SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Judith Leiber's handbags can be shaped like penguins, crystal-covered zebras, streetcars, firecrackers. They have been carried by first ladies and celebrities, not including BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. And now they're the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan. Judith Leiber handbags - they're legendary. The designer is now 96 years old, lives on Long Island with her husband who is also an artist. And that's where Karen Michel visited them to prepare this profile.
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Judith Leiber handbags are meant more to wow than to schlep.
JUDITH LEIBER: I wanted to make something that was more interesting and more special than what other people made.
MICHEL: Which, for a Judith Leiber, also meant not cheap.
J. LEIBER: Yes, I wanted to make the most expensive bags that anybody could make. That's what I like to do.
MICHEL: Leiber initially planned to make her fortune in cosmetics. Her family sent her to university 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 apprentice to a handbag company, rising to master craftswoman. But the business closed.
J. LEIBER: Because as soon as times got worse, you couldn't do anything.
MICHEL: 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. But they all survived the Holocaust. Judith met an American soldier, Gus Leiber, and in 1946, moved with him to New York, where she worked in the American handbag industry. She founded her own company in 1963 at her husband's insistence.
GUS LEIBER: Every night, she would cut patterns. She was simply a genius with a knife. She worked night and day. It was remarkable.
MICHEL: Gus Leiber taught art by day and, in his spare time, made deliveries or whatever else his wife's fledgling company needed. The company grew rapidly from four employees to 200. All told, Leiber designed 3,500 bags. There are about half that many in the museum next to her house. Ann Stewart is the collection's manager and says Leiber's ideas could come from anywhere - paintings she'd seen, a piece of pottery, photographs, nature, produce.
ANN STEWART: She did do a series of food - tomato, we have an eggplant; we have asparagus. Those are really fun.
MICHEL: The tomato looks tempting enough, in its blood-redness, to eat. The eggplant is a perfect specimen, and the bunch of asparagus - it was sculptor Larry Kallenberg's job to make many of the 3-D wax molds used to cast Judith Leiber's bags.
LARRY KALLENBERG: This asparagus has always been the favorite of all the things that I've ever made for her - lions, peacocks - every day. But asparagus pocketbook - how crazy is that? And how wonderful that she would think of it.
MICHEL: Leiber called him her buddy boy.
KALLENBERG: I was her hands. They were all her ideas. What I did was to modify somewhat - every once in a while, I would come up with a design. But basically, everything was run by her. Her factory was run by her. Her ideas were the things that propelled the projects. And I just did what she told me to do - magnificently, true, but they were all Judith Leiber.
MICHEL: And now nearly 100 of them are in New York's Museum of Art and Design, the first major museum exhibition of her work in more than 20 years. Samantha De Tillio curated the show.
SAMANTHA DE TILLIO: 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. And so I think she created the environment where maybe women wanted something different and then filled it very successfully.
MICHEL: Now Judith Leiber is retired. She likes to sit in a comfy chair in her spacious, light-and-art-filled home and read murder mysteries.
J. LEIBER: You know, I was very happy with all the bags I made. 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.
MICHEL: And so did the people who spend as much as several thousand dollars a pop to own one.
For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.
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