Judith Leiber – Master of Craft, Glamour – and Grit

Judith Leiber at the Museum of Arts & Design, April 5, 2017

When you hear the name Judith Leiber, you immediately think of glamour, of red carpets, of those fantastic sparkling little handbags…  But you don’t necessarily think about her life before she became renowned for her minaudières – and what a life it was, as revealed in the new exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Design, Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story.

Born in 1921 into a wealthy family in Budapest, Judith Peto was sent at age 17 to England for her college studies, since Jews were not allowed to study in Hungarian universities.  But when WWII broke out, she returned to Hungary and went to work in a handbag manufacturer. Her father was sent to a labor camp;  some months later Judith was able to get a  Swiss pass that secured his release, and allowed Judith, her sister and her parents move into a Swiss controlled apartment – with over 20 other people. They were later forced to move to a Jewish ghetto, and then to the basement of their original apartment building, where they lived with 60 other people.   Judith began making handbags, and selling them to Americans. 

In 1945 Judith met Gerson “Gus” Leiber, an American GI; they married in 1946 and came to New York City.  Judith had a succession of jobs at different handbag companies, but they had an assembly-line approach to manufacturing, whereas Judith had learned to create a bag from start to finish – as if it were fine jewelry. 

Judith’s craftsmanship and creativity set her apart. Her first brush with fame came in 1953, when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower carried a handbag that Leiber had made (for the Nettie Rosenstein label) to the Presidential inauguration.  It wasn’t until 1966, however, that Judith Leiber opened her eponymous firm, with Gus.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Against one wall is a timeline of seminal events, both in the designer’s life and in the world, providing a context for a career that pushed against some outstanding odds:  not only the war, but also the difficulty for immigrants and women to be taken seriously, whether as designers or businesswomen.  Judith Leiber’s story is exceptionally relevant for our times.  You’ll find cases along the walls with photos and documents from her years in Hungary.

Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova-inspired rhinestone-encrusted minaudière, Judith Leiber, 1990

Judith Leiber drew inspiration from myriad sources:  Japanese woodblock prints, Chinese iconography, the work of geometric abstractionists including Sonia Delaunay and Piet Mondrian… and her husband Gus’ paintings.  Even fruits and vegetables were transformed into rhinestone marvels in her hands. As you go through the exhibit, you also realize what a pioneer Leiber was in her use of materials, working not only with leather but also exotic skins, seashells, Japanese obis and fabrics from Iran and Africa.  While her bags are highly decorated, there is no excess in her designs, rather they are an incredible balance of form and color.  Below are some of her creations on display (it was really, really hard to narrow down the selection):

Sonia Delaunay-inspired multi-skin envelope, Judith Leiber, 2000

Leiber’s love of art has found its way into many of her designs, such as this multi-skin envelope inspired by the work of Sonia Delaunay.

Embroidered camel karung envelope, Judith Leiber, 1980

In addition to using leather, Leiber also employed exotic skins such as python, alligator, karung, ostrich and even mink!

Original chatelaine bag with crystal rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 1967

Lieber’s fame grew with the creation of the minaudière – a small, crystal-decorated bag, usually carried in the hand – that became a staple of red-carpet events.  Above is the first minaudière that she created, and it is a testament to her resourcefulness; the factory had shipped damaged gold-plated brass frames, and rather than discard them, she covered the discolored areas with crystal rhinestones.

Fish minaudière with rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 1978

Leiber also drew inspiration from nature:  the show contains wonderful examples of the bags she fashioned in the shapes of birds, flowers, fruits and vegetables.  This fish is one of my favorites (but there are so many!!)  All of the bags rest on mirrored surfaces, which allows you to see their undersides, too.

Rhinestone-encrusted minaudière after Faith Ringgold’s “Street Story Quilt,” Judith Leiber, 1987

Leiber collaborated with Faith Ringgold to create a collection of bags inspired by the artist’s quilts – the one above was inspired by Ringgold’s Street Story Quilt  (the exhibition contains Ringgold’s The Purple Quilt and a bag it inspired).

Wax model for lion minaudière by Lawrence Kallenberg 1974

Manufacturing minaudières is a complex process, involving several people.  For many years the New York based artist Lawrence Kallenberg created the wax models that were used to make the molds and then the cast-metal shells for Leiber’s sparkling clutches.

Peacock minaudière with rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 2004

In 2004, having designed 3,500 bags over 65 years, Judith Leiber retired – the peacock bag above is the last one she created.  Not only has she left a legacy of unparalleled artistry, beauty and craftsmanship, but at age 96, she can look back on a life that is testament to grit, resourcefulness in the pursuit of passion.  (The picture at the top was taken at the opening of the exhibit earlier this month).

You can find more of Judith Leiber’s handbags, as well as her husband Gus’ paintings in their museum in the Hamptons.

The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) is running panel discussions and workshops around this exhibit.

Be sure to get to MAD before the show closes on August 6th – you’ll want to go back more than once!

Weendu – Bringing African Artists and Artisans to New York

WEENDU closed it’s New York showroom in late March, 2017.  However, you can still contact them through their website.

I recently spoke with Lydie Diakhate, who runs the New York showroom  Weendu featuring handmade furniture, accessories and art made by artists from Africa and the African diaspora.

Clarisee Djionne and Lydie Diakhate of Weendu

Liz:  How long has this showroom been open?

Lydie:  Since June last year, not quite one year. 

Liz:  What’s your biggest challenge so far?

Lydie:  It takes time, and you have to take the time.

Liz: That’s true especially in a city like NY where you’re constantly competing against other people…

Lydie:  All the time; you really have to find your network, your path, your space… especially for us because we are very specific and unusual – we are not about mass production.  As you know, everything is hand-made, so the production is completely different.  It’s really a specific market and it takes time to find the right people, the way to build your image, your network, your relations.  This is new – it’s really the first company like this in New York.  Our desire is to have a long-term presence and to grow. 

Liz: Tell me how Weendu was started.

Lydie:  It began with Clarisse Djionne, she’s the owner and founder.  She works with private designers from Africa, and she’s involved in the arts – she had a wonderful gallery in Dakar for a few years so this is really her field.  As an interior designer, as a collector, she’s very involved and very dynamic.  Her dream has always been to have a place here in New York because the U.S. is an amazing market, it’s the place to be, so many things are happening, and what is new and avant-garde is happening here, too. 

It’s changing in Africa, slowly; now there are beautiful designers in every country in Africa, but we are missing the visibility and the infrastructure to be able to diffuse the work. But the market is growing, it’s very competitive, and African designers are very well trained.  Contemporary design in Africa started in the ’90‘s, first in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, because of the CSAO, which is a huge market that takes place every two years, with artisans from all across Africa in all fields – food, furniture, baskets – everything. There was a lot of passion and enthusiasm for contemporary design, so they started a salon (show) for it.

At the Dakar Biennale they started to show contemporary design.  In St. Etienne, France, which is a very important place for contemporary design, they hosted various African designers for two years.  So African designers were becoming more and more visible, they had increased access to training, as well as more opportunities to interact with other designers – this is very important.  So now we have competitive designers with amazing skills, and their work is at the same level as other contemporary designers from around the world. 

That’s really what we want to show here in the United States, those designers who are at the same level as the others.  We want them to be seen as contemporary designers, first.  Then that they are living in Africa, using African materials, getting their inspiration from Africa, but they are contemporary. 

Painting by Senegalese artist Camara Guyeye


Liz:  How do you find your designers – is it at the salons, or people you know…

Lydie:  Clarisse knows the designers from her work as an interior designer.  When I met Clarisse, she had already selected work by several of the artisans. I’ve been a journalist for a long time, so I already knew these brands when I met Clarisse, which made it very interesting and easy, because we agreed on the selection of works to showcase, I really loved the work of the designers, and I knew them. 

Liz:  How did you meet Clarisse?

Lydie: Through Diagne Chanel, a Senegalese artist, who put us in touch with each other.  It was interesting, as Clarisse and I had been in the same world for many years, and I used to go to her gallery in Dakar, but we never met. We finally did meet in Senegal, and then she came to New York to open the showroom.  She was looking for someone living here in the U.S.; I was very enthusiastic about the idea – that’s how it happened!  We showed at the ICFF (International Contemporary Fine Furniture Show in NYC) in May, that was really the first step for Weendu.  We’ll do the ICFF in New York again in May this year.

Liz:  Will you be doing other fairs?

Lydie:  Yes, we went to Miami in October, but because of Hurricane Matthew they shut down the city for two days, so the show was up for only a few hours – it was so sad. But for those few hours we met wonderful people, we had good conversations… I think that Miami is a great place, for design

Liz:  You also showed at Wanted Design in Industry City in Brooklyn in December.

Lydie:  Industry City is a really interesting concept, you have all these different businesses:  bakeries, chocolate, designers, marketing firms, it’s all very creative, the spaces are amazing.  Wanted Design is an interesting concept, they’re doing a great job, I hope we can work with them again.

Liz:  Who is your target audience: is it designers or individuals looking to furnish their homes?

Lydie:  The people we try firstly to reach are interior designers, architects, upholsterers, concept stores…

Liz:  Tell me about some of your designers.

Lydie:  We have metal furniture by Hamed Ouattara whose studio is in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Armoire by Hamed Ouattara


Tekura, based in Ghana, makes wood furniture

Table by Tekura


in fashion – the artist Marielle Plaisir has a new brand where she’s using some of her paintings on clutch handbags and scarves

Clutch by Marielle Plaisir


Fatyly makes tableware – she’s Senegalese, studied at Central St. Martins in London, and is now working with a company based in Limoges, France.  It’s all high quality (gold trim), hand-made, with a very traditional aesthetic from West Africa: it’s very specific – the big earrings, the hairstyles, the dark lips – she uses this image and makes it very contemporary.  She has also been working with ceramicists in Africa for many years.

Plate by Fatyly


Liz: Are you looking at the diaspora as well as the Continent?

Lydie: All the connections…   Marielle Plaisir is from Guadeloupe and  lives in Miami – she uses fairy tale images in her paintings to tell a story.  She’s interested in the different identities on an island.

Painting by Marielle Plaisir


Liz:  This brings me to my last question, about you.  I met you several years ago when you were showing a  film about Bamako, Mali, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  – now you’re running Weendu New York.  Tell me about your trajectory.

Lydie:  It’s the same for me, it’s art.  I just finished a documentary about the African-American sculptor Melvin Edwards, who works with iron and steel – his work is just beautiful.  I would like to continue to do films about art

Liz:  You also founded a documentary film festival in Accra, Ghana.

Lydie:  Yes, I lived in Accra for 2 years, and the festival ran for 6 years.  But you know when you live abroad it’s not always that easy, so I stopped.

My desire has always been to showcase contemporary African art, so I wrote, organized film festivals and conferences, all with a focus on contemporary African art, to show people that Africa is contemporary. 

Liz:  I think the word is getting out.  Here in NY you have the African Film Festival; in May, 1:54 the Contemporary African Art Fair is coming back for a third year; African musicians are featured at the summer festivals here and throughout the year in various venues, there’s Afropop  Also since the late ’80’s the West African community in New York has been growing.

Lydie:  You see how things are changing:  now, lots of people, galleries and collectors from around the world, and major museums are coming to the Dakar Biennale to see African art. In every country in Africa there is something going on in film, in art, in music.

Hopefully people in the art field in Africa will be able to build a new market and be in a better position to put Africa on the art scene.   

That’s why we’re here, we’d like to be able to help the artists from Africa to have a home here;  to support them, to distribute their work so they’re more visible.  But it takes time…

Liz:  I think in New York is that it takes persistence – you just have to keep on going out, meeting people, going to the shows, going to the events, and what makes it harder is that people come and go…  You finally connect with someone and six months later they’re off to London or Bamako or wherever their next journey is ….

Lydie:  Yes, and that’s hard sometimes to explain that to people who don’t live here… nothing is fixed, everything is moving… one week a store closes, a new one opens, then a building is torn down, a new one replaces it…

For me this is a beautiful challenge – I can bring together everything I like – I’m very happy to be able to work with these beautiful artists, but it’s a challenge.. they’re not well known, most have never had an exhibit in the U.S.

Liz:  And you’re competing with people from all over the world, so that makes it harder.

Lydie:  That’s what I like about New York.  When I first came here, I was surprised by all the different languages, the different cultures, and this is just really wonderful. So for me it’s been very easy to adjust to New York.  You don’t ever feel like a foreigner. 

Weendu Design  is located at 195 Chrystie Street, and is open to the public.  You can find more information on their website  

MAD arts and design

Pyramid, by Studio Job

Pyramid, by Studio Job

I confess I don’t quite know what to make of the new exhibit Studio Job MAD HOUSE  at the Museum of Arts and Design. This is the first American solo museum exhibition Studio Job, the Antwerp-based duo of Job Smeets (Belgian) and Nynke Tyagel (Dutch).

Their work –  opulent sculptures, art objects and furniture –  employs traditional crafts such as gilding, bronze casting, and faience, and is deliberately provocative and unconventional.  You will find tables, clocks, candlestick holders, teapots and such, but not too much that is actually usable, as their pieces tend to be oversized and clearly decorative. Many incorporate the theme of destruction – sinking ships, bombings, and train crashes – but the references to historical events can sometimes feel a bit forced.   I would say the best way to approach this exhibit is to be open to the humor and social commentary, while appreciating the craftsmanship.

Standouts for me include the Pyramid, a charming reinterpretation of the outsized 17th century delftware flower pyramids.  Composed of a number of stacked elements such as a pipe, a coffee pot, and an office building, as well as gilt steam clouds, it is topped with a tea kettle that seemingly defies gravity.   

Your eye will be caught by the 12-foot clock and lamp of King Kong attacking the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) which the duo have placed atop the ancient city of Petra. While clearly referencing the classic film, the wall label informs us that this piece is  also “a commentary on monuments as fleeting symbols of power…”

There’s a marquetry screen, inspired by Bavarian painted furniture, that delights the eye with bucolic images of trees, birds and farm animals … until you see the axe… 

Bench, Studio Job

Bench, Studio Job

Elsewhere in the exhibit you’ll find a wonderful wooden bench whose back extends into a wing-like triptych with drawings of skeletons of real and imagined extinct animals, a kind of momento-mori theme as found in 17th century Dutch paintings.  Also in this vein is Persian, a thoroughly delightful hand-woven rug whose colors and composition evoke those of Persian rugs.  But look a little closer, and you’ll see those motifs consist of animal and dinosaur skeletons.  The Wrecking Ball lamp that sits on the rug is great, too (think miniature solid bronze bulldozer with a light for the wrecking ball)! Speaking of lamps, the Tour Eiffel – basically a bronze miniature Eiffel Tower whose top curves like a lamp neck is worth a stop.

Detail "Symphony" hand knotted rug made by Nadus. Studio Job exhibit.

Detail “Symphony” hand knotted rug made by Nadus. Studio Job exhibit.

To go back to rugs, the exhibit also contains a charming hand-made rug entitled Symphony, which is decorated with orchestral instruments – the colors and design give it a joyful, playful feel.

Visit Pinocchio, a bronze interpretation of the fabled puppet – here his nose is a saucepan handle!

If your house is like the Addams Family’s, and you need wall sconces, look no further than Candle Man, an oversized stylized cartoony bronze torso holding two candles, and check out the Train Crash table in front of it (this piece was unveiled when the duo announced the end of their romantic partnership). 

Even though it’s really kitchy, I liked the Safe which can only be opened by turning the nose on the clown’s head that sits on top of it.

Overall, I found myself smiling when I left – I think you will too.  The exhibit runs through August 21st. 

Swag Swag Krew by Ebony G. Patterson

Swag Swag Krew by Ebony G. Patterson

If you get to the museum before April 3rd, stop by Ebony G. Patterson’s show, Dead Treez – don’t let the name put you off.  Through an imaginative combination of textiles plus ready-made, embroidered and crocheted objects, she has created elaborate depictions of murder victims that are statements about masculinity and socioeconomic status as expressed in the dance halls of her native Jamaica. Her use of adornment and mix of fabrics demand that you stop and take a closer look.  The life-size figural tableau of ten male mannequins is especially arresting. On the second floor she continues these themes with an amazing installation of poisonous plants  and selected pieces of the museum’s jewelry collection. 

More images of both these shows are on my Instagram feed.

Check out the Museum’s website for information about their other exhibits and programs.

Design in Action

Model for UK Pavilion at 2010 World Expo, by Heatherwick Studios

Model for UK Pavilion at 2010 World Expo, by Heatherwick Studios

If you want to to see how design and real life intersect, get up to the Cooper-Hewitt to see “Provocations, the Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio”   Through photographs, models, drawings you see how the studio of UK architect Thomas Heatherwick has responded to some real-life challenges, such as designing the UK pavilion for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai – and you’ll also get insight into the thought process, which originates in a “provocation” or question the studio asks itself.  In the case of the UK’s pavilion, the provocation arose over 10 years earlier, when, designing temporary garden structures for the grounds of Belsay Hall, the studio asked itself how could it build a structure out of the architectural equivalent of matches!  You’ll get to see the model for the sitooteries they created out of plywood and steel for Belsay Hall in1999. Then go look at the model for the World Expo Pavilion to see how they expanded that theme.

Model for a Rolling Bridge Over the Thames by Heatherwick Studios

Model for a Rolling Bridge Over the Thames by Heatherwick Studios

I especially enjoyed the model for a Rolling Bridge across the Thames.  Based on an actual bridge near London’s Paddington Station that the studio designed, when high ships pass under it, the bridge opens and folds in on itself like a snail.  I was lucky to be at the exhibit when they used the model to demonstrate how this works – it’s really fun to see.  Check the Cooper-Hewitt website   for demonstration times.  In addition to these larger projects, Heatherwick has also designed stores, news stands, furniture and handbags.  They are currently re-designing London’s double-decker bus (in the exhibit)!   Heatherwick Studio has taken on projects around the globe, including the Learning Hub at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, and Pier 55 on the Hudson River in NYC.

Model Staircase, 18th cent. France

Model Staircase, 18th cent. France

Be sure to stop on the second floor, to look at the 18th and 19th century architectural models, especially the staircases in the style of the French compagnonnage movement, whose grace and precision are testament to the talents of the woodworking masters who made them.



Adire wrapper, Nigeria

Adire wrapper, Nigeria

On the first floor, great memories of my trips to Mali and Ghana were triggered by the exhibit of African textiles from the museum’s permanent collection, chosen by the architect David Adjaye. It will come as no surprise that many of the textiles he chose have strong geometric elements. In addition to prestige Kente cloth, you’ll also find adire (indigo and white) cloth

from Nigeria and Gambia – each made with a different technique, as well as an adinkra (symbol-language) wrapper from Ghana, hand woven cottons from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, cut-thread and mud cloths from Nigeria and Mali.  Make sure to take a look at the men’s hats in the room’s niches, which are also part of the exhibit.

On your visit, take advantage of The Pen  – as you go through the galleries, you can touch it to a label about an item, and the information on the item is sent to a unique website, where you can view your “collection” at your leisure;  or you can use the pen’s tip to draw on the interactive tables in the museum.  It’s really, really cool.

Looking for Something to Do?

New York City certainly doesn’t lack for world-renowned cultural institutions, so I’d like to give a shout out to some that may be lesser-known, but equally worthy of a visit.  I’ll update this post as I visit venues, so be sure to check back.

If you’re over by Lincoln Center – one of the great performing arts centers anywhere – stop in at the  American Museum of Folk Art    on Columbus and 65th.  This gem of a space houses very comprehensive exhibits focusing on self-taught artists,  often encompassing a wide variety of media.  Even though the space is small, you will come away with real insight and knowledge.  The museum has the added virtue of being free, but if it weren’t it would be worth paying for.

Over at Columbus Circle is the Museum of Art and Design, a multi-story facility of changing exhibitions on everything from jewelry to paper art to furniture, fashion and textiles from the US and abroad.  The museum also houses artists studios, which are often open to the public.  You also might want to check out their lectures, movies and performances.

If design is what captivates you, then be sure to head uptown to the newly re-opened Cooper Hewitt – Smithsonian Museum of Design on Fifth Avenue at 91st Street.  Housed in the former Carnegie Mansion, the museum has incorporated technology in it’s redesign, including a pen to let visitors make their own designs.