November 1, 2020

Remembering Designtex Founder Ralph Saltzman

Saltzman at work in his Palm Beach home. Photography courtesy of Designtex. 

Ralph Saltzman, co-founder of Designtex, a leading manufacturer of applied materials for the built environment, passed away July 24. He leaves behind a legacy of innovation and an investment in the future of art and design.

A Bronx native, Ralph Saltzman worked for Herman Miller in the 1950s after graduating from New York University. There, he met Harry Paley with whom he cofounded Designtex in 1961. Saltzman’s exacting acumen for product design was evident from the very start of the company, as was his extraordinary enthusiasm for the textile industry. The company’s first product Verel, a flame-retardant drapery knit for the Seagrams building on Fifth Avenue, established the brand as a solutions-based innovator. 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 said.

A photograph of Saltzman and Paley from the 1970s. Photograph courtesy of Designtex. 

Guided by conversations with architects and designers, Saltzman and Paley expanded their business, diversifying their line of products to address a myriad of design challenges while maintaining an office in New York. To develop solutions, they sought out the best mills and highest-quality producers from around the world. The brand’s Mohair Plush textile, first introduced in the mid-1960s, was woven in a small mill in Belgium—that very mill still makes Designtex’s Mohair textiles today. Saltzman’s love of product and process enabled him to forge deep, personal bonds with mill owners and clients alike. He also mentored a generation of Designtex associates, generous with his time and advice.

Voraciously curious, Saltzman investigated the many ways textiles could be designed and developed. One of his most iconic contributions came in 1991 with the launch of the Portfolio Collection, working with architects Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown. Saltzman invited the group to collaborate on new product lines, even though none of them had direct experience in the field of textiles. He celebrated design provocation and gave the architects freedom to experiment, introducing a new approach to commercial textile design. Always looking for interesting partners that could expand the definition of contract textiles, Saltzman also worked with the Josef Hoffman archive, the M.C. Escher archive, and the Guggenheim Museum as well as renowned designers Clodagh and William McDonough. Saltzman’s curiosity and collaborative spirit is evident nearly 60 years later in the company’s DNA and has inspired employees to lead in the development of sustainable textiles, biophilic design, and digital printing. The work has earned 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.

Ralph Saltzman created a legacy that lives on through Designtex today. Photography courtesy of Designtex. 

Saltzman’s creative spirit extended far beyond his working life. He and his wife, Muriel, amassed an expansive art collection and their mutual love of art and design profoundly influenced 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. Saltzman also served as a board member at the Norton while contributing to further museum expansions and, additionally, served on the board at Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

Ralph Saltzman loved the design industry and the design community—the architects, the designers, the sales reps, and the Designtex associates. In addition to Designtex, his legacy will be felt through the hundreds of people in the industry that he mentored and counseled.

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