NEW YORK — Judith Leiber is best known for her tiny, glitzy and irresistibly playful crystal-encrusted clutches shaped like fish, dogs, lemons, watermelon slices and even sparkling eggplants. Her bags have been flaunted by celebrities and many First Ladies since Mamie Eisenhower.
But there’s way more to Leiber’s story — and to her elegant handbags — than meets the eye, a new exhibit shows.
“Judith Leiber: Crafting a Story,” on view at the Museum of Arts and Design through Aug. 4, explores Leiber’s life and wide-ranging craftsmanship. Through almost a hundred bags, as well as wax models, letters, photographs and other items, it reveals a little-known side of the designer and businesswoman who, at heart, remained an Old World craftswoman with vast creativity and range.
The show encompasses works made soon after the founding of Leiber’s company in 1963, when Leiber was 42, to 2004, when she designed her last handbag. She’s now 96 and living in East Hampton, New York.
The show includes many pieces from her personal collection.
Leiber’s meticulous craftsmanship and exuberant taste for innovation — often accompanied by touches of humor or a wink to her husband’s passion for gardening — set her work apart from other European and American handbag designers of the 20th century, said exhibition curator Samantha De Tillio.
“But beyond her handbags, her personal story is what speaks to so many,” she said.
The backbone of the exhibit is a detailed timeline of Leiber’s life. Born in Budapest in 1921, Leiber (originally Peto) studied chemistry at King’s College in London with hopes of working in the cosmetics industry. But with the outbreak of World War II, she stuck close to home, joining the prestigious Hungarian handbag company Pessl as an apprentice pattern maker. Despite the threat she and her family faced as Jews in Nazi-allied Hungary, she worked her way up to journeyman and then craftswoman, learning every step of the handbag-making process from design to the finishing touches.
Pessl, which was Jewish-owned, was finally forced to close, and Leiber’s family managed to survive the Holocaust by sequestering themselves in their home and wangling a Swiss “pass” giving them protection from the Nazis.
With the liberation of Budapest, she resumed making handbags, selling her creations directly to employees of the American Legation and the U.S. Army. She met and married Gerson Leiber, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and moved to New York in 1946.
Her deep knowledge of the entire process of handbag-making was unusual in the U.S., where handbags were made using assembly lines, and she quickly found a job as a pattern maker for the Nettie Rosenstein fashion house, where she worked her way up to designer and then foreman.
Her big break came in 1953, when Mamie Eisenhower wore a Leiber-designed handbag to her husband’s inauguration.
Leiber came up with her Swarovski-crystal-encrusted minaudieres in a stroke of inspiration after an order of gold-plated brass frames — she ordered the bodies of the bags from Italy — arrived discolored. Instead of sending the order all the way back to Italy, she covered the discoloration with rhinestones.
Leiber maintained friendships with some of her famous fans, including First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush (a minaudière in the shape of Bush’s dog Millie is featured in the show), opera singer Beverly Sills, and actresses Greta Garbo and Mary Tyler Moore.
Leiber’s handbags now sell for hundreds, often thousands of dollars. Many of the designs reveal her love for the opera and fine art, and reveal the influences of Sonia Delaunay, Piet Mondrian, George Braque, Louis Tiffany and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, among others.
In the 1980s, Leiber collaborated with artist Faith Ringgold, famous for her story quilts (one of which is featured in this show). To help the Guggenheim Museum acquire one of Ringgold’s quilts, Leiber produced small editions of two Ringgold-inspired bags, including “Purple Quilt” (1986) and “Street Story Quilt” (1985).
The Leiber exhibit will not travel beyond New York, but a gallery at The Leiber Collection in East Hampton is open to the public from Memorial Day through Labor Day.