THE world of design has produced many celebrated couples: the Eameses, the Toledos ... the Tilletts?
In 1944, the legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch, then working for Harper’s Bazaar, heard about beautiful textiles coming out of Cuernavaca, Mexico, and sent D. D. Doctorow to shoot a feature for the magazine. At the time Ms. Doctorow was a gifted 27-year-old draftswoman strongly influenced by Vaclav Vytlacil, the modernist painter she studied under around the same time as Louise Bourgeois.
Once in Mexico, it didn’t take long for Ms. Doctorow to fall in love with Leslie Tillett, one of the printworks’ two British-born brothers. Almost 60 years later, the lyrical but never-published pictures she took have come to light in an exhibition called “The World of D. D. and Leslie Tillett,” which opens Tuesday at the Museum of the City of New York.
Abandoning her assignment, Ms. Doctorow canceled her return home, married Leslie, learned dye-mixing and silk-screening and joined a circle of artists that included Diego Rivera and the silversmith Bill Spratling.
Donald Albrecht, the museum’s curator of architecture and design, said the Tilletts were a precursor to many young designers in places like Williamsburg today, “maintaining complete artistic control, producing small runs themselves and selling locally or in their own shop.”
The Tillets moved to Manhattan in 1946, accruing a level of recognition all but unheard-of in the fabric world. Their best-known pattern is a luscious, painterly mass of chrysanthemums bursting like fireworks.
“My mother brought a three-dimensional quality to surface design that exploded off the cloth,” Mr. Tillett said. “Her work has a scattered, ‘Oops, I dropped a bouquet on the floor’ look.”
Leslie died in 1992, D. D. in 2008. But since 2004, Tillett and Rauscher, the company Mr. Tillett runs with his wife, Nicole, out of their town house, has made items using archival Tillett patterns produced by his former sister-in-law at Tillett Textiles.
For sale at the museum now are scarves, bags and a hand-sewn dress with a large fish motif ($2,800). Phyllis Magidson, the museum’s curator of costumes and textiles, singled out from the show voile Capri pants and a handkerchief top that had belonged to D. D.
“If they were put into production today, they’d walk out of the store,” Ms. Magidson said.
It’s a long way from a Mexico City jail to Museum Mile. According to Mr. Tillett, an early backer of his father and uncle in cahoots with a crooked judge took a controlling interest in the firm with bogus contracts. When the brothers fought back, he said, they were tossed in jail.
t could have been much worse. They had a protector in prison: Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s alleged assassin, whom the Soviets lavished with liquor, cigars and women. Leslie won his release, his son said, by agreeing to turn over the business to the backer and create a collection for him under virtual house arrest. D. D. helped, and when it was finished, they escaped to New York, having secretly sent ahead strike-offs of each new print.
The drama would have ended there if in 1945 Time hadn’t published an article suggesting that the Tilletts’ new partners were so wary about the couple’s past, they were prevented from writing company checks. The designers sued for libel, and Roy Cohn defended the magazine. The Tilletts won.
“The proceeds largely paid for the carriage house on East 80th Street where we lived, where the workroom was housed and where two of our tenants were a Mr. Hewlett and a Mr. Packard,” Mr. Tillett said. “The judgment was for $60,000, quite a lot of money in those days.”