It all started with a simple square of fabric. In 1942, Vera Neumann and her husband, George Neumann, set up a silkscreen on the kitchen table of their Manhattan studio apartment and started printing napkins and placemats based on Vera’s original artwork, complete with her signature on the bottom-right corner. What began as a small home-based operation soon flourished into a booming business — with three showrooms in Manhattan and a 24/7 production space on the shores of the Hudson River in Ossining, New York — and one of the most beloved labels of the 20th century. Vera Neumann’s lively, color-saturated designs became ubiquitous in the homes and wardrobes of the masses across the United States and abroad.
“I’m an artist who prefers to paint things for people rather than for walls,” Neumann explained in a 1971 marketing brochure. “So I turn my paintings into things people wear or use. Scarves, blouses, sportswear, fashions for the home.” Growing up in an art-filled environment, Neumann earned a degree in fine art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, followed by studies at Traphagen School of Design in New York City, where her eyes opened to the possibilities of combining fine and commercial arts. She believed that everyone deserves access to good art and design, not just the wealthy. Her cheerful, inventive prints and patterns elevated everyday objects into art, bursting with vivid hues and motifs inspired by nature and her extensive global travels.
The Museum of Arts and Design’s exhibition Vera Paints a Scarf examines the breadth and impact of Neumann’s career, featuring more than 200 objects, including paintings, scarves, dishes, table linens, press clippings, videos, and marketing ephemera. Though a trailblazer in many ways — as an originator of the American lifestyle brand, an innovator of cross-licensing, and a marketing whiz — one signature product has become synonymous with Neumann’s legacy: scarves. And, it’s a selection of these modern swathes of fabric that pulse at the heart of the show, showing off Neumann’s playful palette and inventive brushwork with bright florals, abstract patterns, and novelty prints. To pay homage, I wore a vintage Vera Neumann scarf from my small collection: a cotton navy-blue number edged with bright stripes. I spotted the same scarf in a slightly different color scheme, called Rainbow Stripe (1977), hanging in the show. As I picked up a reprint of a 1968 pamphlet titled 14 Ways to Tie a Scarf That’s a Painting That’s Actually a Scarf to take home as a souvenir, another woman wearing a mod scarf made eye contact with me. We exchanged a knowing nod; we were members of an unofficial vintage Vera Neumann fan club.
After World War II, fabric shortages led Neumann to experiment with surplus army silk parachute fabric, from which she made her early scarf collections. As wartime technological innovations spread to the textile industry, her scarves were produced in the newest materials of the day, including polyester, acetate, nylon, and rayon-silk blends. “I spent half my life painting scarves,” Neumann said. Each one bore her signature and, often, her iconic vermillion ladybug. By 1972, Vera scarves sold in more than 20,000 stores worldwide. Even as the company grew, Neumann remained closely involved in the production process, creating the art and approving every final design — all while ensuring the prices stayed accessible. (At a time when other designers sold scarves for $25, a Neumann scarf cost $2–$10; even today, vintage Vera Neumann can be found on sites like Poshmark and Etsy with reasonable price tags.)
Taken together in this show, Neumann’s collection and vision to make functional, wearable art readily available to everyone, comes full circle. Her scarves bearing reproductions of her original artwork hang in an art museum, once again blurring cultural distinctions between art, design, and practical everyday objects. The joyful color splashed across the gallery walls is pure sunshine. In the same way that reading a good book can spark the desire to grab a pencil and start scrawling, this show had me ready to run home grasp a paintbrush in each hand, just as Neumann herself does in a photograph, and paint a more colorful world.
Vera Paints a Scarf continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan) through January 26.
Art Problems: How Do I Get a Public Art Commission?
Want to leave a mark on your city or town, but don’t know where to start? Paddy Johnson has some tips.
Rose B. Simpson Embeds Ancestral Histories in Clay
She has taken clay and used it to recall its ancestral roots in Pueblo culture and address the present history of postcolonial recovery and ongoing trauma.
Mondays at Pratt Institute: Weekly Openings of Work by Graduating Artists
Free and open to the public, Pratt Shows celebrate the school’s graduating students. MFA and BFA work on view this spring in Brooklyn, New York.
Quiet Paintings at a Time of Sensory Overload
Where Kim Mikyung’s process suggests an obsessive burrowing into the self, Kim Hyung-dae casts his gaze upward and outward into the sky.
Is the “Free the Nipple” Movement Too White?
Online representations of the activists lean White and thin, creating an image problem for the movement.
LSU School of Art Grants Highest MFA Stipends in the Southern US
With funded assistantships, full tuition waivers, and generous stipends, Louisiana State University helps students lay the groundwork for a successful lifelong art practice.
New “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign Misses the Mark
The recently unveiled design is meant to live alongside the iconic original and specifically address the city, but New Yorkers are not happy.
1,000+ Objects at The Met Linked to Antiquities Smugglers
A report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed hundreds of works once owned by people accused of or convicted of antiquities crimes.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Offers Summer Art and Design Courses Online and On-Campus
Emerging and established artists can choose from over 50 Adult Continuing Education courses at one of the most influential art and design schools in the US.
Lunar Bead Necklace and Asteroid “Emoji” Head to Auction
Christie’s bizarre sale features other space rocks propped up on stands like sculptures.
Scientists Create the First Full Brain Map of a Fly
The achievement is a giant step toward understanding human neural networks.
IDSVA Offers a Non-Studio PhD in Visual Arts: Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory
With no campus, the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts is a truly nomadic institution, existing everywhere our students and faculty are.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Closes Over Climate Protest
The institution shuttered in advance of an action planned for the 33rd anniversary of its infamous art heist.
Remembering the Migrants Who Died in US Detention
Artist Jackie Amézquita will lead a caravan of trucks with the names of the deceased to LA sites representing systems of oppression and solidarity for immigrants.