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Cooper Hewitt shines spotlight on Suzie Zuzek
By Susan Emerson Nutter

NEW YORK — All the colors. All those crazy designs. Resort wear all the “it” ladies of Key West and West Palm Beach had to have in the 60s and 70s. For ages, those who love Lilly Pulitzer’s clothing line thought Lilly was the genius behind the prints. Now the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s spring 2020 exhibition celebrating the prolific textile designer Suzie Zuzek (Agnes Helen Zuzek dePoo, American, 1920–2011) tells another story.

It was Zuzek’s imaginative designs and playful prints that played such a key role in the success of the Lilly Pulitzer clothing line in the 1960s and 1970s. Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints That Made the Fashion Brand opening July 24, will be the first museum exhibition to reveal the nature and scope of Zuzek’s artistic contribution to the iconic Pulitzer style. The exhibition is organized by Susan Brown, associate curator, textiles, Cooper Hewitt.

More than 35 original watercolor and gouache design drawings by Zuzek, alongside finished screen-printed textiles and some of the fashions that made them famous will be on display. Key West Hand Print Fabrics of Key West was where Zuzek worked between 1962 and 1985 creating more than 1,500 designs for the company.

It was this company’s designs that Pulitzer utilized to make her fashions. Kudos to Pulitzer for seeing how fantastic Zuzek’s designs were and being cutting edge enough to use them. But she didn’t stop there. Not only did Pulitzer develop a close partnership with Key West Hand Print Fabrics, she eventually bought controlling interest in the company.

Lovers of Lilly will tell you the Zuzek’s prints are instantly recognizable; instantly associated with Lilly Pulitzer. The fact these fanciful prints were favored by the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Audrey Hepburn just added to their popularity and have-to-have status.

“For nearly a quarter of a century, Zuzek’s limitless creativity powered the ’Lilly look,’” said Caroline Baumann, director of Cooper Hewitt. “Long overdue for public recognition, this exhibition will tell the important story of a talented American designer who worked anonymously in support of a larger brand.”

The archive of Key West Hand Print Fabrics, which are privately owned, includes watercolor designs and pen-and-ink drawings by Zuzek from her 23 years as a staff designer. Included in the exhibit are 10 drawings recently acquired for the museum’s collection through a gift from the archive. Displayed together in this exhibit, Zuzek’s designs showcase her extraordinarily creative treatment of various subjects, including mythical creatures and cosmology, to the flora and fauna of the Florida Keys.

The palette of colors Zuzek utilized were typically naturalistic, employing both the brilliant hues of the tropical flowers as well as the subtle shades of browns, ochres, and grays used in her renderings of animals. As any Lilly fan knows, the fabrics for the Pulitzer brand were printed in beyond-bright, vivid colors. The exhibition is unique in showing how the artist’s original designs were translated to the process of silkscreen printing and then, fashion.

Rizzoli Electa will also publish a book corresponding to the exhibition; Suzie Zuzekfor Lilly Pulitzer:The Artist Behind an Iconic American Fashion Brand, 1962–1985 with essays by Susan Brown and Caroline Rennolds Milbank.

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