Apr. 04


NOW AND THEN: Karl Springer

by Lynn Byrne

An original Karl Springer telephone table and mirror in a home in Tuxedo Park, NY

Eileen Johnson’s revival of the iconic Karl Springer telephone table (an original seen above) made a splash at this year’s Architectural Digest Home Show.  Eileen worked as an artisan for Springer back in the 1970′s and 1980′s and she has brought back his style of covering furniture in exotic hides, snakeskin and fabric.  In addition to his telephone table, she has introduced  3 other designs, including a waterfall style table inspired by the work of Jean-Michel Frank.  Her pieces ooze flair:


Eileen made a smart business move when she decided to renew her craft of wrapping small furniture in luxurious hides and designer fabrics.  Karl Springer knew back in the day that his telephone table was a winner when he had clients like the Duchess of Windsor clamoring for them.   A genuine Springer telephone table currently on offer at 1st Dibs is listed as “price upon request.”  Shivers.  If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.  Compare that to Eileen’s tables which start at $1800.

But that’s not all Springer wanted to design.  He is quoted in the New York Times as saying that, “Once I was discovered by the Duchess and her circle, I probably could have gone on making little leather phone tables forever, but you need a challenge.”  He went on to develop designs that are somehow both recognizable and unique.   With original Karl Springer pieces found in the finest homes and commanding high prices in today’s market, it is worth it to be able to recognize his work.  You never know when you might find a deal.

Springer designed in the 1970′s and 1980′s, so he missed the height of the mid-century modern wave, coming into vogue a decade or two later.  He was greatly influenced by the Art Deco period, in particular the designs of Jean-Michel Frank and Ruhlmann.

Springer is credited with bringing back the use of shagreen (shark skin), which had fallen out of favor.  In addition to his use of shagreen and other exotic hides, he is known for reviving the use of lacquered parchment in furniture as well as his work with inlaid veneers, rare wood, metal, brass, granite and lucite.

Springer traveled widely and it shows in his work.  In addition to the Art Deco period, Springer’s furniture and accessories reflect influence from classic Chinese design, the Ashanti of Africa and his own native Bauhaus in Germany.

Let’s take a look at some pieces attributed to Karl Springer.

The dining chairs in this next photo are by Karl Springer in the style of Jean-Michel Frank.

The waterfall bench is another favorite Springer shape that also was favored by Frank.  This bench found in a stylish loft in NYC’s Flatiron District is an example of Springer’s work with parchment.

Kelly Wearstler used a classic Springer chair, known as the Onassis chair, in her Malibu beach house.

The c.1970 games table by Karl Springer in the next photo shows a chunky leg shape often used by Springer.  Note the brass decorating the table edge and feet.

The tortoiseshell sculpture by Karl Springer indicates the influence of Africa in his work.

There are plenty of items attributed to Karl Springer currently on offer on 1st Dibs and they give you an idea of the breadth of his work.   

This first group shows how Springer employed  the simple shapes reminiscent of the Bauhaus, plus some of his metal work (although the console is in goatskin).  The lamps, one in brass, the other, nickel are known as his “Sculpture Desk Lamp.”  The coffee table also is from the “Sculpture” line.


You can easily see the influence of Africa in these pieces.  One console is covered in batik, the other is bone.  The coffee table is horn.

These Springer pieces have a classic Chinese shape.

Springer loved to work with lucite, both clear and frosted.

Another hallmark of Springer’s furniture is pieces designed with a free form shape.

I think Springer’s work has a certain sexiness and I adore the new tables by Eileen Johnson inspired by him.  Surprisingly, however, I have personally seen pieces that look like the ones above for under $5000 in the antiques district in Stamford, CT (the “picker shop,” John Street Antiques, is a particularly good source), despite the high prices on 1st Dibs.   I once spotted a dining table that looked just like this one for example.

Ah, the ones that got away….  

It does pay to know what to look for. 

Photo credits: images of Eileen Johnson’s tables from her.  Room shots from ElleDecor.com.  Photos of individual pieces from 1st Dibs.


Jan. 07


NOW AND THEN: The Beautiful Textiles and Extraordinary Legacy of D.D. and Leslie Tillett

by Lynn Byrne

Fabric by D.D. and Leslie Tillett

Parish-Hadley Bedroom Featuring Fabric by D.D. and Leslie Tillett

Recently extended one month -it closes on February 3– the exhibition on the textiles of D.D. and Leslie Tillett at the Museum of the City of New York is a  ”must-see” for anyone interested in fabrics and mid-century design.  

Although not a household name today,  the husband and wife team’s bold designs counted Brooke Astor, Jacqueline Kennedy, Billy Baldwin and Albert Hadley among their chic fans, making them true trendsetters during their day.  Their aesthetic is both exotic and classic with global influences ranging from traditional handicrafts in Africa, Japan and Mexico to contemporary art.

D.D. and Leslie Tillett Textiles

Some of my favorite Tillett fabrics.  A version of the chrysanthemums pattern was used by Jackie in her Hyannis Port home.

The exhibition is the first retrospective of the Tilletts’ designs and was mounted with contributions from several of their children and grandchildren who have carried on their design legacy.  Although a compact show,  it is bursting with color, making it the perfect antidote to January’s chill.  It is the Tillett’s  unexpected color pairings and use of texture that truly distinguishes  their work.

D.D. and Leslie Tillett

D. D. Doctorow met her future husband Leslie Tillett when she was went to Cuernavaca, Mexico on assignment for  her employer Harper’s Bazaar magazine.  Harper’s Bazaar had heard about the beautiful textiles being made by Leslie, and D.D. was sent to shoot a feature for the magazine.

She quickly fell in love with Leslie and gave up her job at Harper’s Bazaar to learn die-mixing and silkscreening,  joining Leslie’s circle of artistic colleagues that included Diego Rivera and silversmith Bill Spratling.  Interestingly, her photos taken during that first visit have never been published and are now on display for the first time in the exhibition. Also on display are articles of clothing made from Tillett textiles, their jewelry designs, sketches, paintings and other vintage memorabilia.

The Tilletts moved to Manhattan in 1946 and enjoyed widespread recognition during their lifetimes (Leslie died in 1992 and D.D. in 2008).  They became close friends with Jacqueline Kennedy, who owned a sundress in a smaller scale version of the raspberry print used by Parish-Hadley seen in the first photo. Also on display at the exhibition, is a portion of a tablecloth made by the Tilletts for Caroline Kennedy’s wedding.

In addition to their work for the luxury market, the Tilletts believed that design could be a force for social change. Together with Jackie Kennedy they helped launch Design Works for Bedford Stuyvesant in 1969, training a full staff and providing employment for many members of that community until it closed in 1978. The Tilletts went on to start a similar program in Nantucket and later consulted with the governments of Korea, China, Peru and Lesotho to develop handicrafts for export.  Leslie Tillett also wrote several books on needlework that examined the influences of Native American and African motifs.  With their strong footing in the high-end market, together with  their good works, it is most surprising that the Tilletts’ work fell from public view, particularly since their children and grandchildren have continued their design legacy.

 Today’s Tillett Designers

The Tilletts’ textile designs are still fabricated today by the their grandson Patrick McBride and his mother, the Tillett’s daughter-in-law Kathleen  Tillett, through the firm Tillett Textiles in Sheffield Massachusetts.  All of the fabrics comprising the backdrops in the exhibition were made by them.

Patrick also has developed his own fabric line, T4 Textlies, and he graciously shared some images of his latest creations with me.

The latest from Tillett and T4 Textiles

T4 Textiles are often featured in House Beautiful.

Tillett and T4 Textiles

Some of the T4 fabrics that have been featured in House Beautiful

Additionally, today’s interior designers can design custom colorways for all of the Tillett and T4 fabrics with the firm’s ColorPad method. Click here to try it!  (Have fun!).  Love this hot pink (and “hot-off-the-presses”) version of the chevron-style fabric I spotted at the exhibition, shared by Patrick.

The Tillett’s son Sean, through his firm Tillett and Rauscher, creates products from the fabrics made by Tillett Textiles, some of which are  currently on offer at the Museum’s shop. Tillett & Rauscher products

Finally, lighting for the exhibition was designed by the Tillett’s daughter, Linnaea, a lighting designer and professor of lighting at Parsons the New School for Design.  Her portfolio, which includes residential, commerical and landscape lighting, is stunning.   Click here to see it.  For those who want to read more about the Tilletts,’ Linnaea’s blog includes a marvelous account of her childhood growing up amongst such innovative designers.

Tillett LIghting

Lighting design by Linnaea Tillettt


Given the attention that a museum exhibition brings, coupled with the extraordinary talents of D.D. and Leslie Tillett’s descendants, it is hard to imagine that their name will ever fall into obscurity again.  Their vibrant fabrics explode with life and are true classics that are just as fresh today as they were when they were first designed.

D.D. and Leslie Tillett


First image from the book Parish-Hadley: Sixty Years of American Design by Christopher Petkanas.  Last image of the Tilletts from the Museum of the City of New York. T4 fabric images from Patrick McBride and from House Beautiful.  Photo of  Linnaea Tillett’s lighting design from her portfolio. Other images by me.  



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