Remembering Ralph Saltzman
The Designtex founder, who passed away this year, is remembered as a textile innovator, facilitator of collaborations, and mentor to young designers.
When Designtex founder and wallcoverings pioneer Ralph Saltzman passed away on July 24, he left behind a legacy of innovation and investment in the future of art and design.
Though his company evolved into a leader in the textiles, wallcoverings, and applied materials space, with a catalog of over 8,000 products specified by designers for corporate, government, hospitality, and institutional clients, Saltzman’s beginnings were humble. A native of the Bronx and graduate of New York University, Saltzman credited much of the company’s early success to the support of his family. “My wife typed sample cards, describing the fabric and my mother, grandmother, and her sister stapled sample tickets at the kitchen table,” he once recalled.
But it was Saltzman’s eye for design and extraordinary enthusiasm for the textile industry that quickly began to set Designtex apart. Soon after cofounding the company with fellow NYU alumnus Harry Paley in 1961, they were producing their first product, a flame-retardant drapery knit called Varel, for the Seagram Building on Fifth Avenue.
Guided by conversations with architects and designers, Saltzman and Paley expanded their business, diversifying their line of products to address a wider range of design challenges, seeking out the best mills and manufacturers from around the world along the way. Saltzman’s love of product and process enabled him to forge deep, personal bonds with producers and clients alike. Today, Designtex’s Mohair textiles are made in the same small mill in Belgium that first produced the brand’s Mohair Plush textile back in the mid 1960s.
Constantly curious, Saltzman was also committed to moving textile design forward. Saltzman invited architects Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown to collaborate on new product lines, even though none of them had experience with textiles. He celebrated design provocation and gave the architects freedom to experiment, introducing a new approach to commercial textile design. The collaboration resulted in the launch of the groundbreaking Portfolio Collection in 1991.
Always looking to expand the definition of contract textiles, Saltzman sought out partnerships with the Josef Hoffman archive, the M.C. Escher archive, and the Guggenheim Museum, as well as renowned designers Clodagh and William McDonough. His curiosity and collaborative spirit remain a part of Designtex’s DNA 60 years later and has inspired us to lead in the development of sustainable textiles, biophilic design, and digital printing. The spirit innovation he fostered at Designtex has earned the brand many commendations including a first prize from the Design Museum of London. Several Designtex textiles also are part of the collection at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.
But Saltzman’s spirit of creativity extended far beyond his working life. He and his wife, Muriel, amassed an expansive art collection and their mutual love of art and design was a major influence on their daughters, Lisa and Jodi. Together, the Saltzman family established an exhibition room for the Norton Museum’s permanent photography collection in West Palm Beach, where he was a board member. He also served on the board of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.
Ralph Saltzman’s love of the design industry was immense, he was generous with his time and advice and loved the architects, designers, sales reps, and Designtex associates he worked with and mentored. In addition to Designtex, he will be remembered for impact he made on the lives of hundreds of people in the design community.