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Virginia Bayer didn’t hear many stories about her maternal grandmother growing up. As a child in the 1940s, Bayer was casually aware that this woman, who died before she was even born, had designed carpets and wall coverings for Radio City Music Hall. Some of her grandmother's placemats and tablecloths were in the family apartment when Bayer was a child. Otherwise, though, Bayer knew very little—just that the woman’s name was Marguerita Mergentime, and that, for a brief but vital period in the 1930s, she had been one of the greatest designers in America.
It was only when Bayer’s mother, Mergentime's eldest daughter Molly, died in 2008 that Bayer was compelled to learn a bit more. Bayer had been rummaging through her mother’s belongings when she came across tokens of her grandmother's life, from magazine cut-outs to newspaper clippings displaying her work. Mergentime's designs were everywhere when she was alive, Bayer realized: sold in Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, constant fixtures of magazines and newspapers across the country, from Vogue to The New Yorker to House Beautiful.
The process, Bayer told me one day in July, was at once unnerving and bittersweet. “As I looked at each newspaper article, photograph, or artifact, I wanted to know more,” Bayer said. “And the only person who could have told me was now gone.”
She dug into this anonymous woman’s life further, and what resulted from this exercise is Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas, a book released last month. It’s a skinny hardcover, its facade adorned with blue and red tiling, reflecting the sensibility of the woman it seeks to honor. These colors, the same on the American flag, animated much of Mergentime’s work, proud about America’s history and heritage without being jingoistic; they were also the colors of the flowers at her funeral. This thematic concern grew out of a democratic ambition to make her designs, mostly for the kitchen and dining room, accessible to all Americans.
Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas is a quintessential coffee book, with images ideal for leafing through. Texts—primarily the essays written by Bayer and the book's two other authors, graphic designer Linda Florio and textile historian Donna Gherteler—act as interstices that place Mergentime’s designs firmly within their rightful contexts. But Mergentime's designs, whimsical and self-aware, are the book's main draw, and they speak for themselves.
Born Marguerita Strauss in 1895 to German-Jewish parents, Mergentime was a diminutive woman with a charismatic aura. She cut a striking figure, with sartorial preferences that set her apart, fashioning cloths into turbans she wore on her head. Mergentime was drawn to design as a schoolchild, educated at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, which the book credits with implanting in her a giving, generous spirit that informed her later desire to design for the masses.
Mergentime designed for the table in a period when her contemporaries were more fixated on anything but—most were obsessed with curtain hangings and what bore down from the walls, bedspreads, and rugs. She entered the American design universe during a time of artistic commotion: The New York of the early 1930s was teeming with a cadre of industrials, merchants, and scholars who were all shaping modernist aesthetics in response to the encroaching economic realities of the time.
What distinguished Mergentime from peers was not just her willingness to put patterns on linens, but the vivid, brazen way she went about doing so: Take the warped, disorienting Food Quiz cloth (1939), emblazoned with trivia prompts ("Name 4 American drinks") and more unanswerable, speculative asks ("Is there a dessert for love?"). Mergentime developed this considerably bold, vigorous aesthetic to stimulate conversation among guests, to foster friendships. She was intent on making the conversation surrounding a meal as enriching as the meal itself.
Mergentime found that table linens were staples of the American home that she figured other designers treated as afterthoughts, bland and invisible. If household designers risked disappearing into their works, expected to be nameless—interior designs were more associated with manufacturers than the people who first conceived them, after all—Mergentime was resolute about being different. She impressed herself upon her works quite literally, signing them with her initials. “Are you allergic to meaningless, uninspired patterns in printed cloths?” Mergentime once asked, because she certainly was. Her antihistamines of choice were asymmetrical patterns, floral and nautical.
Mergentime forged a number of artistic partnerships over that period. She became part of the influential American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen alongside that era’s fellow luminaries, from Donald Deskey to Russel Wright. The most rewarding of these alliances, though, was with architect Frederick Kiesler, who helped her create furnishings for her duplex on Central Park West.
“The house is a living organism,” Kiesler once mused, “Not just an arrangement of dead material: It lives as a whole and in the details. The house is the skin of the human body.” He helped Mergentime conceive of an apartment that was mostly a stark and analeptic white, the only accent being a red sofa. Mergentime's son-in-law (Bayer's father), when he first saw the apartment in 1939, thought he landed on the moon.
Mergentime wound up dying two years later following a prolonged illness, just shy of 47. She had only been working in design for a decade, which meant that she never saw many of her other innovative ideas to fruition: glass appliances with heating coils forming an interior pattern, decorated plate-and-glassware ensembles, printed designs on sheets, flatware, the many serving accessories she’d dreamed about making.
It wasn't as if she left nothing behind. Mergentime’s sensibility has since cast a long shadow on American design—she was one of the many subjects of a Museum of Modern Art exhibit this past fall, while her work resides permanently in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Museum at FIT, and the Allentown Art Museum. But, for a woman whose designs were ubiquitous in her day, whose spirit breathes through our kitchenware and tablecloths, the appreciation feels far too delayed, and she is known by too few.
Read this book, then, as a resurrection: Part of its stated objective is to "reintroduce" Mergentime to a public oblivious to her import, and to "place her squarely back on the scene" where she belongs. Such a goal implies erasure, a sense that someone who is deeply important has had her importance ignored. But erasure is a deliberate act, and Mergentime, Bayer insisted to me, was not written out of history. She was lost.
Explain Mergentime's obscurity, in part, by the timing of her death: She died in 1941, the early days of World War II. By the war’s end, there were new needs, new directions, and new names in the sphere of design. Everyone just wanted to move on. It was a time of looking forward, and Mergentime existed in the past.
Add to this the fact that Mergentime was not only a woman, but a woman who designed home goods. While her products were innovative and quite popular, they were not assigned the same value in the realms of art and design simply because they were meant for the home.
Bayer was born four years after her grandmother's death, raised on the Upper East Side surrounded by extended family on both the East and West Side of the park. She always maintained an interest in art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, free in those days, was virtually her backyard, and she roamed around there as a hobby.
Mergentime had always hovered like a ghost throughout Bayer's life, silently guiding her passions: Her first summer job was in the B. Altman department store, one of the same stores that sold her grandmother's tablecloths three decades earlier. Bayer was placed, fittingly, in the table linen department.
Gradually, as Bayer got older, she became more aware of her grandmother's work and its significance. But this consciousness did not come until much later in life: During a visit to the an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center on American women designers in 2000, she was puzzled as to why the designs of her grandmother—a woman her mother had described as so prolific in her truncated life—were absent. This omission struck her as curious and unjust.
She wanted to rectify her own ignorance. In 2003, Bayer visited the Brooklyn Museum with her mother to see the collection of Mergentime's work that had been donated to the museum in 1943. The experience was eye-opening for Bayer.
“I always knew that my grandmother was talented,” Bayer said. “But it was not until we started the research for the book, and I learned more about the designs of that period, that I understood what a pioneer she had been as a woman and as a tastemaker.”
She spent the years after her mother's death tending to the family archive of her grandmother's textiles, from linens to fabrics. Bayer was determined to preserve what remained of Mergentime's output. She first had the idea for the book in 2014, when she began taking a class about 20th-century design in order to learn more about the period in which her grandmother worked. Around that same time, Florio and Gherteler contacted her while researching another project. The women were drawn to Mergentime’s unique sensibility, finding it didn’t resemble any other they'd encountered: her use of color, her subject matter.
The three got to know each other over cups of coffee, discovering a shared sense of purpose in salvaging this woman’s designs from the cavities of America’s memory, and tracing a line directly from her sensibility to the present day, when her ideas about tables aren’t so radical at all. One day, while lamenting that her work was no longer known, they decided on the spot to do a small book together. As they began research, though, the book blossomed into a much larger and more ambitious project that vowed to present a full picture of Mergentime’s life and career.
“I have always enjoyed creating interesting table settings,” Bayer told me. “Perhaps that’s a bit of my grandmother’s sensibility coming through.” With this final product, Bayer hopes that readers may extract a sense of appreciation of the fresh, contemporary nature of designs that were completed more than 75 years ago. There is still a need to bring color, amusement, and conversation into our homes, and that impulse does not die with generations. Mergentime was one of the first to speak that need out loud.
Bayer had never taken on a project like this, and she hadn’t done archival research in the New York Public Library Rare Book room before she began to work on the book. She was surprised by the fact that she was able to find so much primary source material, particularly relating to her grandmother’s participation in 1939 New York World Fair, in the library. She came across Mergentime's letterhead and signatures decaying in boxes.
As she sifted through photographs and materials, she could recognize some fabrics from her mother’s apartment. Other items, though, she couldn’t quite place: They looked faintly familiar to her, like fuzzy emblems of her childhood. She wondered if she had seen them somewhere before.
To purchase Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas, head here.