern of leaves in greens and browns that sold immediately to Schumacher, the largest drapery house in New York. Her distinctive style consisted of abstracted silhouetted motifs in vivid colors—red, blue, yellow, green—underlined with black lines and with attention paid to the background white space around the motifs. Designs like her classic fern fronds were revolutionary during the 1940s because they used just a few colors that, when overprinted with one another, caused three-dimensional effects.

As their business grew, Vera, her husband, and Hamm moved to a converted Georgian mansion in suburban Ossining, New York, in 1947 to set up Printex Corporation of America. In 1949 the company began an association with Schumacher Fabrics that would last for more than thirty years. For Schumacher she designed decorative fabrics, wallpapers, and rugs. Three famous designs were “Jack in the Pulpit,” “Framed Fruits,” and “Nature Study,” a collage of leaf forms.

Neumann found inspiration almost everywhere. For a formal drapery pattern she was asked to do for the Commemorative Group of Textiles in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, she used authentic reproductions of colonial carriages on a background she adapted from endpapers of old books. Other inspirations included keys, Swiss chalets, old clocks, fish nets, cookie molds, jars full of candies, beaded curtains, and objects she discovered on her many trips abroad. Sometimes her prints were abstract, as in one of her favorites, “Jorongo,” which was shown in the 1952 Good Design Collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Neumann’s method of working was to first sketch or paint the design in watercolor, then develop it so that no lines of demarcation would show when the design repeated all over a piece of fabric. A single drapery fabric might require screens for five or six separate colors, and the overlapping colors created effects of even more shades. She transformed sunflowers and blue skies of Portofino, or dolls and other toys, into abstracted motifs that retained the character of the original objects.

After home furnishings and signature scarves, Neumann added women’s blouses and tops, casual shifts, and pants into her repertoire. She designed bright, colorful tops to be worn with custom-matched pants in solid colors. Imaginative Vera accessories in 1953 included a felt pocket worn by Swedish shopkeepers which she converted into a colorful bib to be worn over a dress, and casual hats like the “Doll’s Cap” and the “Pixie Tip.”

Early in the 1950s, the renowned architect Marcel Breuer designed a “Scarves by Vera” showroom on Fifth Avenue in New York. He also designed George and Vera Neumann’s home in Croton-on-Hudson, only a few miles from their Printex plant in Ossining. During their marriage the Neumanns also collected art by modern artists including Pablo Picasso, Ben Shahn, Josef Albers, and Alexander Calder.

George Neumann died in 1960. Vera continued the business and in 1967 sold it to the Manhattan Shirt Company for $5 million, making her one of the country’s richest businesswomen. She retained the presidency of the Vera Companies subsidiary and was the only woman on the board of directors of Manhattan Industries. The Vera Companies included Linens by Vera, Scarves by Vera, and Vera Sportswear. In 1969 she began her association with Burlington Industries, for which she designed an enormously successful line of sheets and pillowcases and later bedspreads, blankets, draperies, bath towels, shower curtains, and other bath accessories. In 1970 a large, mirrored showroom opened on the twenty-ninth floor of 417 Fifth Avenue at West Thirty-seventh Street, the former location of the Metropolitan Opera. The showroom was an impressive design by Breuer, with stark walls and corridors where Vera garments, fabrics, and murals could be displayed.

In 1972 Neumann received the Trailblazer Award of the National Home Fashions League and the 1972 Total Design Award from the National Society of Interior Designers. That same year she was honored by a retrospective exhibition entitled “Vera: The Renaissance Woman” at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Cooper Union gave her its Outstanding Alumna Award.

During the 1970s prominent clients of Vera Companies were Burlington Industries for bedding, Dritz-Scovill for needlepoint, and Mikasa for chinaware. Later in the decade, Neumann’s use of colors in home furnishings evolved to deeper colors for backgrounds of her prints, including dark red, navy blue, hunter green, and even black. In 1974 she designed a popular black-and-white sheet for Burlington, but she still considered her bold use of primary colors to be “her contribution to the textile industry.” Also in 1974, the young fashion designer Perry Ellis joined Neumann in Manhattan Industries to create clothing from her fabric paintings.

In 1976 Neumann marked her long working relationship with Schumacher by creating eight fabrics and wallpapers for the firm, which also revived the fern pattern she had designed in the late 1940s. She became the first designer of note to create arrangements of dried flowers and silk flowers for home decor. Sales of Vera designs reached more than $100 million and her merchandise was sold in more than 1,200 stores. By 1979 her companies employed 500 people. Her new linen lines were launched twice a year, in May and November. Popular designs for Burlington bed linens included “Shadow Fern,” “Sunset,” and “Daisy Spray.” One reason for the great sales success of sheets was that shoppers usually purchased them on impulse. Typically, each collection of Vera home furnishings was half new designs and half reissues. Vera was the number-one designer of domestics merchandise in 1979.

Drawing from impressions absorbed during trips to China, Neumann used Oriental colors and themes for her June 1979 collection of napkins and table mats. Recognized as an artist, Neumann had the honor of having her designs exhibited in galleries and museums. She was a longtime supporter of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, which dedicated the “Vera Neumann Room” in her honor.

By 1980 there were Vera showrooms around the United States and printing facilities in New Jersey, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, and Japan, in addition to Ossining. Neumann remained active in the business until shortly before her death from cardiac arrest after surgery at Phelps Memorial Hospital in North Tarrytown, New York.

Neumann’s works are archived at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her early work was described in American Artist (Sept. 1953). She was interviewed for American Fabrics and Fashions (summer 1979). In-depth analysis of Neumann’s creative working methods appeared in American Artist (May 1980). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 June 1993).

Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker