Vera, ever vibrant

Elissa Auther, curator of the exuberant exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan, is doing just that when she begins to walk us through “Vera” on its opening day.

“This is the first I’ve seen it all finished — how pretty,” she says, taking it all in just as enthusiastically as we are.

The thoughtful exhibition offers up a fittingly vibrant celebration of Neumann (1907-93), the artist-turned-
textile designer, while also exploring her contributions to American design.

“Overall, the exhibition focuses on Vera Neumann as an artist, a textile designer and a design entrepreneur,” says Auther, MAD’s Windgate Research and Collections curator.

Neumann, in collaboration with her husband, George, would launch the company in the early 1940s, quickly taking off with Neumann’s signature work turned into textile patterns.

From the start and throughout the company’s history, each design would be based on her drawings, paintings and collages, which then became home goods ranging from linens to plates to wallpaper and, eventually, clothing and accessories.

“I do see her as an originator of what we see today as a lifestyle brand,” Auther says. “The cross-licensing, she was very successful at.”

Indeed the Vera story is told through watercolors and placemats, cocktail napkins and vintage advertisements, videos and women’s fashions, magazine covers and, of course, scarves, her most beloved creation.

“I grew up in a ‘Vera home,’” Auther says, noting her connection dates from childhood. “I have always been a fan. I’m happy to call myself a fan of Vera.”

And Auther certainly isn’t the only one.

The Vera scarves, first launched in 1947 and collectible to this day, became her signature product, thousands of designs all emblazoned with the recognizable logo of a “Vera” signature and a ladybug.

AN ARTISTIC LIFE

Neumann, who was born in Stamford and would go on to have longstanding personal and professional ties to Westchester County, began drawing and painting from nature at an early age, something that would be a lifetime practice. 

“So much of her work is inspired by nature, her direct observations,” Auther says.

Neumann would graduate from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art with a fine arts degree in painting in 1928, next enrolling in Manhattan’s Traphagen School of Design where she began to contemplate a design career that married the fine and commercial arts. It reflected, we learn, the Bauhaus philosophy of bringing together art, craft and industry.

Auther notes that Neumann was “very comfortable with a business model that combined fine art with commercial art. She really believed fine art should be accessible to everyone.”

The Vera success story began with tabletop designs.

“She really saw the table as a canvas,” Auther says.

But, she added, “She quickly outgrew the tabletop” category.

Early big orders allowed her to really move ahead, leaving New York City for a move to Ossining that allowed, Auther says, Neumann to “put the studio and printing facility under one roof.”

The company at that time, Printex, she says, “was like a major operation” that would eventually grow into Vera Industries.

GALLERY STARS

The exhibition delves into the many facets of the Vera story.

Its centerpiece is a salon featuring Neumann’s paintings, which follow the East Asian sumi-e technique and from which all her textile designs draw.

“I think she did inject not just bold color but whimsy. You see that in something as simple as the painting with the strawberries,” Auther says, pointing out a specific design.

Other sections explore her design work for the home. The 1970 Vera Neumann for Mikasa poppy plates are particularly striking, as is a section that brings the “Vera folds art napkins” campaign to life with completed examples ranging from rose petals to “fan-fare”  to candlestick.

“She was kind of a genius when it came to promotion,” Auther says. (“We spent a whole three days figuring out how to fold these napkins,” Auther says with a laugh of the lost art).

The 1957 Jollytop, basically two scarves tied together in a vest-like design, began the Vera fashions that are represented here with a handful of dresses and blouses.

“It’s hard to find,” Auther says of the Vera clothing. “I think it was very well-loved in its day.”

No matter the item, the themes are vibrant. There are florals and sunsets, vegetables and travel-
inspired motifs such as Japanese dolls or kites.

“She enjoyed travel but for her travel was a source for her designs,” Auther says.

“She loved global craft,” Auther adds, pointing out the influence of handmade goods such as baskets or moccasins.

For a bit of pop culture, there’s even a photograph by Bert Stern from his photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe, “The Last Sitting,” in which the icon — a noted Vera fan — is seen in a Vera scarf (and not much else).

Work traces the Vera production through the 1980s, rounded out by archival photographs and ephemera such as company marketing campaigns which used the “Vera paints” tagline to reinforce the artistic origins of the collections.

Throughout her life, Neumann associated with Modern artists of her time such as Alexander Calder. Architect Marcel Breuer not only designed her Manhattan showroom but also her longtime Croton-on-Hudson home (The restoration of the 1953 Neumann House, completed by current owners Ken Sena and Joseph Mazzaferro, was recognized earlier this year by The Preservation League of New York with an Excellence in Historic Preservation Award. The owners have also loaned materials to the MAD exhibition).

Perhaps the enduring legacy of Neumann just might be her unique vision, as exemplified by the signature Vera scarf.

As Auther says, “She really did encourage you to think of these products as things you can wear — or think of them as works of art.”

After touring “Vera Paints a Scarf,” it’s easy to do both.

 “Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann” continues through Jan. 26 at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan. For more, visit madmuseum.org.

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