Pioneering artist rediscovered with help from granddaughter she never met

By | March 15, 2019
"Cocktail Napkins, Wish Fulfillment," 1939, by Marguerita Mergentime
“Cocktail Napkins, Wish Fulfillment,” 1939, by Marguerita MergentimeLent by Mergentime Family Archive

Virginia Bayer never met her grandmother, Marguerita Mergentime, but she knew she was some kind of artist. Growing up on the Upper West Side, Bayer ate off boldly patterned place mats her grandmother designed, and heard that she’d even contributed to Radio City Music Hall’s decor.

But it wasn’t until Bayer’s mother died, about 11 years ago, that she realized that Mergentime had done more than create some splashy tablecloths and curtains — a lot more.

“I was closing my mother’s apartment up, and in closets and in drawers and all kinds of places, I came upon all these textiles and newspaper articles,” Bayer, 73, tells The Post. “My mother had never talked about her mother, but she had saved all these things . . . It all intrigued me.”

Now, nearly 80 years after her death, Mergentime is getting her due, with museum shows and product lines featuring her colorful, mid-century-modern patterns.

“She was a design pioneer,” says Juliet Kinchin, curator of modern design at MoMA. “She was a woman at a time when women’s art wasn’t given the same airtime and visibility” as art made by men.

Marguerita Mergentime
Marguerita MergentimeCourtesy of Virginia Bayer

Born in 1894 on the Upper West Side, Mergentime came from a wealthy shipping family. She seemed destined for a life of fancy fund-raisers and domestic bliss. But she had other ideas.

After taking her two daughters to school, she’d head to the Metropolitan Museum’s furniture and textile collections, and signed up for classes at Columbia University. She dragged her husband and children to Pennsylvania Dutch Country or New Mexico for design “research.”

Mergentime’s husband wasn’t thrilled with his wife’s unconventional tastes, preferring golf to art. “But she was a real whirlwind, so there probably wasn’t a lot he could do to stop her,” Bayer says.

In the late 1920s, she debuted a series of outré table linens, which she emblazoned with oversize folk-art patterns, nautical themes and, as she put it, “delectable” color combinations.

“I thought all tablecloths a bore,” Mergentime told art students at Skidmore College in 1940. “What people needed, I decided, was bold, dashing color.”

Mergentime believed decor should spark conversation. One tablecloth, dubbed “Food for Thought,” included political slogans — like “prosperity is just around the corner” or “votes for women” — in different fonts. Another had trivia questions about regional foods and even came with a booklet with the answers.

“That idea of using design to get people to talk to one another and debate each other was visionary,” says Matilda McQuaid, deputy curatorial director of Cooper Hewitt. “It still is a novel idea.”

Mergentime’s audacious patterns hung in the Brooklyn Museum and decorated the 1939 World’s Fair. She whipped up art deco curtains and a cubist-inspired carpet for Radio City Music Hall (they’re still there, on the lower level). And she became somewhat of a celebrity, giving sold-out lectures across the US, always dressed in haute couture and a glamorous turban.

“She had a real place in the New York design world,” says historian Donna Ghelerter. “In just 10 years, she had this extraordinary career. She was just a dynamo.”

A screen-printed, linen tablecloth designed by Marguerita Mergentime
A screen-printed, linen tablecloth designed by Marguerita MergentimeLent by Mergentime Family Archive

But Mergentime’s time in the spotlight was cut short when she was diagnosed with leukemia. She was 47, and died three months later, while Bayer’s mother and aunt were in college.

“Neither really spoke about her too much,” she says. Sadly, no one else did either. After discovering her grandmother’s things, Bayer began taking art courses and contacting historians to see if anyone knew anything about Mergentime.

“I kept getting, ‘I’ve heard the name, but I don’t know what she did,’ ” she says.

Then in 2015, she received an email from Ghelerter who, along with graphic designer Linda Florio, had found one of Mergentime’s political tablecloths on Pinterest.

“Both of us were like, ‘Who is this person?’ ” Ghelerter says. “The way she would use typography and text in her designs — there was absolutely nothing going on at the time that looked like what she was doing.”

The trio wrote a book, “Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas,” published in 2017. Now the design world is catching up. The Cooper Hewitt is exhibiting her exuberant place settings in “Tablescapes: Designs for Dining,” through April 14, and both the Cooper Hewitt and the MoMA Design Store have released napkins, notebooks, china and more featuring her designs.

“What started as a way to connect with my mother after her death became a mission to have my grandmother recognized for the work she did,” says Bayer. “I just wanted her to have the last chapter she didn’t get to have.”

Some of the Marguerita Mergentime-inspired napkins and china available at the MoMA Design Store.
Some of the Marguerita Mergentime-inspired napkins and china available at the MoMA Design Store.MoMA Design Store

Living | New York Post