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Art You Can Wear On Your Arm? For Judith Leiber, It's In The Bag

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Art You Can Wear On Your Arm? For Judith Leiber, It's In The Bag

Art & Design

Art You Can Wear On Your Arm? For Judith Leiber, It's In The Bag

Art You Can Wear On Your Arm? For Judith Leiber, It's In The Bag

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/530239150/530337318" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Nearly 100 of Judith Leiber's handbags are currently on view at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan. Jenna Bascom/ Museum of Arts and Design hide caption

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Jenna Bascom/ Museum of Arts and Design

Judith Leiber's handbags are meant for wowing — not schlepping. They're shaped like penguins, fruits, zebras, streetcars and firecrackers. First ladies and movie stars have carried them, and now they're the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan.

Judith Leiber's career making extraordinary handbags spanned 40 years. Judith Leiber/Museum of Arts and Design hide caption

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Judith Leiber/Museum of Arts and Design

Judith Leiber's career making extraordinary handbags spanned 40 years.

Judith Leiber/Museum of Arts and Design

"I wanted to make something that was more interesting and more special than what other people made," explains Leiber, now 96.

But that also meant they weren't cheap.

"I wanted to make the most expensive bags that anybody could make," she adds. "That's what I like to do."

Leiber initially planned to make her fortune in cosmetics. Her family sent her to college in London to study chemistry, but World War II broke out and she returned to her native Hungary. Completing her education was no longer an option and the Jewish teenager became apprenticed to a handbag company — rising to master craftswoman. But as the war escalated, the business closed.

Her family was moved from their home, her father sent to a camp, and Judith, her sister and mother were forced to live in the ghetto. They all survived the Holocaust and Judith met Gus Leiber, an American soldier, and moved with him to New York in 1946. There, she worked in the American handbag industry and, at her artist husband's insistence, founded her own company in 1963.

"Every night she would cut patterns," Gus Leiber says. "She was simply a genius with a knife. She worked night and day — it was remarkable."

Rhinestone-encrusted minaudière after Faith Ringgold's "The Purple Quilt" Jenna Bascom/Museum of Arts and Design hide caption

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Jenna Bascom/Museum of Arts and Design

Gus Leiber taught art by day and, in his spare time, made deliveries and did whatever else his wife's fledgling company needed. After an iffy line of green handbags that weren't so popular, the company grew rapidly, from four employees to 200. All told, in her four-decade career, Leiber designed 3,500 bags. There are about half that many in the museum next to her house. Collections manager Ann Stewart says Leiber's ideas could come from anywhere — paintings she'd seen, a piece of pottery, photographs, nature, even grocery produce. Leiber's food series — sparkly fruits and veggies — is "really fun," Stewart says.

The blood red tomato looks tempting enough to eat. The eggplant is a perfect specimen. And the bunch of asparagus? That was a favorite for sculptor Larry Kallenberg. It was his job to make many of the 3-D wax molds used to cast Leiber's bags.

"This asparagus has always been the favorite thing I ever made for her," Kallenberg says. "Lions, peacocks, ah, every day, but an asparagus pocketbook? How crazy is that? And how wonderful that she would think of it."

Click To See More From Leiber's Food Series

Leiber called him her buddy boy.

"I was her hands," he said. "They were all her ideas; what I did was to modify somewhat, every once in a while I'd come up with a design. But basically everything was run by her. ... I just did what she told me to do — magnificently — but they were all Judith Leiber."

Now, nearly 100 of them are in New York's Museum of Art and Design, in the first major museum exhibition of her work in more than 20 years.

Original chatelaine with crystal rhinestones, 1967 Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design hide caption

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Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design

Original chatelaine with crystal rhinestones, 1967

Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design

Show curator Samantha De Tillio says no woman would have carried an asparagus on her arm before Leiber came along.

"She, I think, introduced the idea that handbags could be whimsical and fun and that kind of humor could be appropriate for the red carpet or for a First Lady," De Tillio explains. "So I think she created the environment where women wanted something more, or different — and then filled it very successfully."

Leiber is now retired. She likes to sit in a comfy chair in her spacious, light-and-art-filled Long Island home and read murder mysteries.

"I was very happy with all the bags I made," she says. "I made all kinds of things, some of them were very classic, some of them were kind of crazy, but we did all kinds of things that I thought were very good."

Plenty of others agreed — and some spent several thousands of dollars to own one of her works of art. They've become not just collector's items, but family heirlooms. In homage, many visitors arrive at the New York exhibit with Leiber bags on their arms.

Kashmiri embroidery-inspired minaudière with rhinestones, 1982 Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design hide caption

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Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design

Radio editor Tom Cole and Web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.