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Guide to the Sherl Nero papers, 1900-2006

Collection Overview

Repository

Kellen Design Archives

Collection Identifier

KA.0145.01

Creator

Design Works of Bedford-Stuyvesant (Firm).

Creator - Designer

Nero, Sherl, 1939-2006

Title

Sherl Nero papers, 1900-2006, bulk 1957-1997, (Bulk, 1957-1997)

Extent

34.5 Linear feet: 10 boxes, 10 oversize boxes, 12 oversize folders

Language of Materials

English

Summary

Sherl Nero (1939-2006) was a fashion and textile designer. Nero graduated from Parsons School of Design in 1962 and worked as a sportswear designer before joining the Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant (DWBS) in 1971. DWBS was the brainchild of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the designers Doris and Leslie Tillit. With financing from the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the Black-owned business produced African-inspired designs for fabrics, accessories, and home wares. This collection contains design material made by Nero at DWBS and from her work as a designer for Burlington Domestics, Aberdeen Inc., and other home textile companies. Also included is biographical material documenting Nero's achievements throughout her career and her trajectory from a fashion student at Parsons to design director for a large home textiles company.

Preferred Citation note

[Identification of item], [date (if known)], Sherl Nero papers, KA.0145.01, box __, folder __, New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School, New York, New York.

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Biographical Note

Sherl Nero (1939-2006) was born Shirley Annette Brower in Portland, Oregon. Nero was interested in art and design from a young age. She studied applied arts at Girls Polytechnic High School, and graduated in 1957, valedictorian of her class. Nero received a four-year scholarship to do a joint program at Portland Museum College of Art and Portland State University. In her freshman year of college, a professor recommended Parsons School of Design to Nero. She applied, and moved to New York after her freshman year to continue her studies at Parsons.

Nero studied fashion design at Parsons from 1959-1962. She returned to Parsons in the early 1970s to take classes in tie dying and batik. Upon graduating in 1962, Nero held a number of jobs in New York's garment industry. She worked as an assistant designer first at Sinclair Mills, a sportswear manufacturer, and then at Cabana, Inc. In 1965 she was hired as a designer at Amesbury, Ltd, responsible for three lines of sportswear annually. From 1968-1970 Nero worked at Murrell Corporation, designing hand crocheted women's wear.

In January of 1971, Nero joined Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant (DWBS) and the following year she became the company's head designer. At DWBS, Nero designed textiles, accessories, bed linens, towels, and other homewares for a range of clients. Many of Nero's designs for DWBS were inspired by African culture, though as she said, she drew inspiration from "the complete American black culture...from what I see on the streets as well as out of books." [1] During her time at DWBS, Nero traveled to Nigeria, Benin, Mali, Ghana, and Togo to conduct research.

When Nero joined DWBS in 1971, the company was still in its infancy. In her first year there, the company received its first big contract to create fabrics for Connaissance, a designer-only fabric house. Nero would go on to design home textiles for Martex, J.P. Stevens, Manhattan Industries, and Riverdale, among others. Mark Bethel, the president of DWBS, credited much of the company's success in the mid-1970s to Nero: "She is a fantastic barometer for what is being sold and for anticipating what is going to be sold in the next six months." [2]

In 1978, Nero left DWBS to become design director at Burlington Domestics. Burlington Domestics was acquired by J.P. Stevens & Company in 1986, which then merged with WestPoint Pepperell in 1988. In 1993, Nero left WestPoint Stevens to take a position as director of design for Aberdeen, a division of CHF Company. She retired around 1995. Nero passed away in 2006.

[1] Craig Kriebel, "Bed-Stuy designers make imprint in fabric world," Daily News, March 2, 1973.

[2] Doris Herzig, "Factory of Designers," Newsday, May 13, 1977.

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Historical Note

Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant (DWBS) was founded in 1969 with funding from the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Bedford-Stuyvesant is a historically Black neighborhood in central Brooklyn, which faced economic hardship in the post-World War II era as a result of racially discriminatory real estate practices. The Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, started in 1967, was the country's first community development corporation, and focused on improved quality of life for the neighborhood.

The initial idea for DWBS came out of conversations between former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the designers Doris and Leslie Tillett. The Tilletts had started a design workshop in Mexico, and Jackie Kennedy encouraged them to do a similar project in the United States. On a visit to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Tilletts met Franklin A. Thomas, president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, who offered them funding to start a design business that would offer training and employment to local residents.

Mark Bethel, who owned a jewelry shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant and sat on the board of the Restoration Corporation, was brought on to lead DWBS. In the early years of its existence, DWBS relied on the Tilletts and outside consultants to do design work and to train workers to produce fabrics. Initially, the company also produced clothing and jewelry. According to Bethel, "We were trying to wear too many hats at one time. The operation had to be streamlined. So, after careful study, we decided to concentrate on designing and printing fabrics for the home furnishings market." [1]

The first head designer at DWBS was Calister Thomas. In 1971, DWBS hired Sherl Nero, and the following year she became head designer. In 1971 DWBS received a contract from Connaissance Fabrics, a high-end fabric house in Manhattan. In 1972, DWBS introduced a collection of needlepoint kits inspired by African motifs, which sold at B. Altman & Co. In 1973, WestPoint Pepperrell contracted DWBS to create a line of African-inspired home fabrics for the Martex division. By this time, DWBS had grown to a staff of fifty.

DWBS' designs were often based on research into African textiles and patterns. Nero traveled throughout West Africa to do research for designs, visiting Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, and Togo. The fabrics produced by DWBS were made with silkscreen printing, rather than mechanical processes.

In 1978, Nero left DWBS to accept a position at Burlington Industries. DWBS closed the next year and liquidated in June of 1979. The company had struggled to turn a profit during their decade in business. Their only profitable year was 1976, when they received royalties from the production of three lines for Martex, all designed by Nero.

[1] "Designing an Idea," Black Enterprise, November 1974.

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Scope and Content of Collection

This collection documents Sherl Nero's career as a fashion, home goods, and textile designer. The collection primarily consists of design materials for textiles and homewares. The bulk of the designs are from Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant (DWBS), where Nero worked from 1971-1978. Another large part of the collection consists of unidentified design material, presumably from Nero's career as a home textile designer after leaving DWBS.

The first series contains biographical materials documenting Nero's life. These include biographical statements, presumably written by Nero herself, resumes, and clippings about Nero's work. Articles pertaining to Nero's work at DWBS are found in the second series. The news clippings, awards, and honors found in this series are evidence of Nero's achievements as a designer. The series includes a large number of photographs of Nero, mostly taken in a professional setting, some presumably at DWBS. Also found here is material from Nero's student years at Parsons School of Design, including notebooks, sketchbooks, and her diploma.

The second series pertains to Nero's tenure as a designer at DWBS. The bulk of this series is design materials, including hand-drawn patterns, test prints, photographs of designs, and linoleum printing blocks used to create patterns. This series also contains finished pieces by DWBS, including a set of bedsheets, scarves, and paper plates. Some of the fabric pieces and many design studies could not be identified, but are presumed to be DWBS based on the style of the designs. Not all of the DWBS material in the collection was created by Nero; at least a couple of the designs are known to be the work of Calister Thomas, who worked at DWBS before Nero arrived. Other material documenting the work of DWBS includes catalogs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and brochures from exhibitions on the company.

The last series consists of material from Nero's career as a designer both before and after her time at DWBS. This includes documentation of work she did at Burlington Domestics (which was acquired by J.P. Stevens and then West Point Pepperrell) and Aberdeen. This material is mostly promotional or internal business documents; most of the design material from this part of Nero's career is unidentified, and is grouped together as "unidentified design material." This series also includes fashion designs, presumably done by Nero in her career as a sportswear designer before joining DWBS. Some of these designs may also be Nero's student work from Parsons.

The collection does not contain much documentation of Nero's personal life. In the first series ephemera from Nero's travels, a small amount of correspondence, periodicals she owned, and a list of books in her library provide a small window into her life outside of her career. The quantity and breadth of material from Nero's professional life attest to her lifelong success as a designer, and her ability to adapt to new trends and styles.

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Organization and Arrangement

Arranged alphabetically by subject in 3 series

  1. Biographical, 1900-2006
  2. Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant, 1971-1978
  3. Other design work, circa 1957-1995

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Administrative Information

Ella Coon, Anna Robinson-Sweet

Publication Information

Kellen Design Archives - November 5, 2019

66 5th Avenue
lobby level
New York, NY, 10011
212.229.5942
archivist@newschool.edu

Preferred Citation note

[Identification of item], [date (if known)], Sherl Nero papers, KA.0145.01, box __, folder __, New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School, New York, New York.

Access Restrictions

Collection is open for research use. Please contact archivist@newschool.edu for appointment.

Use Restrictions

To publish images of material from this collection, permission must be obtained in writing from The New School Archives and Special Collections. Please contact: archivist@newschool.edu.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was donated in 2018 by Jeanne D. Wall, Sherl Nero's sister, and Jerin S. Wall-Thames.

External Support

The processing of this collection was supported in part by a donation from The New York Community Trust.

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Related Materials

The New School Archives has croquis made by Sherl Nero (then Shirley Brower) when she was a student at Parsons School of Design. These are in the Parsons School of Design Fashion Department records (PC.02.02.01). The New School Archives also holds the papers of another designer of paper goods, textiles, and clothing, Lea Hoyt (KA.0027).

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Keywords for Searching Related Subjects

Genre(s)

  • Textile design drawings.
  • Textiles.

Geographic Name(s)

  • Bedford - Stuyvesant.

Subject(s)

  • African American business enterprises.
  • African American fashion designers.
  • Fashion design.
  • Product design.
  • Textile design.
  • Textile designers.

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Other Finding Aids note

For selected item-level description and images from the Sherl Nero papers, see the New School Archives Digital Collections at http://digitalarchives.library.newschool.edu/index.php/Detail/collections/KA014501

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Collection Inventory

Series I. Biographical 1900-2006  (Bulk, 1957-1995)

Box Folder
General, 1958-1973 

Includes short biographical statements about Nero, some she wrote herself, as well as resumes, and a job application for a contract position at the United Nations.

1 1
OSx-1 1
Awards and honors, 1973-1992 
1 2
6 1
Correspondence, 1974-1997 
1 3
OSx-1 6
Daily planners, 1973-1984 
1 4
Diplomas and graduation photograph, 1957-1961 
1 5
Financial and travel documents, circa 1975-1994 
1 6
Magazine and newspaper clippings, 1960s-1993 

Articles about Nero's career before and after working for Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant. Clippings related to DWBS and Nero's role there can be found in Series II.

1 7
6 2
Nero business cards, 1972-2000s 
1 8
Periodicals and books, 1900-1904, 1958-1975 

Consists of a set of publications retained by Nero for personal value or artistic reference. Notably, includes materials Nero saved from her trips to Africa, including an instructional book for the Hausa language and a copy of the Ghanaian Times, dated 1975. Also included are copies of  National Geographic magazine, most of which date from the early 1900s, a list of reference books, and three issues of the official newspaper of the Black Panther Party,  The Black Panther, dated 1969.

1 9-10
6 3-4
Photographs of Sherl Nero, circa 1940-2006 

Photographs of Nero throughout her career, including many of her working at Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant. Includes photographs by Bert Andrews and Konstantin. A photograph of Nero as a baby included here was previously framed.

1 11-14
6 5-7
Professional memberships and events, 1973-1989 
1 15
Rolodex, undated 

Index cards listing the names, addresses, and phone numbers for Nero's professional contacts.

p_12
Slides, probaby 1970s 

One set of slides depicts Nero and a man posing in front of a collapsed building, probably 34 Carroll Street in Brooklyn, New York, which collapsed in August of 1977. It is unclear why Nero and her friend were there, as Nero did not live nearby. The other set of slides depicts textiles and other artifacts, presumably taken by Nero while travelling.

1 15
Sketchbook, undated 
1 17
Student notebooks, circa 1959-1970 
1 18-19
Student sketchbooks, circa 1957-1960 
1 20

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Series II. Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant 1971-1978 

Box Folder
African Inspirations from The Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant exhibition (1977 Nov 10-Dec 4), 1977 
1 21
Catalogs featuring Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant designs, circa 1971-1978 
1 22
Designs 
Assorted design materials, circa 1971-1978 

Contains designs by Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant that have not been identified with a specific line. Some unidentified pieces were placed in this series based on stylistic similarity to the Design Works aesthetic, but might be from another stage of Nero's career. Some pieces may be the work of other designers. A design study for the "fish scales" pattern included here, for example, was created for Design Works by Calister Thomas.

The design studies included here utilize a selection of wet and dry materials on paper and vellum, including gouache, color pencil, watercolor, crayon, pen, and pencil. Motifs range from florals to animals, geometrics, and figuration.

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2 1-6
6 8-9
MC J 1 1-2
OSx-1 3-5
OSxx-1 1-4
OSxxx-1 1
Assorted fabrics, circa 1971-1978 
OSx-4
OSxx-3
Baar and Beards 
Nature Studies scarves, 1976 
OSxx-2
Nature Studies scarves design material, 1976 
2 7
OSx-1 6
OSxx-1 5
Promotional material, 1976 
2 8
Connaissance Fabrics, Inc. "Shannon" fabric, 1970 
OSxx-3
Crain and Harmon promotional material, 1970s 
2 9
Fallani & Cohen, Inc. Desert Wind Collection 
Design materials, 1970s 
MC J 1 3
Napkins, 1970s 
OSx-4
OSxx-2
Promotional material, 1970s 
2 10
Howard Curtain Company Kasai Collection, 1970s 
2 11
6 10
J.P. Stevens 
General design studies, 1970s 
MC J 1 3
OSxxx-1 2
Evolutions product line 
Design studies, 1976 
OSxx-1 6
Fabric samples and photographs, 1976 
2 12
Printing blocks, 1976 
10
5
Promotional material, circa 1976-1977 
2 13
OSx-1 7
Tropical Palm Tropical Jungle fabric sample and photographs, 1978 
6 11
Utica Fine Arts promotional material, 1977 
2 14
Linoleum printing blocks, circa 1971-1978 
10
5
Manhattan Industries 
Artifiko for Lady Manhattan design materials, 1974 
2 15
7 1
Artifiko for Lady Manhattan promotional material, 1974 
2 16
Berkley Cravats 
Design materials, 1974 
2 17
OSxx-1 7
Printing blocks, 1974 
5
Tie, 1974 
OSxx-2
John Henry for Manhattan Industries 
Design materials, 1974 
2 18
OSxx-1 8
Promotional material, circa 1974 
2 19
Printing blocks, 1974 
10
Shirt fabric sample, 1974 
OSxx-2
Lady Manhattan design materials, 1975 
3 1-2
OSxx-4 1
Martex 
Bakuba and Bakuba II catalogs and project book, 1973-1974 
3 3
Bakuba Animals bedsheets, 1975 
OSxx-2
Bakuba Animals linoleum printing blocks, 1975 
5
Bakuba design materials, 1973-1975 
3 4-6
7 2
OSxx-4 2
OSxxx-1 3
Bakuba Bow bowtie, 1973 
OSxx-2
Bakuba press packets, circa 1973 
3 7
Bakuba napkin, 1973 
OSxx-2
The Nature of Bakuba fabric samples, 1975 
3 8-9
The Nature of Bakuba promotional material, circa 1975 
3 10
Martex design studies, 1970s 
7 3
MC J 1 4
OSxx-4 3
Martex promotional material, 1970s 
3 11
Napkin, 1970s 
OSx-4
Notepad case, 1970s 
3 12
Paperworks 
Design materials, 1970s 
7 4
Plates, 1970s 
OSx-1
Stationery, 1970s 
3 13
Plate design studies, 1970s 
9 1-10
OSx-2 1-3
Photographs, 1970s 

These polaroids were separated from a collection of polaroids in Series III. Although physically grouped together, the designs and titles of these photographs align with Nero's work at DWBS in the 1970s.

3 14
Riverdale design materials, 1970s 
7 5
SCL, Inc. design materials, 1975 
3 15
MC J 1 4
OSxx-4 4
OSxxx-1 4
Sigma Samburu Forest 
Design materials, 1976 
3 16
OSx-2 4
Linoleum printing blocks, 1976 
5
Promotional material, 1976 
3 17
Tablecloth, 1970s 
OSx-4
Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant: An Exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum (1974 May 1-Jun 9), 1974 
1 23
MC J 1 5
Financial and business records, 1973-1977 
1 24-25
Newspaper and magazine clippings, 1972-1978 
1 26-27
7 6
OSx-2 5
OSxx-4 5
Promotional material, 1970s 

Items include a flyer advertising a weaving kit, a press release announcing Nero's travel plans to Africa, as well as a mailer for an exhibition of DWBS materials hosted by the University of Missouri-Saint Louis. Also includes three posters, one advertizing a silkscreen demo by Nero for "JP Stevens Week" at the department store Jordan Marsh, and two copies of an announcement of a release party for the Bakuba line held at New York State Theater, dated 1973. Promotional material for particular lines produced by Design Works can be found in the files for those lines.

1 28
OSxxx-1 5

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Series III. Other design work circa 1957-1995 

Box Folder
Aberdeen 
General, 1990s 

Includes memos, correspondence, and press releases connected to Aberdeen's sheet collections.

1 29
Clippings, 1993-1994 
1 30
Home Depot CHF lines, 1993 
1 31
JC Penney, 1994 
1 32
Press releases, 1990s 
1 33
Product photographs, 1990s 
1 34-36
Burlington Domestics, J.P. Stevens, West Point Pepperell 
General, circa 1980-1992 

Documents from Nero's time at Burlington Domestics. Materials include documents related to Nero's original hiring at Burlington, correspondence over upcoming releases of bedding lines, and affiliates' contact information.

1 37
Burlington Domestics catalogs, 1980s 
1 38-39
Burlington Domestics design material, 1979-1980s 
1 40-41
J.P. Stevens 
Laura Ashley catalog, 1987 
1 42
"Quilting Patterns for Alamance Center," 1987 
1 43
Sears Colormates studies, 1980s 
7 7
"Seminar on Product Construction and Product Value" packet, 1986 
4 1
Liz Claiborne for Burlington Domestics notebook, 1979-1980s 
4 2
Performance reviews, 1979-1980s 
4 3
Fashion designs, circa 1957-1972 

Fashion design drawings for women's sportswear and children's clothing. These drawings are undated, and might be student work from Nero's Parson's classes and/or from her career as a sportswear designer at Sinclair Mills, Cabana, Inc., Amesbury, Ltd, and Murrell Corporation in the 1960s. Some drawings also have attached fabric samples. These files also include clippings of articles and advertisements for clothing, presumably designed by Nero.

4 4
7 8-13
Photographs, 1979-1990s 

Includes Polaroids of fabric and color photographs of home textiles in a display setting. Some Polaroids are labeled and dated, but most of the photographs are not.

4 5-7
Reference material 
Image files, undated 

These files contain clipped images and photocopies assembled by Nero, presumably for use as design reference. Most folder labels are the same as those used by Nero to organize this material.

4 8-42
Book of lace samples, undated 
8 1
Images from the Ethnic Museum of Congo, circa 1970s 
OSx-2 6
Unidentified design materials 

This material was not labeled or otherwise identified. It may contain work done by designers other than Nero, as well as pieces from DWBS. The material is loosely organized by the type of pattern.

Animals, circa 1978-1995 
8 2
OSxx-4
OSxxx-2 1
Color swatches, circa 1970s 
4 43-44
8 3
Florals, circa 1978-1995 
4 45-46
8 4-6
MC J 1 6-7
MC J 2 1-3
OSx-2 7-9
OSxx-4 6-7
OSxxx-2 1-4
Geometric, circa 1978-1995 
4 47-48
8 7
MC J 2 4
OSx-3 1-5
OSxx-4 8
OSxxx-2 5-6
Lace, circa 1978-1995 
8 8
Linoleum printing blocks for unidentified designs, 1978-1995 
10
5
OSx-3 6
Paisley, circa 1978-1995 
8 9
MC J 2 5

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Collection Guide Last Updated: 11/12/2019

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