What modern was: Mid Century masters of luxury

May 2008 | Whatever is new, is bad,” Wallace Nutting wrote in 1925. A minister-turned-entrepreneur who almost single-handedly popularized the colonial revival style via the sale of period furniture reproductions, Nutting (1861–1941) was one of the most acerbic partisans in an aesthetic fight waged in the early decades of the twentieth century—a battle between modernism and tradition.

In the 1920s and 1930s the cream of the American aristocracy was firmly entrenched in the latter camp. In 1927, while the architect Rudolph M. Schindler (1887–1953) was completing the structure and furnishings for his groundbreaking Bauhaus style beach house for Philip M. Lovell (1895–1978), a Los Angeles area physician and health faddist, Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887–1973) was putting the finishing touches on Mar-a-Lago, her lavish Hispano-Italianate estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Nine years later, as Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) was topping off his masterpiece Fallingwater for the Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann (1885–1955), Doris Duke (1912–1993) was erecting Shangri-La, a Pan-Islamic style bijoux palace, in Hawaii. But just at that time, three designers were emerging who would eventually woo the elite to an appreciation of fresher modernist furniture forms: Terence Harold (T. H.) Robsjohn-Gibbings, a transplanted Briton based in New York City; the Chicago architect and designer Samuel A. Marx; and William Haines, a star of silent movies who became the interior decorator of choice to Hollywood’s elite. For each the strategy was the same—first, to provide luxurious one-of-a-kind custom furnishings made to exacting specifications and with the finest finishes and upholstery; and secondly to accommodate historicism within a modern framework.

After studying architecture, Robsjohn-Gibbings studied architecture at the University of London and embarked on a peripatetic career. In the 1920s he designed ocean liner interiors, was the art director for a movie studio, and joined the interior design firm of Charles J. Duveen (1871–1940), brother of the legendary art and antiques dealer Joseph Duveen (1869–1939). In the early 1930s, while exploring the ancient Greek galleries of the British Museum, Robsjohn-Gibbings experienced an epiphany. He noticed the furniture depicted on the fifth century bc vases and drinking vessels and was immediately captivated.  He spent day after day sketching the designs and painting watercolor renderings. “I saw furniture that was young, untouched by time,” he wrote in Furniture of Classical Greece (1964). “Vitality, surging through the human figures on the vases, surged through this furniture. I had wandered unsuspecting into a new world.”

And a new world was what Robsjohn-Gibbings was seeking. Stifled by London between the wars, he sailed to New York in 1936 , armed with taste, wit, social connections courtesy of Duveen, and, of course, a suave British accent. He opened a showroom on Madison Avenue where he displayed his reinterpreted Greek pieces—curve-legged klismos chairs, chaise longues, and tables—all pared down to their essential forms. One of Robsjohn-Gibbings’s signal interior design commissions came from Hilda Boldt Weber, an industrialist’s widow hoping to make a splash in Los Angeles society. Between 1936 and 1938 Robsjohn-Gibbings designed more than two hundred pieces for her house, Casa Encantada (see cover and Figs. 2, 4, 5). Executed in blond wood, most of the designs are sleek and simple, though a number have dramatic, classically inspired ornamentation. “I think the more elaborate pieces have more to do with the client’s tastes,” says author James Buresh.*

Robsjohn-Gibbings eventually accrued a client list that included Thelma Chrysler Foy, Elizabeth Arden, and even Doris Duke. His interiors aimed at an understated opulence; one of their chief features is openness and lack of clutter. The designer did not refer to himself as a modernist: his goal was to create furniture that was timeless—pieces that represent the idea that, as he wrote, “[T]here must be a profound understanding of the past as well as an awareness of the present if there is to be a future.”3 For scholars such as Buresh, that is Robsjohn-Gibbings’s legacy: “His contribution to the acceptance of modernism was to champion the virtues of the purity of classical forms.”

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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