A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes at Cooper Hewitt. Photo by Nishtha Dani (MA ’25).

On July 7, A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes opened at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Many threads connect Bard Graduate Center to this important exhibition celebrating the career of twentieth-century American textile designer and weaver Dorothy Liebes.

Alexa Griffith Winton (MA ’03), manager of content and interpretation at Cooper Hewitt, co-curated the exhibition with Susan Brown, associate curator and acting head of textiles, and they co-edited the accompanying catalogue. Winton wrote a chapter titled “Vibrance and Luminosity: Textiles Designed for Light,” and she and Brown tapped two other BGC alumni to contribute chapters: John Stuart Gordon (MA ’03) wrote “Curtain Walls: Dorothy Liebes and the Modern American Interior” and Leigh Wishner (MA ’01) wrote “Modern Fashion’s Secret Weapon: Dorothy Liebes’s Textiles for Fashion.”

Wishner first encountered one of Liebes’s textiles in the BGC Gallery while serving as a docent for professor emerita Pat Kirkham’s 2000 exhibition, Women Designers in the USA, 1900–2000. The piece, Mexican Plaid, was on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Wishner recalled being “wowed” by Liebes’s color sense when she saw it.

Mexican Plaid Drapery Panel (right) by Dorothy Liebes, pictured at Bard Graduate Center’s 2000 exhibition, Women Designers in the U.S.A., 1900–2000: Diversity and Difference.

Winton knew of Wishner’s love of color, pattern, and mid-century textile design, as well as her work as a curatorial assistant in the costume and textiles department at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and as the digital media and content manager at the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. So although they did not know each other at BGC, Winton said, “It was obvious from the beginning that Leigh was the perfect person to be the first to write about the extensive work Liebes did in the fashion industry.” Meanwhile, Wishner refers to Winton as “the world’s leading Liebes-ologist.”

While conducting research for her chapter, Wishner looked to the digitized Dorothy Liebes Papers from the Archives of American Art. The Bonnie Cashin Archive, created and managed by Stephanie Lake (BGC MA ’00, PhD ’09), was another important resource, as Cashin featured Liebes’s fabrics in her fashion designs. According to Wishner, Lake generously shared her archival research and extensive knowledge of Liebes and Cashin’s collaboration.

Leigh Wishner presenting "Modern Fashion’s Secret Weapon: Dorothy Liebes’s Textiles For Fashion" at Cooper Hewitt on July 12, 2023.

Wishner’s role in the Cooper Hewitt project deepened when Winton asked her to be the inaugural speaker in the exhibition’s public programming series. Wishner presented on a lesser-known aspect of Liebes’s career: her work with fashion designers and sportswear manufacturers from the 1930s to 1960s and its influence on the fashion industry today. The event was moderated by Winton and attended by various members of the BGC community, including Marilyn Cohen (MA ’05), William DeGregorio (MA ’12, PhD ’21), current PhD candidate Martina D’Amato, associate curator for BGC exhibitions Emma Cormack (MA ’18), and professor emerita Michele Majer. Wishner reflected, “Presenting my research to design and fashion enthusiasts, and especially to BGC students, faculty, and alumni, felt like the warmest homecoming I could have wished for.”

(Left to Right) Marilyn Cohen (MA ’05), Alexa Griffith Winton (MA ’03), Michele Majer (BGC professor emerita), Leigh Wishner (MA ’01), Emma Cormack (MA ’18), Martina D’Amato (BGC PhD candidate), and William DeGregorio (MA ’12, PhD ’21).

Winton gave a special tour of A Dark, A Light, A Bright to incoming MA students at the start of the academic year. She said, “It was such an honor to share the exhibition with the incoming BGC students, and to show them how exciting and rewarding studies of the decorative arts, design, and material culture can be. I loved learning how to use archives and other primary research resources as a student at BGC, and the exhibition is the end result of that passion.”

BGC students touring A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

BGC students will continue to have opportunities to closely examine Liebes’s work, thanks to a recent donation to the Study Collection made by gallerist, educator, curator, and collector Helen W. Drutt: a ca. 1950 white woven Lurex cocktail napkin made of fabric that Liebes designed.

Wishner is continuing her research with a book tentatively titled Pattern Play USA: Adventures in Twentieth-Century Textile Design that will expand on the content she posts on her Instagram. In addition, she recently began a new position as an arts project manager at Hollyhock House, a UNESCO World Heritage site built by Frank Lloyd Wright between 1918 and 1921.

A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes edited by Susan Brown and Alexa Griffith Winton. Published by Yale University Press.

A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes is on view at Cooper Hewitt through February 4, 2024, and the accompanying catalogue can be purchased online through Yale University Press. A recording of Wishner’s talk at Cooper Hewitt, “Modern Fashion’s Secret Weapon: Dorothy Liebes’s Textiles For Fashion,” is available on YouTube.