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Sherl Nero papers

 Collection
Identifier: KA-0145-01

Summary

Sherl Nero (1939-2006) was a fashion and textile designer who graduated from Parsons School of Design in 1962 and worked in sportswear design before joining the Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant (DWBS) in 1971. DWBS was the brainchild of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and designers Doris and Leslie Tillett. With financing from the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the Black-owned business produced African-inspired designs for fabrics and homewares.

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.

Dates

  • 1900 - 2006
  • Majority of material found within 1957 - 1997

Creator

Extent

18.6 Cubic Feet (10 boxes, 10 oversize boxes, 12 oversize folders)

Language of Materials

English

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.

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.

Biographical Note

Sherl Nero (1939-2006) was born Shirley Annette Brower in Durham, North Carolina and moved to Portland, Oregon as a child. [1] 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." [2] 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." [3]

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] Phyllis Ross, email to Jenny Swadosh, January 27, 2022.

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

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

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.

Organization and Arrangement

Arranged alphabetically by subject in 3 series: I. Biographical, 1900-2006 II. Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant, 1971-1978 III. Other design work, circa 1957-1995

Immediate Source of Acquisition

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

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).

External Support

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

Title
Guide to the Sherl Nero papers
Status
Completed
Author
Ella Coon, Anna Robinson-Sweet
Date
November 5, 2019
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin

Revision Statements

  • February 3, 2022: Jenny Swadosh corrected Sherl Nero's place of birth in Biographical note.