October 24, 2012

House of T

This should be a motion picture, or a lavishly illustrated catalogue, but for now you can absorb the story of DD and Leslie Tillett as a jewel of an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.  Famous—with great cache in their time (1950’s-1980’s), the Tilletts’ name and work receded into obscurity; this show reintroduces them.

The Tilletts seemed to have it all:  Meeting and falling in love at an artists’ community in Mexico, they travelled, collaborated and created collections of printed textiles for fashion and home in mid-century Manhattan, supported by society patrons and celebrity interior designers—working from their studio, workshop, showroom and family residence on the Upper East Side.

imageimageWalking over to their former carriage house at 170 East 80th Street last week, and wishing buildings could speak, I wondered—with envy—about a New York City once hospitable to creative people, where they could afford to live, work and sell—in one conveniently located edifice. On one floor in their brownstone, the Tilletts hand-screened fabrics from a room-length table, often using a strie technique, elaborately layering the prints with five passes or more.  Attentive to the needs of interior designers, they printed color ways on demand for each client.  Besides painting and drawing from nature themselves, they used photo
transfers from historic sources, ethnographic material and other graphics.

DD Tillett never left the house in a garment she did not design.  She and Leslie produced hundreds of prints, distilled from their travels, studies of indigenous peoples and the workshops they established.  Embedded in Bedford Stuyvesant in the mid 1970’s at the request of Jackie Onassis, the Tilletts set up a workshop to engage and train local artists and others from the community in developing and silkscreening textiles based on African motifs.  Innovative in business, Leslie Tillett developed a necktie subscription service advertised in The New Yorker, featuring their prints.

For people who were seemingly blasé about saving things—according to their son Seth—Leslie and DD Tillett left a trove of organized ephemera, clippings, notebooks, samples and other items that have contributed to the substance of this show.

Photo credit: 1954 contact sheet photo by Allan Arbus



October 2012