Leiber Handbags Celebrated at the Museum of Arts and Design

On in New York City beginning Tuesday through Aug. 6
Above, a painting by Sonia Delaunay, below, fuchsias, and asparagus inspired three of the unique handbags by Judith Leiber, now on view at the Museum of Arts and Design. Gary Mamay Handbag Photos

Judith Leiber’s 65-year career has spanned not only generations, but a number of presidential administrations. It has become a tradition for first ladies to carry her handbags on Inauguration Day. 

Her designs are like diminutive artworks, products of her training as a pattern-maker and her innate sense of craftsmanship and style. Her work will be celebrated at the Museum of Arts and Design, on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, beginning Tuesday through Aug. 6.

Before 1947, when Ms. Leiber, who lives in Springs with her husband, the artist Gerson Leiber, came to New York, she was the first woman in Budapest to earn the title of master craftsman. In later years her artisan technique with handbags, constructing them from start to finish, stood out from the American assembly-line approach.

She began her U.S. career working for others, eventually forming her own company in 1963. Her daytime bags in leather and textile are often embellished with details such as Art Deco-influenced hardware, Lucite, or seashells. She is probably best known for her Swarovski crystal and metal evening bags, called minaudières, which often take the shape of animals — snakes, pigs, peacocks — but also include foods: watermelon, asparagus, cupcakes, and much more. Some of her handbags incorporate designs after Modern artists — Mondrian, Braque, and Sonia Delaunay are a few — while others use exotic materials. One collection of bags was inspired by the narrative quilts of the artist Faith Ringgold.

“Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story” includes handbags from 1963 to 2004, when she retired. The exhibition is not only a tribute to her artistic vision but also a reflection on “the gendered significance of the handbag in 20th-century Western culture, and the centrality of immigrant entrepreneurship in the fabric of New York,”according to the museum. Michele and Marty Cohen, who is the chairman of Guild Hall’s board of trustees, are leading supporters of the show.  

Next Thursday at 7 p.m., a panel discussion related to the exhibition will include Samantha De Tillio, its curator, in conversation with Ellen Goldstein-Lynch, a handbag expert and founder of the Accessories Design Program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Jeffrey Sussman, who wrote the biography of the Leibers, “No Mere Bagatelles: Telling the Story of Handbag Genius Judith Leiber & Modernist Artist Gerson Leiber.” A curator-led tour will precede the talk at 6.

Judith Leiber