Elza Sunderland leans to the bold and often amusing. Her textile-print designs have included taco stands on white cotton, martini glasses stained with red lipstick marks, prints of mink, popcorn and even pills spilling out of pillboxes.
The 82-year-old designer invented such looks in the '30s, '40s and '50s when, under the sobriquet of Elza of Hollywood, she was among the first to revolutionize print fabrics used in fashion and home decorating.
To imagine the subdued look of prints before Sunderland set to work in Los Angeles in 1937, "all you have to do is think of Eleanor Roosevelt," notes Edward Maeder, curator of costumes and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The scope of Sunderland's contribution to everything from the way women dressed to the way they set their tables hasn't been lost on Maeder, who convinced Sunderland to donate her collection of some 1,600 textile designs to the museum.
Five years ago, he learned that a bounty of her original gouache drawings still existed when he went to dinner at her house and discovered a coat closet filled with them. Almost 200 of the color drawings are on display for the first time at the museum through July 6.
"I think the influence of that period is definitely coming out," Sunderland--somewhat frail but feisty and now residing near Chicago--says proudly.
The contemporary look of her designs underscores how fresh and inventive they must have appeared when she first created them.
"The whole feeling was different in the '30s," says the designer, who was born in Hungary and moved to New York with her family in 1910. Dressed in a navy tweed suit, Sunderland says the reason she doesn't wear her prints today is because "I was great at giving them away."
After taking art courses at the Metropolitan Museum and studying textile design at Washington Irving High School, she first found employment painting lamp shades for a company in Brooklyn. But when she married and moved to Los Angeles, Sunderland opened her design studio at 403 West 8th St. with the notion that "I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and if people liked it that was fine. I'm a maverick if there ever was one."
Sunderland's designs incorporated what she saw on her world travels, what she gleaned from books and what she observed around her. Another great influence was her mother, "a lady of great taste.
"I loved Gauguin, I loved Toulouse-Lautrec, and we're not going to omit what happened in the 16th and 17th centuries," she adds. "I don't know how many times I trampled that rug to see the Mona Lisa. Of course, it had no relation to textiles but everything opens you up."
Sunderland credits Bullock's department store with discovering her. In 1939, Bullock's took out a full-page color newspaper advertisement proclaiming, "Bullock's is enthusiastic over this discovery. Elza is an artist of L.A. . . . one who has recaptured the beauties, designs and true colors of California and re-created them in fascinating spun-rayon fabrics. . . ." The fabrics were sold as yardage for $1.95 a yard, and Elza's career was launched.
After the ad ran, Sunderland says manufacturers and designers in the fledgling California sportswear industry started to take note.
"This market needed it," she says. "There were a dozen struggling women (designers) and they were looking for something. They began fighting for this newness."
During World War II, it was particularly difficult for designers to obtain fabrics from their usual sources in Europe and the Far East, Maeder explains, and part of Sunderland's success was due to her being a ready source of unique design. "She was in a society that wanted to have a particular look without spending for a silk brocade," Maeder adds.
The prints, many of them worked on new fabrics like spun rayon and acetate, were bought on an exclusive basis by local designers, such as Rose Marie Reid, Mary Anne de Weese and swimwear manufacturers Cole of California and Catalina, who were all interested in creating their own distinct styles.
But Sunderland's most famous print, which was used mostly for tablecloths, was a strawberry motif she designed in 1943. It was inspired by a doily that Sunderland's mother had embroidered in Budapest, Hungary. Maeder estimates that 250,000 yards of the strawberry print were sold.
"Many strawberries have been done in various forms," Sunderland explains. "But one day I felt mine could reach many households."
The smartest thing she did in her career was to pay little attention to what other people were doing, Sunderland says. "I just knew what I would like to see."