Do you know who Vera Neumann was? Perhaps your mother or grandmother owned a Vera scarf? Or maybe you bought some Vera dish towels from Crate & Barrel or a Vera scarf from Target not too long ago? She’s an absolute legend in the world of textile design and her Printex printing plant was located right here in Ossining, at 34 State Street.
So settle in, tie a brightly hued scarf around your neck, and read on . . .
Born in 1907 in Stamford, CT, Vera was creative from the time she could hold a pencil. The story goes that her father nurtured her talent by taking her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every Sunday as well as hiring a sign painter to give her drawing lessons. Vera went on to study at the Cooper Union and started out as a fashion illustrator and freelance painter of murals for children’s rooms. (Wouldn’t THAT have been a thing to grow up with on your wall!)
She married her husband George Neumann in the 1940s and they became the power couple of textile design. With her limitless imagination and his business acumen, they built a wildly successful and long-lived company. Their first commission was placements for the B. Altman department store, with Vera screen printing the entire run on her dining room table. After that, it was a race to keep up with demand.
The post-WWII world complicated matters, and it became difficult to source fabrics. An oft-repeated story is that Vera came across a stash of silk parachutes in an army surplus store and began screen printing her whimsical, colorful, ever-changing designs on silk and so created her iconic line of scarves.
Outgrowing one studio after another, Vera and George settled in Ossining, buying the former Smith-Robinson House at 34 State Street and fitting it out for their Printex plant. (An 1810 Georgian mansion, it’s still standing today, barely, and is one of the few remaining buildings in Ossining built with prisoner-quarried Sing Sing marble.)
With their living space and office right next to the plant, Vera’s reputation and creativity thrived.
Look at that shiny wood floor! And that fireplace!
How fabulous was this? River views and no commute? Wood floors and fireplaces? And just look at the Georgian decoration around those doorways! I wonder if any of it survives today?
The Printex company employed many Ossiningtonians. Dr. George Hill, their neighbor at 30 State Street, provided medical services to Printex employees. He also helped connect young people with jobs there. Local artist Donna Chambers was one of them, and the training and inspiration she received no doubt helped inspire her to become a professional artist who creates remarkable quilts and jewelry today.
And here’s just a tiny selection of Vera designs, from a 2015 exhibit at the Alexander Gray Gallery in New York:
If we were going to play six degrees of Vera Neumann, we can connect to President Harry S Truman and First Lady Bess Truman, who chose Vera’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit design (below) for the upholstery in the White House solarium.
We can also connect to Marilyn Monroe. who famously wore nothing but a Vera in her last photo shoot (with photographer Bert Stern.) I’d love to post a Marilyn photo here, but I can’t afford the rights, so here’s a link to a photo instead.
But one of the most admirable things, I think, about Vera Neumann is that she kept her price point low enough so anyone could own a Vera. While other designers charged upwards of $25 a scarf, Vera’s averaged from $2 – 10. (Remember inflation! $25 in the 1960s is about $250 today.) “I don’t believe only the wealthy deserve good design,” she said and meant it. And her inexhaustible creativity meant that the market was never saturated with the same thing, so even these “cheaper” scarves were unique and special.
In the 1950s, as their family grew, George and Vera decided to build their dream house, reaching out to the leading architect of the day, Marcel Breuer. On their plot of land at the top of Finney Farm Road in Croton, with magnificent views of the Hudson and beyond, Breuer’s modernist design is a triumph. Still standing, and recently restored, it was on the market in 2020 for $4.2 million. Take a look here and here.
Vera and George travelled widely and collected art – Alexander Calder (who briefly lived in Croton as a child) was a close friend, and the Neumann lawn was decorated with a large Calder sculpture, a gift from the artist.
In the 1960s, the company branched out into clothing and home textiles, and sales skyrocketed. Here are a few outfits I plucked off Ebay/Pinterest:
And here are some home goods items:
Ooh, I’ll take one of each please!
Sadly George died in 1960 and Vera sold Printex in 1967, though she remained active as a designer and board member for decades.
She lived in her beautiful home with her dachsunds and cats, swimming daily in her indoor pool until 1981, when she moved in with her daughter in Ossining.
Vera Neumann died in 1993, designing to the end. An artist, a trendsetter, a savvy businesswoman, hers was certainly a life well-lived who brought joy to everyone who saw her designs. Check out more of her work here.