Born on this day in 1907 in Stamford, Conn., Vera Neumann (née Salaff)—who professionally went by her first name—enjoyed a prolific career as an artist and entrepreneur, creating screen-printed designs that were splashed on scarves, household linens, drapery fabrics, ceramics, and sportswear for nearly 50 years.
Schooled in the East Asian ink-wash technique known as sumi-e, Vera often showcased natural forms in her work, such as ferns and leaves, and harnessed the dazzling colors of places she visited for inspiration, including India, the Far East, Latin America, and North Africa. “I’m a Leo,” she said, “and that makes me a sun person.”
She made frequent visits to The Metropolitan Museum of Art with her father as a child, and claimed her success was due to her early exposure to the beauty of art and nature. After high school she attended Cooper Union and worked as a designer of fabrics and murals in New York City, where she met and married George Neumann. “He was handsome, sophisticated, Viennese, and had superb taste in everything,” she recalled.
In 1942, the couple established a textile company called Printex in their tiny studio apartment, screen-printing linen placemats on their dining table. They and a third partner in the business sold three of the designs to the B. Altman & Co. department store, and Vera’s fledgling label was on its way.
Faced with post-World War II fabric shortages, the designer turned to parachute silk, the catalyst for her scarf business. She signed her finished creations “Vera” and later added an iconic ladybug, which she considered good luck. To meet demand, Printex relocated to an old silk-screening plant in New York’s Hudson Valley, and by 1952 it had become a 24-hour operation. Women across the U.S. sported the scarves, from Marilyn Monroe to Grace Kelly, while First Lady Bess Truman bought a Vera-designed drapery fabric (“Jack-in-the-Pulpit” by Schumacher) for the White House.
Vera and George applied Bauhaus principles to their work, combining handcraft with industrial processes, but every design began with an original painting. From table linens and scarves they branched out into garments and more. A savvy businesswoman as well as an artist, she believed that fine art should be affordable to all.
“We wanted our designs to be as pure as possible,” she told the New York Times. “We used to go into the woods and select leaves, and then simply photograph them flat onto the screen. What we are trying to do is to take what we consider to be pure art and translate it into a garment that will go with anything.” By 1977, the company had total retail sales of more than $100 million.
Vera moved in artistic circles, calling Alexander Calder a close friend and commissioning the great architect Marcel Breuer (of the Museum’s eponymous Met Breuer) to design her home and New York showrooms. She continued working on her signature designs until shortly before her death in 1993.
The Met acquired a group of Vera designs with the historic 2009 transfer of the Brooklyn Museum costume collection to The Costume Institute. Which is fitting; as she told the New York Times, “I put into my work a painter’s idea about what a scarf should look like.” We are pleased to honor her 109th birthday today.
Shop our selected Vera items here.