by Lynn Byrne
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.
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.
T4 Textiles are often 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.
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.
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.
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.