Tammis Keefe, A Rockstar of Mid-century Whimsy

By Amanda Kramp, Guest Contributor

Editors Note: I’m thrilled to share this guest post by the Assistant Curator of Collections at Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum in Redding, California. Amanda was the curator of an exhibit of handkerchiefs, currently on view, and positioned directly across from the Iconic Fashion exhibit I curated at Turtle Bay. Just another reason to go and see what’s new and up on the walls!

Adventurous and career-minded, Tammis Keefe was a wildly successful Mid-century textile designer and colorist. Born in Los Angeles in 1913, she was on track to secure a degree in higher mathematics when her world was forever transformed during a visit to the Chicago World’s Fair and the Chicago Art Institute in 1933. Inspired to switch her major to painting, she enrolled in the Chouinard Art School, now California Institute of the Arts. From there, Keefe was recruited to Disney Studios, as was a common practice at the time. Later, Keefe moved to San Francisco and worked as Art Director for Arts & Architecture magazine, one of the leading periodicals of architecture, art, and music in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

While in San Francisco, Keefe met Dorothy Leibes who was renowned for her innovative, custom-designed modern fabrics for architects and interior designers. Keefe obtained a position as colorist and print designer in Liebes’ San Francisco studio, and later in 1948, in her New York studio.

Keefe’s career skyrocketed as her work was featured in advertisements featuring trends in modern textiles. She went on to design home furnishing fabrics such as curtains, upholstery, and wallpaper, as well as kitchen linens like towels, tablecloths, cocktail napkins, and placemats with matching napkin sets.

She also designed shirts for men and women, Christmas cards, playing cards, glassware, dishware, and product advertising and packaging. As one of the first textile artists to sign her work, she became well-known for her creative and whimsical illustration style and her application of bright, bold, and contrasting colors. Her pieces have been featured at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and can be found in numerous collections, including Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. Today she is best known for her highly collectible handkerchiefs, linen kitchen towels, and scarves.

Keefe’s designs are whimsical, witty, and vibrant, reflecting the post-WWII sentiments of relaxation, comfort, and prosperity while including a variety of aesthetic expressions that appeal to many personal tastes. She was often inspired by her travels around the globe and by her love of nature and animals, but she also implemented figural and ornamental motifs. Keefe had a sharp wit that came through in many of her imaginative designs. She is best known for her handkerchiefs and scarves. It is estimated she produced over 400 designs in her lifetime!

Sadly, Tammis Keefe passed away in 1960 from lung cancer. However, her prints were so popular and beloved that they were reprinted by Michael Miller Fabrics in 2013. The company donated all the royalties from the Tammis Keefe line to fund cancer research.


Amanda Kramp is the Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. Having worked at about half a dozen museums, she’s produced an eclectic range of exhibition content relating to sugar plantations, shipwrecks, Pre-Columbian ceramics, Bigfoot, forestry products, textiles, and cocktail history, to name a few.

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