Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Tribute to Tammis Keefe

After months and months of research, Ebay searches and purchases, we yearn to learn more of this interesting artist's too short life.  It's with great pleasure we bring to you the wonderful designs of Tammis Keefe. 

Born Margaret Thomas Keefe on December 27, 1913 in Los Angeles, her father, Thomas Keefe, had passed away the week before she was born.  Her family called her Peg, a common nickname for Margaret. Tammis (gaelic for Thomas) grew up in Los Angeles where she lived with her mother, aunts and grandparents.

Handkerchiefs, linen kitchen towels and scarves are what Tammis Keefe is known for today because of their availability.  However, she designed for home furnishing fabrics (Goodall Industries and Golding Decorative Fabrics), wallpaper, all manner of kitchen linens in addition to towels including tablecloths, placemats with matching napkin sets and cocktail napkins (Fallani & Cohn, Falfax All Linen and Goodall).  She also designed sportswear shirts for men and women (Marlboro Shirt Company), Christmas cards (Irene Dash Greeting Card Co.), playing cards (Random Thoughts  Publications Co.), glassware, dishware and product advertising and packaging.

The blonde and blue-eyed Keefe (this gleaned from a couple of articles describing her, but hard to tell from black & white photographs) initially studied higher mathematics at Los Angeles Community College, but decided to change her career focus after visiting Chicago’s Art Institute while on a trip to see the 1933-34 World’s Fair.  She attended the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles (now the California Institute of the Arts) to study painting. 

     DN4938 Tammis Angels (Twinkle)
 DS4725 Unruly Reindeer (Green)

During WWII, Keefe worked creating advertising design and packaging and as Art Director of Arts & Architecture magazine.  Dorothy Wright Liebes offered her a position as a colorist and print designer in her San Francisco, and later in 1948, New York studios. Liebes is well known in the textile world for her unique weaving and color sense.  Through Liebes, Keefe supplied printed textile designs to Goodall Industries, a major furnishings firm.  Keefe attracted attention from the beginning with her graphic style and sense of color, and her name was promoted. 

DS4793 Later Alligator (Multi)

Having lived and worked in California, 
she brought a carefree attitude to design 
and her travels around the world gave her inspiration. 

DN4932 Out To Lunch (Natural)

Keefe’s first design “Persian Horseman” for Goodall was featured in advertisements and trade articles representing a trend in modern textiles.  She designed home decorative lines for Golding Decorative Fabrics, Cyrus Clarke and Jud Williams Inc., and wallpaper for James Kemble Mills and Katzenbach & Warren.  One of her designs originally created for Golding Decorative Fabrics,  “Lemons” (chartreuse and orange color palette), was shown at the MoMA Good Design Exhibition of 1950 which also traveled to Europe.

Keefe began to design handkerchiefs in the late 40’s after giving a friend a silk scarf she had designed as a birthday gift.  It had “Happy Birthday” in large circus letters and candelabras in purple, turquoise, sapphire and chartreuse.  The friend showed it to Lord & Taylor’s handkerchief buyer, who then showed it to J.H. Kimball, who commissioned six designs.  Keefe designed the first order to appeal to different personalities including the sportswoman, antique collector and musician.  They were bought up quickly and a very happy Lord & Taylor promoted her work and never stopped placing orders.  The perfection of silk-screen printing on mass-produced fabric and the availability of colorfast dyes in many colors after World War II helped make this possible.  During a time when many handkerchief designs were created anonymously, J.H. Kimball produced stylish silk-screened handkerchiefs with a signature at the corner.  Of these, the most prolific was Tammis Keefe who created hundreds of handkerchief designs during her brief career, from 1944 to 1960.  

"Color is the most important factor 
in design generally, 
and in handkerchief design, specifically, 
color prepares the emotions for the design itself, 
as music sets the mood of the Play."
~ Tammis Keefe, 1952 Craft Horizons

DS4714 Night Owl (Blue) 
DN4933 Contented Cats (Mustard)
DS4714 Night Owl (Red)

Name a theme or thing, and she most likely created a design for it.

Her signed handkerchiefs printed on fine linen or cotton were a collector’s item even then during a time when the handkerchief was on the way out and Kleenex tissues were rapidly taking over. Her new handkerchief designs were eagerly awaited for by a public that could buy one for fifty cents to one dollar. Many people framed them to display on the wall. Other high-end stores around the country also sold her handkerchiefs. Each design was usually printed in up to six different colorways. Keefe also produced a second line of handkerchiefs for Kimball she signed Peg Thomas (the name her family called her at home plus her middle name) for retailers that wanted her look, but for marketing reasons couldn’t sell her Tammis Keefe signature line.

Keefe planned a handkerchief design in pencil on tracing paper, then used a light box or graphite paper to transfer the sketch onto illustration board (designs were full size, usually 14¾ inches) and with four or five colors, painted designs in watercolors. This original design was then used as the master for the printer who transferred it onto finely woven linen with hand rolled hems. It would be a treasure indeed to find one of her croquis (original hand painted designs).

In a 1949 San Francisco Chronicle article, while Keefe was in town promoting her new line of Christmas handkerchiefs which were being sold by the high end department store Joseph Magnin (Joseph was a son of I. Magnin and started his own store), she said, “Handkerchiefs are fun to do, and I try to make them fun to give.” 
"Whenever possible 
I like to introduce the three dimensional in prints. 
I like depth in a fabric. 
I also like the introduction of current objects 
treated artistically. 
Warm colors are my favorites: beige, tan, brown 
with the addition of some cool color for relief." 
~Tammis Keefe
1948 American Fabrics

Keefe worked without a staff, but sometimes engaged an assistant.  She employed publicist, Rea Lubar, a renowned fashion industry publicist, which helped boost Keefe’s career and keep her witty personality and designs in the limelight.

Not much is known of Keefe’s life, so any insights are to be relished. Following is a description of her studio apartment in Greenwich Village, New York (perhaps somewhere on East 10th Street) from a February 28, 1951 Christian Science Monitor article: “Being from California, I like things to be spacious, serene and simple, as well as colorful,” she (Keefe) says.  So white, gray, green, black and vermilion red pleasingly companion one another in her living room.  One long white wall is broken by a simple, low fireplace of black slate, framed by big leafy plants.

Opposite the white wall is a blue-green one, against which she has placed a six-foot, white marble-topped table (used for her informal buffet suppers), and a platinum gray couch with Kelly green cushions. Casement windows which line another blue-green wall are curtained with fabric of her own design in chartreuse, Kelly, and navy blue, which can be pulled straight across on a traverse rod to make a solid wall of drapery.

A black 3 by 5 foot coffee table sits before her sofa, which is covered in a black nubby texture shot with gold thread.  Pictures in the room are framed with white.  The rug is gray, and the pillows placed here and there about the room are vermilion red.  Though she indicates the tendency away from ‘sunshine colors,’ she has used them freely and effectively in the pleasant studio which adjoins her living room. The walls and ceiling are all white, but curtains are a lemon yellow and the couch is covered in orange, subtracting quickly any lurking ‘laboratory’ look.”

DS4721 Tammis Cats (Red)
DS4720 Tammis Dogs (Red)
 DS4721 Tammis Cats (Gray)
 DS4721 Tammis Dogs (Gray)

Keefe also stated in this same article, “Cloth is one of the most beautiful and vibrant things in the world.” And further said that, “Anything is possible in textile design, if it is done correctly. A designer merely starts with something, anything, and then develops it. To an imaginative person, practically anything suggests a starting point. From then on, it is merely stating what you have to say in design.”

Tammis Keefe surely did this during her brief, but very creative and fruitful life.

The above exhaustive background info researched by Marlene Radigue (thanks Marlene!)

• We wish to thank Ms. Karen Liebert for all the information she had researched already to create a genealogy of Ms. Keefe, which we used extensively in our own research.

• We also wish to thank Ruth Stone Berg, direct cousin of Tammis Keefe, who, along with information, supplied the beautiful photograph of Tammis. 


Kim said...

What a wonderful artist, thank you for sharing her story! I am soooo looking forward to those adorable critter prints!

Michelle Meeks said...

Absolutely FABULOUS!!!

Anonymous said...

A delightful tribute. Thankyou for your research and for sharing this. Regards, Alison

melissa said...

Fantastic post! Thanks for researching all this, I really enjoyed reading it all. :)

Rebecca Woolston said...

What an excellent post! It is great to have her life story and so much interesting information about this amazing designer who doesn't get enough name recognition in the public. Thanks for re-printing her fabrics. I can't get wait to get some!

beards and buttons said...

I love your fabric and have only just discovered this amazing blog. What a fantastic article _ I'm immediately lusting after all of those designs. Must start saving up!

RedPanties said...

Thank you for such a great biography of a wonderful artist!

TeardropHankys said...

Wow...finally I know more about this wonderful textile artist ! Thank you so much for this information and the showing these colorful designs...inspirational !

jennifer said...

Wonderful post! I have loved Tammis since first buying one of her hankies at a yard sale. Like many people, I puzzled over the signature. Was it Tammi S. Keefe or Tammis? I wish I had never sold the green tea towel signed Peg Thomas showing sailors jigging in front of a lighthouse - a design I've never seen again.
Lots of TK's textiles are available online - I have some on etsy at the moment at callmejasper, if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful informative article!

I am a lover of Tammis Keefe designs, and cherish the few vintage linens I have that were designed by her.

I never knew she designed under the name Peg Thomas, but will be keeping my eye out for that name too.

Thanks again! Pam

Amy4Insurance said...

How wonderful to find this today. Thank you for such wonderful information - and research.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this opportunity to learn about an early fiber artist!

Sewing Geek said...

Thank you so much for introducing us to this wonderful artist and for reproducing her prints! I have already ordered some. :)

Sara vs. Sarah said...

I am such a fan of Tammis Keefe. I'm managed to find several items at thrift stores, including one of the angel tea towels similar to the one you have pictured (you can see it here I am going to snap up every single one of these fabrics. I've been able to think of nothing else since I first saw them this morning!

elizabethdee said...

Thank you so much for sharing your research, and thank you even more for your Tammis Keefe tribute collection. I wanted some as soon as I saw it on True Up! (And by now I have some, and it is even more wonderful than I hoped. What a lovely hand!) Here's hoping you continue to illuminate textile traditions and history, and here's wishing you success with what you have already done.

Pat Stanton said...

Hey Marlene,

Thank you so much for your diligent research of Tammis Keefe. I love her whimsical style.
Leave it to you to be so thorough - just like at school!

Anonymous said...

About ten years ago, I bought a Tammis Keefe linen blue-on-white tablecloth and napkins, still in the box, at a yard sale - for five bucks!
I almost resold it at my own yard sale about 4 years ago, then on a whim, took it out of the box. It was immediately apparent that this cloth was special and I started using it myself. It has a swedish-style design on the border and random insects and flowers in the middle. Fabulous! While taking it out of the washer, I noticed the signature and looked it up. I was hooked! When I saw the red dog and cat prints in the fabric store yesterday, it made me wild with happiness - needless to say, I bought both... said...

I think everybody ought to browse on it. said...

There's no doubt, the dude is absolutely right.

Mothra Sue said...

How wonderful to find this! Thanks for putting all this together!

KarenSeattle said...

Happy 100th Birthday to Tammis Keefe, born December 27, 1913!

By the way, the creator, designer, and executor of the whole Peg Thomas line was the artist now known as Lori Hornell, of Pittsburgh. She is still an active artist.

Unknown said...

Tammis Keefe was also life partners with Jane Trayhe the well known advertising pioneer and one of the first women to own a major ad agency (most famously, creating "What becomes a legend most?"). Trayhe also well known for the book that became the movie "The Trouble With Angels". They were together until Keefes untimely passing.
I know this because I managed the archives for photographer Jim French who started as an illustrator and did a number of illustrations for Keefes textiles (some with his signature, some not). He still has a number of the original gouaches that became tea towels. He knew the ladies well and told me about attending their lavishly appointed dinner parties.

mstammis said...

I'm curious how it came to be decided, and who decided, to use the name "Tammis", instead of Peg, or Thomas, and why. I'd love to know. My mother, an artist herself and great admirer of Tammis Keefe's work, named me after her. I was born in 1954.