The Thread of the Story: The Dorothy Liebes papers

How can an archive draw a map through a nearly forgotten designer’s four-decade long career? How can an 8 x 10 inch fabric swatch embody a design era, from material choices to color palette? What role can invoices and order books play in filling in key gaps and bringing that era to life?

Designer Dorothy Liebes (1897–1972) has been called “the greatest modern weaver” and “the mother of the 20th century palette,” yet her outsized and enduring contributions to American modern design remain largely unknown. Join us to celebrate the recently-completed digitization of the Dorothy Liebes Papers at Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, made possible by The Coby Foundation—and explore some of the ways they illuminate Cooper Hewitt’s collections.

When Liebes died in 1972 and the contents of her studio were dispersed, museums across the country received gifts of the sample weavings she called “Idea Fabrics.” However, they arrived with very little information about the key role these samples played in Liebes’s experimental studio practice and wide-ranging professional career. Her extensive archive —comprising 25 boxes of correspondence, business documents, press clippings, scrapbooks, photographs, and textile samples —was bequeathed to the Archives of American Art after her death. It reveals a vast network of collaborators across a swath of industries, from architecture and industrial design to fashion and film. Join Susan Brown and Alexa Griffith, curators of an upcoming Cooper Hewitt exhibition on Liebes, and Liza Kirwin and Erin Kinhart from the Archives of American Art, for a discussion about recreating a life that has been written out of the historical narrative.


Susan Brown is Associate Curator and Acting Head of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where she oversees a collection of over 27,000 textiles produced over 2,000 years. Her exhibitions include Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance (2005), Fashioning Felt (2009), Quicktakes: Rodarte (2010), Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay (2011), David Adjaye Selects (2015), Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse (2016), Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color (2018), Contemporary Muslim Fashions (2020) and Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints that Made the Fashion Brand (2021). She has also contributed to the publications Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe, Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living, and Ripples: mïna perhonen. She lectures regularly for the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

Alexa Griffith-Winton is a design historian and educator. She is currently Manager, Content + Curriculum at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She has researched and published on the work of Dorothy Liebes for over ten years. Griffith’s work has been published in numerous scholarly and popular publications, including the Journal of Design History, Dwell, Journal of the Archives of American Art, and the Journal of Modern Craft. She edited Textile Technology and Design: From Interior Space to Outer Space with Deborah Schneiderman. (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016) and Interior Provocations: History, Theory and Practice of the Autonomous Interior (Routledge, 2020). She has received research grants from the Graham Foundation, the New York State Council for the Arts, Center for Craft, Creativity and Research, Nordic Culture Point, and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.

Erin Kinhart is Head of Collections Processing at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, where she oversees the arrangement, preservation, and description of archival collections. Prior to becoming department head in 2017, she was an archivist at the Archives, processing newly acquired collections and providing reference services. From 2005-2010, she served as a project archivist for the Archives’ Terra Foundation for American Art Digitization Grant, which included working on a team to establish digitization workflows and online access to collections.

Liza Kirwin is Interim Director at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, a position she previously held from 2011 to 2013. At the Archives, she has also served as Southeast regional collector, curator of manuscripts, and deputy director. Some of her publications include More than Words (2005, reprinted in 2015), Artists in Their Studios (2007), With Love (2008), and Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations (2010, and winner of the Secretary’s Research Prize for outstanding catalogue in 2012). Kirwin holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park.

ABOUT THE behind the design SERIES

What makes an object “museum-worthy”? How does an exhibition come to life? What discoveries have been unearthed by conservators? Behind the Design features curators, conservators, and other museum staff and guests in a series of lunch-time conversations to offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Cooper Hewitt and its collection.


This free program will feature a lecture followed by an audience Q&A hosted through Zoom, with the option to dial in as well. Details will be emailed to you upon registration. This program includes closed captioning. For general questions or if we can provide additional accessibility services or accommodations to support your participation in this program, please email us at or let us know when registering.