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.
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