Liebes, Dorothy (1897–1972)

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Liebes, Dorothy (1897–1972)

American weaver, textile designer, and businesswoman, who was a major aesthetic influence in the textile industry's conversion to synthetic fibers and new technologies in dyeing after World War II. Born Dorothy Katherine Wright in Guerneville, California, on October 14, 1897 (she claimed 1899); died in New York City on September 20, 1972; daughter of Frederick Wright (an entrepreneur) and Elizabeth Calderwood Wright (a schoolteacher); attended public school in Santa Rosa, California, and San Jose Normal School; University of California at Berkeley, A.B., 1921; later studied weaving and design at Chicago's Hull House, Columbia University, and the California School of Fine Arts; married Leon Liebes (a businessman), in 1928 (divorced 1946); married Relman Morin (a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist), in 1948.

The eldest child of Frederick L. Wright and Elizabeth Calderwood Wright , Dorothy Liebes was born Dorothy Katherine Wright in Guerneville, California, on October 14, 1897. Although her parents had both been teaching school when they met, her father later became clerk of Sonoma County, founder of a utility company, a rancher, and a land developer. Dorothy early showed a strong artistic interest and ability. While still a schoolgirl, she sold her first artistic creations, hand-painted flower pots. After her graduation from high school in Santa Rosa, she attended San Jose Normal School, after which she taught art for a year. In 1921, she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with an A.B. degree. She then studied weaving and design at a series of institutions, including Jane Addams ' Hull House in Chicago, Columbia University in New York, and the California School of Fine Arts. Liebes sold some of her handicrafts, including handwoven items, to finance her first trips to Europe, where she made pilgrimages to see some of the world's greatest art and also visited weavers to see how they operated.

Dorothy married successful San Francisco retailer Leon Liebes in 1928. A prominent patron of the arts, Leon donated space to Dorothy to set up a studio in the same building that housed his store. This gave her the room and the freedom to begin experimenting with a variety of weaving techniques and designs. At first, she received commissions from friends to create custom weaves for their homes and businesses. In time, however, the interest in her work spread well beyond her circle of friends. At New York's Decorator's Club in 1933, she had her first group show. The following year, back home in San Francisco, she established Dorothy Liebes Design Inc. In 1935, she won two major commissions, from the San Francisco Stock Exchange Club and from the Ahwahnee Hotel near Yosemite National Park. Liebes served as director of the Decorative Arts Exhibition of the San Francisco World's Fair in 1939. The recipient of several design awards, she staged shows overseas as well as across the United States.

Liebes' innovative approach to color and design had already begun to revolutionize the American textiles industry by 1940. Before she appeared on the scene, the textile weaving business was a relatively straightforward and uninspired business, turning out the same basic fabrics—plain weaves, twills, and damasks—from cotton, silk, wool, and linen. She had strong feelings about the use of new colors: "There is no such thing as bad color, only bad color combinations." She was among the first American fabric designers to experiment with the use of such daring colors as fuchsia, tangerine, turquoise, chartreuse, and lacquer red. Liebes also introduced the use of other materials, including beads, bamboo strips, cellophane, and metallic threads, into the weaving process. Hired by Goodall Fabrics in 1940 to design 12 new fabrics, Liebes entered a whole new phase in her career. She felt strongly that the loss of beauty to mass production was too high a price to pay. Recognizing that power looms generally created less interesting weaves than could be crafted on a hand loom, she actively sought ways to overcome this drawback by introducing new colors, weaves, and yarns. Her uncanny ability to forecast what the public hungered for in terms of texture, color, and design created a strong demand for her services. She served as Dobeckmun's design and color consultant in the development of Lurex metallic yarns and provided similar services for DuPont in the development of acrylic, synthetic straw, and nylon rug yarns. She was able to bring to the public at large improved fabric selection and design as well as a much broader spectrum of color through her contract with Sears, Roebuck.

Constantly experimenting, Liebes adapted the hand loom to create dobby (figured fabric made with a dobby attachment) and leno (open mesh) weaves. Her production was not limited to fabrics but included colorful window blinds, rugs, draperies, and upholstery material. Employing some 20 weavers from all over the world, her San Francisco studio was famous for its creations, which included unique items commissioned for use in hotels, private homes, oceangoing ships, and theaters. For King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, she produced stunning gold and silver fabrics.

Liebes' studio turned out designs for an amazingly broad array of products, including wallpaper, airplane upholstery, clothing, home furnishings, mattress ticking, and radio sound-filter screens. In the early 1950s, she began moving her base of operations from San Francisco to New York City, completing the move in 1952. By 1958, she had confined her business to designing for industry, creating as many as 2,500 swatches a year. Interviewed in the 1950s, she said of her work in design: "There is no more esthetic delight in the world than putting beautiful colors together in a loom, watching the juxtaposition of thread as it winds its way in and out, and the resulting vibration of tonal qualities." Liebes, often described as "the greatest weaver in the world," is widely credited with elevating the American textile industry to a level of excellence it had never previously enjoyed. Collections of her art are held by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Detroit Institute of Art, and the Oakland Museum in Oakland, California.

Outside the world of textile design and production, Liebes served on the boards of a number of organizations, including the San Francisco Art Institute, the Museum of Modern Art Advisory Council, and Save the Redwoods. She was also the first woman named to the board of the United States Finishing Corporation. In 1946, she divorced her first husband. Two years later, Liebes married two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Relman Morin, who was also an author of some note. The New York apartment she shared with Morin boasted not only her own weavings and handicrafts but also works by modern artists Matisse, Calder, and Picasso, and she counted among her friends other artists, fashion designers, artisans, architects, and movie stars. Dorothy Liebes died in New York at the age of 74 after a heart attack.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1948.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania