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Trailblazing UES Textile Designers' Work Showcased in Retrospective

By Amy Zimmer | October 15, 2012 10:33am

MANHATTAN — The hand-printed craftsmanship of textile designers D.D. and Leslie Tillett could be seen in the homes of style icons such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Brooke Astor and Babe Paley.

But the legacy of this husband-and-wife team is almost unknown to contemporary designers and design historians, according to Donald Albrecht, the Museum of the City of New York’s curator of architecture and design.

Albrecht, who helped organize the show, “The World of D.D. and Leslie Tillett,” which opens Oct. 17 and runs through Jan. 6, 2013 at MCNY, hopes this first ever retrospective of the duo will re-introduce them — and their bold geometric patterns, gorgeous textures and vibrant colors — to a new generation.

“As modernism goes through a major transformation and the very traditional comes back, theirs is not the fabric that would have been selected by someone who loves chintz and the ‘80s,” Albrecht explained.

The Tillets lived and worked on the Upper East Side, opening their own studio at 170 E. 80th St. in 1946 where they continued to make luxury textiles for four decades.

They were considered trendsetters, much sought-after among Manhattan’s high society embracing the “mid-century modern” aesthetic and were favorites of top American interior decorators of the post-war era, like Sister Parish and Albert Hadley, who the Kennedys tapped to redecorate the White House. (The Tilletts later designed fabrics for Caroline Kennedy's 1986 wedding.)

But their work was not mass-produced by big corporations, and so they never became as famous as some of the designers working at the same time, like Florence Knoll, who launched a major company under her own name, or George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames, who worked for the big-time Herman Miller furniture company.

“When you talk to people of that generation the Tillets were like a secret they were keeping from everybody,” Albrecht said.

Leslie Tillett had been producing textiles with his brother when he met D.D. — Doris Doctorow — who was working in New York for Harper’s Bazaar.  The couple, both of whom were raised in Brooklyn, met in Mexico when D.D. vistied the Tillett fabric workshop, and after marrying, they moved to the carriage house on East 80th Street, where they had a retail shop on the ground floor, a workshop above that and used the two top floor for their family’s living space.

Leslie Tillett passed away in 1992; his wife died in 2008. The exhibition incorporates newly produced handcrafted fabrics made by the Tilletts’ son and daughter-in-law at their Manhattan design firm Tillett & Rauscher and by their other daughter-in-law at Tillett Textiles of Sheffield, Mass.

“Their story has an interesting resonance with today. It’s not too different from what people are doing in Brooklyn with artisanal beer and chocolate making and design,” said Albrecht.

Many of these new small companies, such as Uhuru — a Red Hook-based design firm with a husband-and-wife team as two of its principals —  also do “limited production, but are in control of what they make,” he said.  “The Tillets are a good model of that. In an increasingly corporatized world, I think people are wondering how they did it.”

Though they worked for fabric mills, sold to dress manufacturers and created fabrics for upholstery and drapery, they mainly collaborated with leading interior designers and their clients on custom commissions.

“The backbone is customized work,” Albrecht said.

The Tilletts also saw design as a vehicle for social change.

When Jackie O. was a young widow, she asked them to help launch Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant, a job creation program where the Tilletts trained locals to do silkscreen printing and dye mixing. The pilot community development project ran from 1969 through 1978 and became known nationally for its bright patterns and colors inspired by African art.  (The Tillets replicated this model with a workshop in Nantucket.)

“We try to do shows that make you see New York in a different way,” Albrecht said. “This show has beautiful material — you see beautiful things. So, you have an aesthetic and technical story on one hand and then the social side with Bedford-Stuyvesant.

“That’s what’s interesting about doing a show: it’s about the rediscovery.”