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Wild Thing

A new exhibition reveals artist Vera Neumann as a brilliant entrepreneur with a keen eye for nature, travel, and marketing.

Photo: Vera Neumann/Courtesy of Susan Seid
Photo: Vera Neumann/Courtesy of Susan Seid

What do Vera Neumann (1907–1993), an artist who turned her work into a textile and lifestyle empire, and Marilyn Monroe, the most iconic movie star of all time, have in common? A scarf, it turns out — specifically, a semi-sheer scarf of Neumann’s design that Monroe draped in front of her bare torso in one of Bert Stern’s legendary photographs taken just weeks before her death in 1962. Neumann, born in Stamford, Connecticut, exhibited her artistic flair from the get-go, creating collages of dried ferns collected from her backyard as a child. Later, with her husband George Neumann, whose family emigrated from Hungary in the ’30s, she decided to start a design business. The hand-built silk screen that fit on their dining-room table would ultimately lead to a $100 million design empire including scarves, textiles, and tabletop pieces, all of which are now part of American-design iconography. With each piece, Vera signed only her first name alongside a small painted ladybug. Above, one of her exuberant floral watercolors. The Museum of Arts and Design’s exhibition “Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann” opens August 8 and runs through January 26, 2020.

As Vera and George’s business blossomed and word spread about her artistry, F. Schumacher’s merchandising director, René Carrillo, placed an order for fabric that resulted in a debut collection in 1947. Schumacher’s Vera-glazed cotton chintz “jack-in-the-pulpit” design was ordered for the solarium in the Truman White House. In 1952, Vera and George purchased 3.5 acres of a former apple orchard in Croton-on-Hudson and, being Bauhaus enthusiasts, asked architect Marcel Breuer to design their one-story modernist cinder-block-walled house, the living room of which is seen here. Photo: American Home magazine, by William Maris
Vera and George traveled the world, and her art reflected both the natural world and anything that caught her eye. The wonderful book Vera: The Art and Life of an Icon, by Susan Seid with Jen Renzi (Abrams), is still available on Amazon. Photo: Vera Neumann, watercolor on paper, courtesy of Susan Seid
The Neumanns’ Breuer-designed house included glass walls to allow optimum views of the Hudson River and an indoor-outdoor feeling. The flagstone used on the terrace continued inside for the floor of the living room. The treatment of the wall couch in different-colored fabric for each seat is a delightful touch below a gallery wall filled with modern art. Alexander Calder was one of the Neumanns’ best friends, and he gave them a mobile, Constellation, that they installed outside on the lawn. Photo: American Home magazine, by William Maris
After George’s death from a heart attack in 1962, Vera continued to grow the company with myriad products exhibiting her art. She was always committed to her original premise that every design starts with an art piece, and as lyrical as her joyous floral paintings were, her love of modernism and Bauhaus led her to create rigorous geometric patterns as well. Photo: Courtesy of Susan Seid
The exterior view of the Marcel Breuer house, which faces the Hudson, was elegant and straightforward. Vera was dedicated to the idea that art should be an accessible part of everyone’s life, and the company that bore her name was dedicated to ensuring that possibility. Photo: Courtesy of Susan Seid

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