The little-known artist created some of the most iconic designs of 60s and 70s fashion. Christie’s will offer 43 of her original watercolour and gouache paintings online this spring
You might not recognize the name Suzie Zuzek, but you’re likely familiar with her work.
The formally-trained artist and single mother of three was working as head designer for a shop called Key West Hand Print Fabrics in 1962 when Lilly Pulitzer walked in barefoot one day and ordered 300 yards of a Zuzek print on the spot. When Pulitzer returned home to Palm Beach, she called and changed the order to 3,000. It was the beginning of a relationship that spanned a quarter of a century and would change the course of American fashion.
Between 1962 and 1985, Zuzek created 1,500 designs, many of which were used by Pulitzer. Her eclectic, playful prints, ranging from anthropomorphic zoo animals to the flora and fauna of the Florida Keys, became the hallmark of the American resort brand, loved by fashion icons such as Jacqueline Kennedy.
Continuing to usher in Zuzek’s legacy, Christie’s will offer 43 original watercolour and gouache drawings by Zuzek in Suzie Zuzek: The Artist Behind Lilly Pulitzer online beginning this March. The works come from Zuzek’s recently discovered archive, now privately held by a St Louis group. One of the owners Becky Smith serendipitously discovered Zuzek’s story, and has since dedicated herself to preserving the collection and reuniting Zuzek with her oeuvre for future generations to enjoy.
It all began when Smith flew to Key West in 2007 looking for vintage Lilly Pulitzer fabric to upholster an armchair. She knew that Key West Hand Print Fabrics, Inc. manufactured Pulitzer’s textiles in the 60s and 70s. When she tracked down former employee Martha De Poo, she was told, ‘You don’t want to meet me, you want to meet my mom — she created the art used by Lilly Pulitzer.’
Speaking with Christie’s, Smith explains what happened next: ‘I hopped in Martha’s white van, and we went to her mom’s house. Martha unlocked the gate: there was a peacock, roosters, and then there was Suzie, sitting underneath this huge banyan tree. I spent the entire day with them, and they shared their story with me.’
A non-practicing lawyer, Smith’s curiosity about Zuzek’s story took her to the Library of Congress in Washington DC. A search through the card catalogue confirmed Zuzek as the artist of over 1,500 copyrighted titles.
‘This one woman created all these iconic designs of my childhood, and yet no one knew her. Millions of people know and love the work, but they don’t know Zuzek the creator,’ Smith recalled.
She gathered investors and purchased the art and copyrights of Key West Hand Print Fabrics — previously owned by Lilly Pulitzer. ‘The works were secreted away. When the first box was opened, Zuzek’s flowers jumped out. They were so vivid you could almost smell them’, says Smith. ‘Her animals jumped out too, and they were so alive. It was magical.’
In 2020 Rizzoli Electa published Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Artist Behind an Iconic American Fashion Brand, 1962-1985, which featured over 100 paintings. The following year Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York launched the first solo exhibition of Zuzek’s work, including over 35 original artworks.
As Smith says now, ‘We are partnering with Christie’s to continue to bring awareness to Suzie Zuzek — both as an artist’s brand with a heartfelt story and to view her designs in a new way. We want to breathe new life into them and for everyone to know and love Suzie.’
The 43 works on paper offered at Christie’s showcase the full scope of Zuzek’s imagination. In Zuzek’s words, ‘There’s really nothing different in this world. It’s just the different twist you give a thing.’
Smith explains that Zuzek was inspired by the animals she grew up with on a dairy farm in Upstate New York, the flowers and fruits that surrounded her whilst she was working in Southern Florida, as well as the unicorn tapestries at The Met Cloisters in New York and the Musée de Cluny in Paris.
‘Her art is very similar to the tapestries; she fills most of the paper with flowers and plants, and all kinds of unique, seemingly unrelated subject matter,’ Smith adds. ‘Looking from a distance at the paintings, you think it’s one thing, but as you get closer, you’re surprised by what you’re seeing. You can spend hours entranced by her designs.’
She also points out that whilst we’re familiar with the beyond-bright, vivid hues of Lilly Pulitzer’s textiles of today, Zuzek’s original designs had a naturalistic palette: she used bright colours for tropical flowers, and subtle browns, ochres and greys for her animals. The works in the sale allow us to see Zuzek’s designs as they were initially intended.
‘Zuzek was a true artist, she saw the beauty in everything,’ Smith adds. ‘We want to celebrate her as the consequential figure in American culture she was.’ It’s about time.
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