Dorothy Liebes: Behind the SS Lurline Stage Curtain


Kimberly Phillips


Docomomo US


Growing up modern
Image details

Every year, we set aside some time to select a historical image for our member holiday card, something that inspires and documents modernist architecture and design culture. This year, on the occasion of the Cooper Hewitt exhibition A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes, we looked through the American textile designer’s vast archive (there are some 40,000 documents!) and selected her annotated sketch for SS Lurline First Class Lounge Stage Curtain for its dramatic colors and meticulous details.

The annotated sketch is among the very few known design drawings by the designer, weaver, and color expert. She was uncompromising about quality and materials, even working with a custom dyer because the color had to be just so. As a result her textiles established the "Liebes Look" – handwoven texture, often incorporating metallic yarn and plastic, and unusual color palettes.


To us, the sketch captures that essence, and in the course of research Docomomo US staff Kim Phillips discovered that it also captured a pivotal moment in Dorothy's career.


In the spring of 1946, the office of Raymond Loewy approached the Liebes Studio to discuss working together on a project with Matson Steamship Company. Mr. Loewy was a repeat collaborator and personal friend of Ms. Liebes. She had worked with him on his apartment in New York as well as his Albert Frey-designed home in Palm Springs. 

The SS Lurline, which was used by US Armed Forces in WWII, was to be redone and used to transport passengers on a five-day journey by sea to the also renovated Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Dorothy and her team would design for both the ship and the hotel, but it was the stage curtain aboard the Lurline, the focal point of the first class lounge, that truly excited them the most. 

We want very much to do this curtain. There will be a certain amount of glimmer throughout the whole yardages, the metal giving a “dressed up” quality, and it will be quite dramatic

Marian Phal, Liebes' Technical Director


Correspondence between the two design studios about project samples begins in June 1946. By October, they are working out sketches of the stage and collaborating on the color palette. By January 10, 1947, Loewy associate Richard Bird sends the Liebes Studio the final color chart for the stage curtain fabric.

On January 17, 1947, Bird cc’s Dorothy on a communication to Matson, enclosing prints of the stage curtain and recommending that the metal louvres on a table lamp be removed. This would be Bird's final correspondence with the Liebes team.

A month passes, on February 20, 1947, the Liebes team send telegrams to the Loewy office as well as to Hopeman Brothers, who were working on the build out. There is no response.

On April 7, 1947, Jean Beauchamp, the director of the Liebes Studio, writes again to Richard Bird at Raymond Loewy Associates, asking for an update. It goes unanswered.

Eventually, enough time passes that the cost of materials goes up, and the Liebes Studio needs to requote the project. 

On June 27, 1947, she writes to United Engineering with the updated estimate for the curtains as well as detailed installation instructions.

After this correspondence, it's hard to know what really happened. One can imagine that given her existing rapport with Loewy, when communication between the collaborators suddenly drops off after working almost a year on the project, Dorothy may have assumed that the curtain wasn't moving forward. 

Whatever the case, the next correspondence pertaining to the SS Lurline is dated April 12, 1948, after Dorothy attends the American Institute of Decorators’ Convention, and it’s a doozy. 

I feel quite certain that you and your office know nothing about this.

Dorothy Liebes

Can you even imagine? Let me paint you a picture, perhaps the official press release will help:  

“Of the public spaces, the first class dance pavilion is gayest. Lemon yellow, emerald green, shocking pink for chairs and divans complement the more neutral tones of walls and ceiling and white louvered shutters in horizontal and vertical block design. Slender columns in gold leaf outline in part the oval dance floor. A special feature is the large embroidered drape of lush tropical foliage, which forms the back-drop of the orchestra platform. Here a pleasant combination of cove and recessed spot lighting fits into the architectural pattern to produce desired effects for various functions. 

Lighting throughout the ship consists of troughs of indirect light, interesting cove effects and spotlights wherever most effective. All drapes were designed expressly for the S. S. Lurline; some are hand-woven fabrics by Dorothy Liebes, while others are original designs by Gilbert Blackmen Rose.” 

Or maybe you'd prefer this account by her studio director Ruth Mackinlay:  

 “As we heard nothing more about the theatre curtain, I was amazed when I saw the Lurline and was shown the theatre curtain. The color and general effect was exactly the same as the design which had been worked out by our Studio, although the curtain was poorly executed and made with shoddy materials. When I asked Mr. Tweed, who was our guide, where they got the theatre curtain, he was very perturbed and answered “I don't know – didn't you weave it?”

Quick recap: Dororthy and her team received a guided tour of the SS Lurline, and hanging from the stage in the first class lounge – like the ghost of curtains past – was her design! Except it wasn’t. It was poorly done, a cheap knockoff reproduced by a stranger, and it was made using inferior materials. She had built her reputation, her Liebes Look, on quality materials! Worse still, the shoddy job was credited to her in the official press release, and she hadn't been paid.

What followed is best recounted using archival correspondence, but here's the jist: Dorothy's letter to Raymond Loewy, is answered not by Loewy, but by his regional sales manager. Liebes' studio director Jean Beauchamp writes to the manufacturer of the curtain and attaches the bill for their design fee. Then she cc's the studio's attorney on another correspondence to Matson Lines. Matson eventually responds but in the meantime, the attorney for the Liebes Studio is already having the team assemble their narratives, which they do, with notes, in triplicate. 

Reading between the lines of their correspondence, it becomes evident what it’s like to be a small fish in an industry of whales. Numerous parties work feverishly on a project, inevitably some aspect, probably a very considered one, must be cost-engineered to stay on budget, which is done without much consideration for the original partner or designer, yet someone on the lead team had to sign off. By the time the final project is unveiled, and the small fish realizes what's happened, the whales have already packed up and sailed on.

Ultimately, Matson (the client) did blame the budget.

When Liebes’ had to up her estimate from $1500 to $2750, they said her design became prohibitive, and because they felt it was a co-design job, they were justified in their decision to go around her. Dorothy ended up reducing her design fee and received $1000 for her work on the project, less the time spent on navigating the run around and the threat of litigation – the cost of doing business. And perhaps that was Mr. Loewy's sentiment as well. It's not personal. It's just business.  

Dorothy Liebes had a profound influence across design fields, helping to shape American tastes in areas from interiors and transportation to industrial design, fashion, and film. This wouldn't be first time or last time a designer copied the "Liebes Look.” As her popularity grew, it would happen on a pretty regular basis. A decorator or designer would borrow a sample and take it somewhere to be knocked off for less.

It was because of this experience Dorothy was inspired to become a more vocal advocate for design and IP protection for designers. After this debacle, she reached out to the editor of the trade journal Home Furnishing to gauge interest on getting the word out – I'm still trying to track this down. 

In the course of my research, I came across a page in her draft manuscript about her thoughts on copyright law, which summed it all up for me. So I'll end there...


All my life I have mindful of a saying of Coco Chanel: 

"That when they stop copying me, I'll know I'm finished." 


This is a sort of comforting little slogan for a designer but it also portrays a bit of gloom. When you think that some idea with which you have wrestled gets out, appears everywhere, and the next thing that you know it's reproduced. This is one of the interesting things about our copyright laws. 


If you change it even as much as one thread or use a different fiber, even though the look is exactly the same it is not considered a flagrant breach of law. The present copyright law is about to be changed so I hear to intent to reproduce, intent to copy. But even so it hasn't mattered awfully much to me, and when I realize that Mme. Chanel thought that it was pretty good to be copied, I took heart yesterday in this year 1967. To see under draperies and curtains in the home furnishings.


Daily our bible of the trade world, that some new fabrics ("new") were shown which are absolute replicas reproductions or anything else that you want to call it of some that we did for bloomcraft four or five years ago. Before that we had based the same weave on things for Goodall. Only the fibers were quite different. But the look is the same. Hollywood invented the word look, and I think that it is a very expressive one, which we use a great deal. 


Speaking of creativity, we have our antennae out all the time for a new and orginal look. They are few and far between, and often when you really trace design you realize that it is an international language. There are many ways of saying things. Sometimes all good. Often times boringly repetitions.