Vera Neumann: Artist & Icon

I found four fabulous Vera linen napkins from the 60’s peeking out of a box filled with textiles at an estate sale.  In immaculate condition, for one dollar.  The napkins happen to be dyed in Pantone’s Color of The Year “Greenery”.  So exciting!  Usually, mid century color palettes don’t convey to current fashion, but these are right on trend.  Not that I’m trendy, I like to think of myself as classic.  Here is a photo of my find.

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Vera’s trademark ladybug and signature

Lately I’ve been reading about mid century artists, Vera among them, and after my score I wanted to know more about Vera beyond her products.  Vera was an artist, a business woman, a groundbreaker, and an instigator of millions of memories.

Vera Neumann (nee Salaff) was born in 1907 in Stamford, CT.  She studied art at the Cooper Union and Traphagen School of Design in New York City.  Fresh out of school she became a fashion illustrator and textile designer.  In 1942, with her husband George, she created a company called, Printex, making linen napkins and placemats designed with her artwork.  Their home became their manufacturing floor.   They built a printing press to sit atop their dining room table and their kitchen oven was used to cure the linens.  Vera’s early designs featured flowers, geometrics, stripes, and seasonal motifs.  For branding, she wrote her signature as an artist would sign a canvas.   The signature was accompanied by a ladybug.  Ladybugs signify good luck, good health, and long life.  When the business took off they moved to an 1810 Georgian mansion in Ossining, New York (where the Drapers lived).  Their first placemat order came from the B. Altman Department Store and they were launched.  Other products soon followed.

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Originator of the calendar tea towel.

An early an oft repeated motif…

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Poppies.  One of her most famous designs.

 

After the end of WWII linen was hard to come by.  One day Vera went into an army surplus store and found yards of parachute silk.  She bought it all and her famous scarves were born.  She was the originator of the first “signature” scarf.   Women collected them, notably Marilyn Monroe.

Vera expanded into home goods and clothing making her the first mass marketer of affordable products and first lifestyle brand.  Vera very much wanted her art to be accessible to all and kept her price points attainable.  At its peak, in the 70’s, the business grossed 100 million dollars in sales.  A prolific designer, her goal was to create one new design per day.  She amassed around 8,000 designs in her lifetime.

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Illustration of Vera by Ellen Surrey

The illustration above is from a delightful book on mid century women artists.  It’s heavy on illustrations and light on text, but a treasure most definitely.  A book aimed at the younger crowd, but suitable for all art fanatics.

Vera partnered with textile house F. Schumacher on a line of fabrics, notably for the Truman White House in 1952.  The glazed, cotton chintz fabric, “Jack In The Pulpit”  in the Mouse color way was used on the solarium windows and throw pillows.  Vera collaborated with F. Schumacher for over a decade.  Her designs were among the company’s most popular.  Vera also created lines for textile houses, Scalamandre and Greeff Company.

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Jack In The Pulpit fabric.  F. Schumacher & Vera Neumann

Vera traveled the world seeking inspiration for new designs.   Sometimes she traveled with companions and sometimes she traveled alone which was unusual for a woman back then.  She went to India, Denmark, Scandinavia, Mexico, Japan, China, etc.  After her visit she would design a line inspired by that country.

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A page from Susan Seid’s book “Vera: The Art and Life of an Icon” – this line appeared after her trip to Persia (Iran).   That scarf is gorgeous!

I found a few interesting articles on Vera.  From Ebay this one tells you how to date your Vera.  1st Dibs published a gallery showing of Vera’s art in 2015.   The gallery owner Alexander Gray, said of Vera “from a formal perspective, her hand was tight and controlled yet still allowed for airy and playful designs that audiences responded to, thanks to their happy subjects and warm tones”.  Susan Seid, who bought The Vera Company in 2005 and operated it until its recent closure, wrote a wonderful book on Vera.

Christie’s presented “The Artist As Collector: Pae White” two years ago.  The exhibit showcased White’s collection of Vera scarves and other textiles.  Click here to view.  All the designs are hanging from the ceiling and create quite a visual effect.  Retro Love Affair posted this great collection from the Goldstein Museum of Design’s exhibit a while back.

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Classic geometric design on napkins in a rainbow of colors.  These also look great folded.

 

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Vera in Japan at the Mikasa factory where she had a line of tableware.

 

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Her Mikasa dishes with the apple motif.

 

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Bold, diagonal stripes paired with loose florals creates a nice tension.  Silk scarf from my personal collection.  Does two make a collection?

 

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Detail photo of scarf above.  She had such a light hand and was a master colorist.

 

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Love this black and white design.

You can find vintage Vera on Ebay, Etsy, and RubyLane.  Her scarves come in different sizes and depending on when they were made could be of silk, rayon or polyester.

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Vera spent many summers in Ibiza.  Here she’s inspired by glorious Spanish tile work.  Great color combinations.

Later in her life she said “The creative part of the business is like a fountain; it keeps going, going, going.  I never repeat myself.”  How wonderful.  After an illustrious career and well-lived life, Vera passed in 1993.

Vera is a 20th century icon.  A gifted artist who spread joy through her designs and generosity.  Few artists can say they’ve touched so many people’s lives.  Growing up Vera was all around us.   Today when we come across a familiar design from our past, we experience joy, nostalgia, and memories that take us back in time.  Thank you Vera!

One Comment

  1. Oh, what a talented and interesting lady. I also love scarves and would have been one of her best customers.

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