NEW YORK – Prints of fabrics created by Tillett Textiles and designers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in the late 1960s are now being reissued, the New York Times reported, noting that the fabrics were favorites of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“The party that introduced the Design Works of Bedford-Stuyvesant textile collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 1971 drew quite a crowd,” the Times reported, noting that Ethel Kennedy, Babe Paley, Diana Vreeland, and Bunny Mellon attended but “the guest who got the most attention that evening as guests perused the array of textiles featuring African motifs in bold colorways was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.”
Hermine Mariaux, 87, the homes editor for House and Garden at the time, attended the gala and told the Times, “It was a very glamorous evening. It was the very first party like that held at The Met. Prior to then, the museum never would have engaged in commercial activities, but they agreed to it, because Design Works of Bedford-Stuyvesant was important to Jackie.”
“The collection was an initiative of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the first community development corporation to be established in the United States,” the Times reported, adding that “the result of legislation championed by Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1966, the corporation sought to stimulate the local economy of the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant by instituting programs for employment, education, health care and development.”
“In 1969, inspired by her brother-in-law’s efforts, Mrs. Onassis created Design Works to help amplify the talents of artists living in Bedford-Stuyvesant,” the Times reported, noting that “she asked her friends, D.D. and Leslie Tillett, the husband-and-wife design team behind Tillett Textiles, to collaborate.”
“The couple’s vivid, large-scale, screen-printed fabrics- created by hand in their small Manhattan-based printing operation- were favored by top designers and influential figures, including Mrs. Onassis, who used the textiles for upholstery and draperies in the living quarters of the White House,” the Times reported, adding that “the Tilletts had invested in communities outside the United States, said their grandson Patrick McBride, 48, who now owns and operates Tillett Textiles; Leslie died in 1992, D.D. in 2008.”
“They taught printing and design techniques to South Korean producers of raw silk and helped bring their products to the U.S., and consulted with emerging businesses in China, Lesotho, and Peru,” the Times reported.
“Jackie suggested to my grandparents that they turn their attention to helping groups in hard-hit areas of this country and they loved the idea,” McBride told the Times, “They were very enthusiastic about inspiring talent and design in Bedford-Stuyvesant and to teaching members of the community their intensive hand production processes.”
“The etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige and Ted Kennedy’s secretary were among those solicited to fund Design Works of Bedford-Stuyvesant, according to documents in Mrs. Onassis’ personal correspondence cataloged at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston,” the Times reported, noting that “the Tilletts signed on as advisers for a $1 fee” and “the idea was that the couple would teach their signature techniques for silk-screen design and printing to young people in Bedford-Stuyvesant who would go on to produce hand-printed fabrics for the design trade on their own.”
The Tilletts “did outreach to find residents who were interested in learning the craft,” the Times reported, adding that “Carlos Ortiz was 22 and about to graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology when a professor introduced him to Leslie Tillett.”
“He went on to be a great mentor to me,” said Ortiz, now 72, who was with Design Works from its start and soon became its chief colorist, the Times reported, “Leslie told me: ʻYou will learn how to do it all. And he followed through. They taught me everything from design to mixing colors and pigment to printing.”’
“The fabrics created by Design Works of Bedford-Stuyvesant were designed by members of the community, led by first Calister Thomas and then Sherl Nero (both now deceased), and drawn from African history,” McBride told the Times, adding that “the colors were incredibly saturated.”
“In the 1970s, his grandparents extended operations to Sheffield, MA, where they are now headquartered,” the Times reported, noting that “the library there contains more than 900 patterns designed by the Tilletts dating back to the 1940s, including several created in collaboration with Design Works.”
McBride told the Times, “There are a lot of stories in those hundreds of patterns. I felt like the Design Works story was one that needed to be told.”
McBride is telling the story now by reintroducing the fabrics from the collaboration of Tillett and Design Works, “with a portion of the profits to be donated to the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club,” the Times reported, adding that “four patterns in three colorways have recently become available to the trade,” and “tote bags, throw pillows and face masks in the patterns may be ordered through the company Instagram account.”
“Mrs. Onassis incorporated Design Works fabrics into the Fifth Avenue apartment she shared with her husband, Aristotle,” the Times reported, adding that “the rooms were featured in the November 1971 issue of House Beautiful” and “in a photo of the library, the sofa is upholstered in Fish Head Plaid, an abstract of crisscross floral and polka dot motifs that strikes a whimsical note among the French antiques, a rare needlepoint rug and 19th century volumes in the floor-to-ceiling bookcases.”