Vera Neumann — Biography and Comprehensive Online Guide

“People want to feel or express emotions
in their clothes and furnishings.
A bland cocoon is a dull existence.”

Vera Neumann collage of scarves

KateI was quite young when I fell in love with the designs of Vera Neumann. Both my Mother and Nana were huge fans of wearing Vera’s bright and cheerful scarves, sleeping on sheet sets that Vera designed, and putting Vera’s hand towels in the hall bathroom when guests were soon to arrive. My Mom tells me that she and my Nana used to “wait with baited breath” to see what Vera’s next new designs would be. I’ve since inherited several Vera scarves (several, featured in the collage above), sheets and towels that I now treasure, too. Be it her playful use of color, abstractions of nature or bold patterns and shapes, there is just something special about Vera’s work…

Vera Neumann at pottery wheel

Above: Vera Neumann at pottery wheel. Photo used with permission from The Vera Company

Born July 24, 1907, studied at Cooper Union and Traphagen

The newly published book about Vera’s life and work Vera: The Art and Life of an Icon (affiliate link), gives us a peek into the life of young Vera, who showed signs of being an artist at an early age. I’ve just finished reading the book cover to cover. Written by Susan Seid — who now owns The Vera Company as well as the extensive library of Vera’s prints, it is a great resource for information about Vera’s life and work. According to the book:

The third of four children, Vera was born to Russian immigrants Fanny and Meyer Salaff on July 24, 1907, in Stanford, Connecticut. Vera was an outdoorsy child who loved nature: exploring it, collecting it and then rendering it in pen, pencil or ink. She considered herself an artist from a very young age.

Meyer Salaff was an amateur musician who encouraged his children to likewise follow creative endeavors, whatever made them happy. “My brother and sisters and I  were encouraged–nay, urged–to have passionate interests,” said Vera. “Nobody dictated what we were interested in, but we were expected to hang our hopes and dreams on something specific, and to learn all we could about it.” In Vera’s case, he hired a sign painter in his employ to give her art classes and took her to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Every Sunday. He even nurtured her budding skills by paying her 50 cents for every sketchbook she filled with doodles.

Vera knew exactly what she wanted to do after high school: attend art school. She attended the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a progressive institution in New York City known for its strong core art program and its commitment to public education. After graduating in 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression, she enrolled in life-drawing and illustration classes at Manhattan’s famed Traphagen School of Design. It was Traphagen that exposed Vera to the tantalizing possibility of a career that bridged fine and commercial art.

With husband George Neumann, starts Printex

The book continues to explain that it was after Vera married George Neumann that her entrepreneurial side really kicked in. George’s family background was in textiles and with all Vera learned from George, it wasn’t long before the two merged their backgrounds to create the company Printex, which they ran out of their small apartment. Their first projects involved silkscreening placemats on the dining room table and curing them in the oven. With the onset of WWII, materials shortages lead Vera to print her designs on parachute silk, thus beginning her scarf business.

A key Vera tool: The sumi brush

To create her colorful abstract designs, Vera painted with a sumi brush, which is traditionally used with black ink in  East Asian painting. The sumi brush allowed Vera to capture the essence of her subject, whether it be a flower or a ladybug, with a few calculated strokes. The sumi style of painting was perfectly suited to Vera’s style.

The Vera Neumann aesthetic — driven by the demands of mass production melded with Vera’s artistic style

Vera believed that everyone should be able to have access to fine art. To Vera, art was not just for hanging on the wall, it could be worn and used for everyday life. It was this philosophy on which she built her company.

Vera once said,

“People want to feel or express emotions in their clothes and furnishings. A bland cocoon is a dull existence.” From Vera The Art and Life of an Icon

Can’t all of us retro loving folk agree with that statement!

Vera was quite the prolific artist, producing 500 paintings per year when she was at her peak. She is credited as being the first entrepreneur to successfully translate fine art into mass produced textiles, by carefully conceiving her designs while keeping in mind the process used to in their production. Vera learned what effects best translated in to the print medium: bright colors, lines full of movement and simple but dynamic compositions.  She also became the first scarf designer to display a signature — effectively, the launch of “logo apparel” ubiquitous today. Known simply as “Vera” (sometimes accompanied by a tiny lady bug), her art was printed on aprons, napkins, dishware, sheets and just about anything you could imagine.

In a 2009 intervew for a story about Vera in Wmagazine, Wendy Wurtzburger, Anthropologie’s chief merchandising officer, has this to say about Vera’s artistic stamina:

[Vera] had a mission to produce one print per day, and she actually did it. I mean there’s 7,000 prints in the archives, which I think is just staggering. They’re so strong and original, and there are so many people who grew up with her prints—maybe their mother had something, or their parents had those plates.

If you would like a good sampling of Vera’s work, check out her flickr pool with over 1,100 photos of her vintage scarf designs!

More history of Vintage Vera and Vera Neumann

Because of her rising popularity, Vera soon found herself friends with many notable women such as Marilyn Monroe, who posed with a Vera scarf in the last photoshoot she had before her death. There is a famous photo of Marilyn Monroe (affiliate link) posing with a Vera scarf on her last photo shoot. First Lady Bess Truman used Vera-designed fabric to decorate the third-floor solarium windows and upholstery at the White House:

Vera's Jack in the Pulpit print in the Trumann White House

Above: Vera’s jack in the pulpit printed fabric made into curtains in the Truman White House Solarium. Photo used with permission from The Vera Company.

Jack in the pulpit print Vera Neumann

Above: Vera’s jack in the pulpit printed fabric — the print used in the Truman White House Solarium. Photo used with permission from The Vera Company.

Click image to see Life Magazine story

And check out this 1958 LIFE magazine story showing Vera’s wallpaper design, Spice Bottles. Oh my goodness!

According to Wikipedia:

The demand for Vera products and the untimely death of George in 1962 led Vera to sell the business to Manhattan Industries in 1967. Neumann’s company “Vera Licensing” was purchased by Salant Corporation in 1988. She remained head designer, but Printex was closed later that year. She painted until the last months of her life and died of a cardiac arrest at Phelps Memorial Hospital in North Tarrytown, NY on June 15, 1993.[13] After her death, she continued to receive acclaim from museums and exhibits around the country. In 1999, Vera Licensing was sold to The Tog Shop, a catalog company which had licensed sportswear from Vera Licensing. The Tog Shop was put up for sale in 2005 and Susan Seid, then the VP of Merchandising of The Tog Shop, bought “The Vera Company”. the firm’s current name, of which she remains the owner. The Vera Company currently holds eight licenses for its products.

Videos about Vera Neumann

We even found two short(ish) videos about Vera Neumann. These were done by Fred Salaff in 1972 and 1976 — I bet they are fascinating! Pam actually reached out to Fred Salaff and had a great phone conversation. He is Vera’s nephew, and worked for many years with Vera. Watch for a followup story with more memories from Fred Salaff — along with never-before-seen photos of Vera at work.

Where to buy Vintage Vera Neumann designs today

As mentioned above, Susan Seid now owns The Vera Company as well as the extensive library of Vera’s prints. Over the past several years, her company has continued to work with a variety of name brand retailers to introduce authentic Vintage Vera designs into new housewares, fabrics and clothing available new today. It’s so fun to see every spring, summer, winter, fall and holiday what new Vintage Vera pops up in stores.Vera Papillion Dinnerware BB&BAbove: Vera’s Papillion Dream dinnerware, currently being sold at Bed Bath and Beyond.

Today The Vera Company has licensed reproductions of Vera’s work to these sources, and we’re not sure we even caught them all!:

Vera Insalata towel Crate and Barrel

Insalata dish towel, print by Vera from Crate and Barrel

And of course, with so much Vera manufactured from the 1950s and on, you can also find lots to love on ebay and etsy.

More than 8,000 Vera Neumann designs copyrighted — an amazing resource for Vintage Vera designs for years to come!

According to The Vera Company’s website:

The Vera Company owns the extensive library of prints, original artwork, scarves, and the trademarks and copyrights of the late, iconic American artist, Vera Neumann. Vera was a pioneer in design who successfully cross-licensed her designs into linens, scarves and sportswear. Her company began at her kitchen table in 1947 and grew into a multi-million dollar international business. All Vera products started as original pieces of art from her own hand and sported the distinctive Vera signature (often with a ladybug) trademark. After years of being dormant, the beloved Vera brand is back and is experiencing a resurgence among old and new fans alike – for once you know Vera, you adore her.

As the stewards of the brand, we are dedicated to celebrating the life and artwork of Vera and introducing new audiences to her designs.

Vera…the iconic American artist…

  • Exhibited at MOMA
  • Honored by a Smithsonian Retrospective
  •  Archived at Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute
  • Immortalized in the book “Vera: The Art & Life of an Icon”

Vera…the history…

  •  Sold internationally in over 20,000 stores
  • Over 100 million dollars in annual sales in the 1970s
  • Products included scarves, apparel, home linens, dishes, wallpaper and umbrellas

Vera…the legacy…

  • Body of work spans decades – from one brush
  • Over 8,000 designs copyrighted in the Library of Congress
  • Over 20,000 scarves in color variations of the designs
  • Thousands of pieces of art

Fiesta and Vera Table settingAbove: My Mom still loves Vera to this day. When Pam spotted Vera’s Flight of Fancy print being sold at Macy’s,  Mom ordered a tablecloth right away. She loves how it blends with her coordinating Fiestaware. Photo used with permission from Kate’s Mom, Chris.

To this day, my Mom still loves Vera’s designs and still gets excited when she sees a reissued print available in stores. I’m excited too. In a time when so much of what is available to decorate a home seems drab and–dare I say– greige, it is like a breath of fresh air to see Vera’s lively and colorful designs.

Thanks to everyone at the Vera Company who helped with this story. Thank you for keeping Vera’s historic designs alive for all to share!. Link love:

Pam loves Vintage Vera designs and often spotlights them here on the blog — see all our Vera stories here.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for this great history on Vera. I’ve seen the scarfs but had no idea her line was so extensive. I love the bright colors and patterns of the scarfs so much. This past weekend just outside of Phoenix there was an estate sale with tons of them!

  2. Paula says

    Kate, thanks for a great post. I’m old enough to have worn Vera scarves when I was a teenager. They were always so bright and beautiful. Now I learn that she was trying to brighten my existence and she certainly did. Wish I had all those scarves now!

  3. says

    That was extremely thorough! I recognize Vera but did not know to the extent her products permeate mid-century. And it is interesting/cool you can get them. Love the table cloth with the chartreuse and turquoise Fiestaware. Good job Kate’s mom.

      • Chutti says

        I remember the green fern print bedding!

        Yes, I remember Vera all over the place in Mid Century. So much so, that I am guilty of forgetting about her influence.

        I seem to recall “Viva by Vera” paper towels at one point!

        I have a tablecloth, a couple of sets of napkins, and a few scarves. All the ladies in my family loved her stuff. It was so cheerful, how can you not?

  4. Jeff says

    Love all things Vera! Have some tea and dish towels, have a giant beach towel too….It’s good to see a revival in her designs offered at stores today, as they should! Good design is good design…always!

    • John says

      This is about Vera Neumann. She and her husband and business partner George built a house in Croton on Husdon, New York in 1960. They did not live in Palm Springs.

    • John says

      This is about Vera Neumann. She and her husband and business partner George, built a house in Croton on Husdon, New York in 1960. They did not live in Palm Springs.

  5. John says

    I love Vera designs and my mom had quite a few of the scarves as well as sheets and pillowcases in the 1960s and 70s. I still have a full king size set (unused) from the 1970s the pattern is Anemones and they were made in the USA. Also, my neighbor, Norma Martin, was a publicity agent in the 1960s in NYC and in 1964 she booked Vera on two local radio shows to talk about her scarves. This was about three years after Vera’s beloved husband and business partner died and it left Vera feeling very sad and insular. Vera had never been fond of talking on the radio or television and often cancelled such interviews. After George died, it forced her to carry on the business alone and she tried very hard to “live outwardly again” and Norma Martin helped Vera to get past the stage fright and shyness in public speaking. I have a copy of a letter dated August 7, 1964 which Vera sent to Norma thanking Norma for her friendly encouragement on the two radio shows. It is signed by Vera and I treasure having a copy of it.

  6. katrina breeding says

    I have been collecting Vera forever. Most of the scarves for just a vew dollars. I find them at thrift shops, etc. I recently saw two handbags from Brighton from their Vera line. They are tooo gorgeous to use. I just read that Target has a Vera line of scarves. Vera Lives!!!!

  7. Nina says

    Great article. I always loved Vera and have been picking up scarves and table linens at yard sales and thrift stores for years when I see them in good condition.

  8. Paula Soule says

    Thank you for the wonderful information on Vera Nuemann. Her designs cheer me up and always make me smile. I have her tomato graphic oven mitts and kitchen towels purchased at Crate & Barrel about a year ago. I would love to buy more and have searched everywhere and can not find them. It seems Crate & Barrel no longer stock them. Can you help?
    Thank you for any help you can offer.
    Paula Soule
    ps I live in Stamford, CT (where Vera was born, I believe)

  9. Robyn says

    Did Vera ever remarry? My husband and I stayed in a Lake Tahoe condo on our honeymoon in 1973. The entire place was filled with Vera textiles which was I loved, being a huge Vera fan. When we checked with the rental office about extending our stay, we were later told, “Sid & Vera would be happy to let you honeymooners stay.” I heard ‘Vera’ and asked who she was and was told it was the designer. Any truth to this story?

  10. Robin Davis says

    What has happened to the Vera Company? I heard about a legal battle with Vera Wang and surmised that may be why the Vera Company website and Facebook page are no longer functional. So sad 🙁

  11. Ann Simmons says

    I was so fortunate to have worked for Vera for 7 years! I started as an inter in 1983. She was such an incredible woman.

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