Resolutely modern Vera designed for the masses

It seems that Vera Neumann would have come to Palm Springs in the middle of the century. One can easily imagine that his sunny and exuberant creations come from the desert. During his life however, Neumann did not visit the desert, but his influence is evident everywhere here.

Neumann practically invented the idea of ​​the lifestyle brand. A watercolor painter, Neumann copyrighted some 8,000 designs in his lifetime and used them for all kinds of household items like tablecloths, napkins, crockery, bed linens and wallpaper. She will also design sportswear and create the concept of the signature scarf.

Neumann’s cursive signature, punctuated with a red ladybug for the dot at the end of his name, will become iconic. She paints seemingly prosaic subjects: flowers, leaves, ferns, grasses, vegetables and ladybirds. A “ladybug means good luck in all languages,” she said. And it was certainly lucky for Neumann. His depictions of simple patterns became ubiquitous in mid-century America.

Julie Schneider, writing in 2020, noted: “It all started with a simple square of fabric. In 1942, Vera Neumann and her husband, George Neumann, installed a screen print on the kitchen table of their Manhattan studio and began printing napkins and placemats based on Vera’s original artwork, with her signature in the lower right corner. What started as a small, home-based operation quickly grew into a booming business – with three showrooms in Manhattan and a 24/7 production space on the banks of the Hudson River in Ossining, New York – and one of the most beloved brands of the 20th century. Vera Neumann’s vivid, color-saturated designs have become ubiquitous in the homes and wardrobes of the masses across the United States and abroad.

Vera painting in her office, around 1970. The serigraphy on paper seen in the background,

Shortages after World War II led Neumann to experiment with the army’s surplus silk parachute fabric, from which she made her first collections of sashes. The Museum of Arts and Design in New York hosted an exhibition in 2021 paying homage to Neumann by displaying hundreds of his colorful and exuberant designs.

Schneider goes on to say that Neumann explained in a 1971 marketing brochure: “‘I’m an artist who prefers to paint things for people rather than walls, so I turn my paintings into things that people wear or use. Scarves, blouses, sportswear, homewear.’ Growing up in an artistic environment, Neumann earned a fine arts degree at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, followed by studies at the Traphagen School of Design in New York, where his eyes were opened to the opportunities to combine fine and commercial arts. She believed that everyone deserves access to quality art and design, not just the wealthy. Her cheerful and inventive prints and patterns have elevated everyday objects to art, bursting with vibrant hues and patterns inspired by nature and her many travels around the world. ”

Neumann remarked: “I have spent half my life painting scarves.

By 1972, Neumann scarves were selling in thousands of stores around the world, and the company had sales of $100 million. His vision of making functional and wearable art accessible to everyone was a spectacular commercial success. His philosophy that art should be affordable and integrated into everyday life was inspired by the progressive German school of art, the Bauhaus, which encouraged the union of art, craft and design. industry. Fine art could exist on and off the wall.

His company made sure you didn’t have to be rich to enjoy good design, and his designs were cheerful and approachable. First Lady Bess Truman installed a fabric of printed greens in a mix of organic leaf patterns called Jack-in-the Pulpit, for the third-floor solarium windows and White House upholstery. Grace Kelly wore Neumann scarves. The last time Marilyn Monroe was photographed, Bert Stern’s legendary “Last Sitting,” shot just weeks before her death, Monroe was captured naked behind the diaphanous pink, yellow and orange stripes of a Neumann headscarf. The color combination makes the photograph striking.

Neumann professed that “color is the language I speak best”. This playful exuberance was emblematic of mid-century, and Neumann holds a rightful place in the pantheon of mid-century design masters. Neumann was an integral part of the modernist movement. Not only influenced by Bauhaus ideals, she fully realized them in the real world of international business. She and her husband and partner, George, were friends with Alexander Calder and Marcel Breuer. In 1952 Breuer designed his home in Croton-on-Hudson as well as his showroom at 417 Fifth Avenue. The Neumanns literally lived the Bauhaus philosophy while bringing it to the masses.

Incredibly prolific as an artist, she produced hundreds of paintings a year for decades and translated her fine art into mass-produced, beautiful and useful everyday objects. A masterful businesswoman, she licensed her designs in multiple mediums and marketed herself and her business shrewdly.

February brings wildflowers and Modernism Week in the Desert, this year it also brings an appreciation of Neumann and excerpts from the Museum of Arts and Design exhibition of his work. On Thursday, Feb. 24, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, author and owner of The Vera Company, Susan Seid, will be joined by rightful heir to the Neumann mantle, Trina Turk, who opened her first boutique in Palm Springs. in 2003, perpetuating the tradition of cheerful and colorful prints. Together, Seid and Turk will present a celebration of Neumann. Tickets are available at modernismweek.com.

Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Memories Thanks column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at [email protected].

About Bernice D. Brewer

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