The Design Lab's Dynamo: Portrait of Michelle Murphy

Katie Netherton
Research Assistant

Presentation Slides

Michelle Murphy acted as the Research Consultant and Curator of the Edward C. Blum Design Laboratory from its inception in 1948 to her death in 1954. The Design Lab was a significant period of the Brooklyn Museum's history and thrived from 1948 to 1968. It was opened as a memorial to Edward Charles Blum (1863–1946), who, along with Brooklyn Museum Ethnology Curator Stewart Culin and Women's Wear design editor Morris de Camp Crawford, collaborated for more than thirty years to develop a mutually beneficial relationship between museums and the industrial art and design industries.

Murphy, because of her devotion to inspiring new design ideas, was absolutely critical to the success of the Lab. Born in 1907 and raised in New York, Michelle was trained in art education at Hunter College and Columbia University. She began working in the museum's Education Department in 1932. Throughout the thirties, she worked with the costume and textile collection off and on, and her passion for the design industry took off. By 1940, Murphy was the Supervisor of the Industrial Division which oversaw the costume and textile collection. In preparation for this new role, Murphy worked diligently with MDC Crawford for two years to understand all aspects of the industry. She went to mills, factories, shops and workrooms, learning everything from weave structures to how a design became reality. When World War II started, and Paris was once again cut off from America, as it was in World War I, she ardently took on the new wave of American designers who needed inspiration.

Murphy is described in many positive ways, but the common denominator that seems to run across all descriptions is her vibrant, dynamic personality. She was passionate about the museum's relationship with industry and about the design process in particular. She is described as being "gifted with enthusiasm," and showed an "utter loyalty" to the museum and the Design Lab's members. Most of all, she held an "intense conviction of the dignity and worth of the Museum's collections as a source of inspiration," and held a knowledge of those collections museum-wide that was described as "encyclopedic." The Lab's basic mission was to originate and nurture design ideas. Murphy did this by cultivating relationships with the Lab's members, professionals from various types of companies, ranging from yarn companies to theatrical and film production companies. Members had full access to the museum's collections (not strictly from Costume and Textiles and Decorative Arts) and the library. The Lab's staff, spearheaded by Murphy, when presented with requests, or "design problems," brought forth examples and suggestions from the Museum's collections, and then sequestered the objects until the project was complete, insuring absolute confidentiality. The goal was always to inspire new ideas and designs from the examination of objects from the past, never a line-by-line adaptation of what had been done in earlier times and by different cultures. As Charles James said of her, she had the talent to help designers see the potential they had within themselves to create something new.

Among her duties, Murphy was responsible for organizing exhibitions that in her own words, "traced changes in design and technology from the handcraft level to current mechanization." Two of these shows include "Nothing to Wear" in 1940 and "5,000 Years of Fibers and Fabrics" in 1946, both of which were intended as general overviews of fashion history and were meant as inspiration for design and industry professionals. In 1948, Murphy planned the inaugural exhibition for the newly opened Design Lab called "Decade of Design," which exclusively featured the Charles James wardrobe, muslins and patterns of Standard Oil heiress and style icon Millicent Rogers. This exhibition is especially important to note because it's proof of the Design Lab's and Michelle Murphy's influence on a specific designer. Among all the museums in New York, Charles James, through one of his most devoted clients who in his words, inspired him to do his best work, had decided that the Brooklyn Museum was the best place for his work, not only to be cared for, but to be available for study and inspiration for students and designers. The Brooklyn Museum wasn't the only museum that had a study room set up for designers to view collection material, but the Design Lab was unique in its proactive, service-oriented attitude and specialized, personalized approach to solving designers design questions. This reputation was largely established by Murphy's mission to nurture designers' work and her desire to provide a destination for inspiration.

Murphy also represented the Brooklyn Museum and the Design Lab in the community, in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. She lectured at area design schools such as Pratt Institute and Parsons and for retailing firms such as Tobe-Coburn. She presided over fashion shows at the museum and at other locations using museum objects, made television appearances and participated in radio shows relating to the museum, its collection and the Design Lab. She authored many articles on the collection and textile and fashion history for magazines, newspapers and the American People's Encyclopedia.

In order to serve the Lab's members to the best of her ability, Murphy stayed apprised of trends in the markets she serviced. As part of that effort, and in order to cultivate relationships, she was a member of many industry organizations such as the Fashion Group, Home Fashions League, Inner Circle, and the Society of New York Dress Designers. She wasn't just a member, though: Murphy was an officer of the Fashion Group, served on their committee about the millinery trade, was invited to speak at chapters around the country, and was nominated for Vice President in 1953. For the Society of New York Dress Designers, she served on the Advisory Board along with Crawford and such luminaries as fashion editor Carmel Snow; gave lectures for Society members at the museum, wrote articles for their monthly bulletin and assisted with their fashion shows by providing information about certain historical periods and making appointments at the Lab for members to look at source material for inspiration. She served as a representative for museums for the Inner Circle, a fashion industry professional organization. Murphy was particularly interested in encouraging new designers and as such served on committees at educational institutions. She served as a member of the Trustee's Committee on Education for Rhode Island School of Design's Textile and Clothing Division and as an Advisor to the Department of Design and Weaving at the Lowell Textile Institute.

Because of her tireless work in the field, Murphy became well known in the fashion world, and in 1951 was given the Neiman Marcus Award, or "fashion industry Oscar" as it was known, in recognition for her work at the Design Lab. In grand Neiman Marcus style, the press release announcing the winners that year recognizes Michelle as establishing "the greatest fashion laboratory in the Western Hemisphere."

During the festivities surrounding the Neiman Marcus Award, ten objects from the Brooklyn Museum were shown, including the Gratitude Train dolls, which were featured in the windows of Neiman's downtown Dallas flagship store.  According to one article about the award, Murphy "made the Brooklyn Museum not a house of the old, but the inspiration of the new."
Murphy's energetic pull and her own personal knowledge of the collection at the Brooklyn Museum combined to make the Design Lab widely known throughout the U.S. as a source of fashion history and knowledge, but also for promoting American design ingenuity. Because of this reputation, an influx of donations poured in to the museum from designers and non-designers alike, not only during Murphy's lifetime but long after her untimely death at the age of forty-seven in August 1954. American designers who donated during Murphy's tenure and kept on donating after her death include Charles James, Carolyn Schnurer, Bonnie Cashin, Vera Maxwell, Madame Eta, Vera Neuman, Elizabeth Hawes, milliner Sally Victor, and shoe and accessory designer Steven Arpad. Companies also donated, including Edgar Hyman Company (Echo Scarfs), and Delman Shoes. Non-designer donors, such as Vogue editor Babs Simpson, socialites Mercedes de Acosta (for her sister Rita Lydig), Millicent Rogers, and Domenique de Menil, also gave family heirlooms and personal wardrobes.  As at other museums in the city, these donations were given to be studied for design inspiration. But at the Brooklyn Museum, a significant reason for giving was the donors' relationships with and respect for Murphy and the Design Lab. Her ability to network with members of each sector of the fashion industry and her passionate personality allowed the Lab to be as important to the industry as it was for almost twenty years.

In 1955, a year after her death, Murphy was memorialized with an Inspiration Gala, chaired by Stanley Marcus and William Galey Lord, the head of major fabric firm Galey & Lord, Inc. The evening honored the "distinguished and valiant servant" with dinner, dancing, a musical skit, exhibits of designs by Lab members, and a carnival with prizes. Many important members of the design community were involved in the evening, including textile designers Dorothy Liebes and Tammis Keefe, designers Carolyn Schnurer, Nettie Rosenstein, Adele Simpson, Madame Eta, and Bonnie Cashin, Fleur Cowles of Flair magazine, Lord & Taylor president Dorothy Shaver, milliner Sally Victor, fashion journalists Eugenia Sheppard, Carmel Snow, Kay Kerr and Babs  Simpson, and publicist Eleanor Lambert. The Lab used proceeds from the Gala, assisted by donations that were solicited by friends such as Charles James and Eleanor Lambert, to dedicate a Michelle Murphy Memorial Room in the Lab in 1956, which catered to architecture and interior design professionals. Another testament to her long-lasting influence, thirteen years after her death, in 1967, FIT's exhibition of Elizabeth Hawes and Rudi Gernreich's designs was according to Robert Riley, who headed the Design Lab at FIT, was a memorial to Murphy.

Upon Murphy's death, Charles James wrote a moving tribute to her, which evidences the depth of their relationship, saying she paralleled no one he had ever met in or out of the fashion world. He wrote: "The extraordinary prestige connected with the name of Michelle Murphy came from her absolute integrity of spirit, her complete lack of prejudice and her passion for sharing discovery and enlightenment." He also wrote of her capacity and thirst for knowledge, saying "Her knowledge came through an intense desire to find out through reason, instinct, and energy all there was to know about anything met—and once gained was classified in her mind so that at any moment it could be drawn on for the benefit of anybody who turned to her." He admired and, I think it's fair to say, loved her understanding of the designer's work, and ends with saying this: "Michelle Murphy had nothing to give that the world would judge of material value—no rewards, prizes or privileges. But artists do wonderfully well with none of these, while the spirit shared, the effort understood, the goal anticipated, the fight shared—these are what Michelle Murphy did offer which gave her a claim to a share in the accomplishments of those who were her friends."


Explore the Met's publications.


Now at the Met offers in-depth articles and multimedia features about the Museum's current exhibitions, events, research, announcements, behind-the-scenes activities, and more.

Thomas J. Watson Library

Thomas J. Watson Library is the central research library of The Metropolitan Museum of Art—one of the world's most comprehensive collections of books, periodicals, auction catalogs, and online resources relating to the history of art. Open to all visitors college age and older. Search the collections.