In November of last year, I wrote a post about the vintage revival on Etsy and included Neatokeen. This business is owned by Cindy Funk (what a fab name), an American, midwestern mother of four, who sells tea towels/ handkerchiefs and ephemera from the 50’s and 60’s. Cindy also has a degree in art history and has graciously agreed to be (… drum roll), Fishink Blog’s first ever guest post writer. She has chosen to write about Lois Long who is one of the designers who’s work she sells and greatly admires. I’ll let Cindy begin …
I have been collecting vintage tea towels from the Mid Century for over a decade. As others were in hot pursuit of designs by the well-known textile designer Tammis Keefe, I was snapping up towels by the equally talented Lois Long. The first towel that I found with her printed cursive signature in the corner depicts a blackbird on a clothesline. However, instead of wet laundry drying on the line, there are ceramic dishes hung with wooden clothespins. My first thought was that this artist has a quirky sense of humor and I wanted to find more of her work.
The designs Lois created in the 1950s for Original Town House Kitchen Decoratives were whimsical and cartoonish. Her favorite themes were cocktails, food, animals and transportation. There is a series of “What’s Cooking?” towels (above) depicting popular dishes with floating ingredients printed in vibrant colours. A series of her cocktail towels with comical graphics are utterly smile-inducing. The message in the bobbing bottles states “Help – nearest bar on your right”. The phrenological head with varieties of alcohol in different parts of the brain with a side chart of hangover remedies is my personal favorite. And the pelican with a bill full of wine and spirit bottles will make another appearance later on in her life.
As the decades wore on, Lois Long’s designs echoed the style of the day. The whimsy of her early designs was replaced with beautifully rendered, meticulously detailed depictions of nature printed in warm, earthy colors popular in the 1970s. The diversity of her design repertoire is a true testament to her talent as an artist. I had her gorgeous onion towel in my possession for many years before I even realized it was from her hand, so completely different from her earlier style.
As I dug deeper into her personal life, I discovered a wonderful, illuminating short film on youtube entitled The “Creatures” of Lois Long by Nicole Peraud. It was made in the spring of 1999, six years before her death. The ten minute short documentary features Lois in her Manhattan apartment. She gives the filmmaker a tour through her menagerie of paper mache animals. A stroke inhibited Lois’ ability to draw but not her impulse to create. She was able to sculpt marvelous creatures out of a supply of the New York Times newspaper, chicken wire and glue. The resulting animals are as cheeky and as full of personality as were the tea towel designs that she created 40 years earlier.
In the film, the secretary bird, falcon, spoonbill, lemur, tortoise, armadillo and, of course, the jaunty pelican are all lovingly described by this charming woman. She endearingly twirls an umbrella printed with one of her fine designs of seashells. The 80 year old is suddenly transformed into the young textile designer. Lois said it best: “I couldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun, otherwise it would be work.”
Lois was married to the documentary film director Emile de Antonio for a brief period in the 50’s and as a consequence ran in the same circles as many of the avant-garde artists of the day such as the painters Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and experimental composer John Cage, whom she would have a life-long friendship and collaborative relationship. It’s believed that Lois even created some designs using ‘de Antonio’ as her signature.
John Cage and Lois Long wrote two books together: the Mud Book (conceived of in the late 50s and finally published in 1983) and the Mushroom Book (published in 1972). The books are polar opposites. The Mud Book is a charming, seemingly simplistic book about making mud pies and the Mushroom book is a complex, multi-layered work on species of mushrooms accompanied by beautifully rendered lithographs by Lois. If you look closely in the Peraud film you can see a few of the mushroom lithos and also Jasper John’s overlapping Numbers lithograph on her apartment walls.
Here is her obituary which appeared in the NY Times in 2005:
LONG — Lois, 86, dear, delightful friend. Died Tuesday, July 19. Artist, illustrator, fabric designer, wit, world traveler. Collaborator with John Cage on Mushroom Book and Mud Book. Born 1918, Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Many many thanks to Cindy for taking us on such a wonderful trip back in time and to bring alive Lois’s work, who is such wonderful designer. I hope that we can feature your writings again on Fishink Blog, and in the meantime do head over to NeatoKeen
and pick up a piece of textile nostalgia for yourself.