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December 18, 2012

A Tillett Textile Retrospective

By Ingrid Skjong | Exhibitions

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© Irving Penn

Enormously talented yet decidedly private, Leslie and D.D. Tillett, husband-and-wife textile designers, lived a rich life that, until now, few knew much about. “The World of D.D. and Leslie Tillett,” at the Museum of the City of New York through February 3, is a colorful, textural peek into their world—and the first-ever major retrospective of their work.

D.D., a skilled draftsperson (her freehand flowers became one of the couple’s signatures), and Leslie, a descendant of five generations of textile makers, met in Mexico in 1944. Blending their talents, they adopted a wholly independent approach to craftsmanship. “Everything they created showed their unique hand, and their work possessed a vital authenticity that was very rare in their day and is now increasingly sought after,” says Seth Tillett, the couple’s son.

Their artistry knew no bounds, and the exhibit shows as much. A fish motif, done in white on white on a sheer curtain, seems to glow from inside the fabric, while intriguing prints (red and white lines resembling radio waves; undulating plaids; enormous seashells) stand alone or on robes, blazers and men’s shirts. Sketches, scrimshaw jewelry, like a tiny mushroom charm made of whale’s tooth topped with a gold snail, and clothing that D.D. designed for herself round out the collection. (Head to the gift shop for a selection of pieces for sale in honor of the exhibit, including six different silk scarves, two sets of letterpress cards of flower drawings by D.D. and pillows.)

Though favorites of high-profile clients—Jacqueline Kennedy was a friend and a fan—the Tilletts were also active in communities, leading programs like Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, which trained locals in the textile trade. D.D. passed away in 2008, and Leslie in 1992, but throughout their lives the pair remained a singular yet unified force, rooted to their vision in a way all their own.

“Someone once said to my father that [he and D.D.] were the Rolls-Royce of textile makers,” says Seth. “He answered that that idea was absurd, because Rolls was a household name. ‘We are the Hispano-Suiza of textile makers,’ he said. ‘The who?’ ‘Exactly,’ he replied.” Through February 3, 2013; 1220 Fifth Ave.; 212-534-1672; mcny.org.

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