What modern was: Mid Century masters of luxury

Samuel Marx is one of the great chimeras of design. The only child of a prosperous Natchez, Mississippi, merchant family, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, went on to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and completed his education at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1910 he moved to Chicago, then the nerve center of his profession, and very soon established his own practice. From the earliest days in his career, Marx insisted that he handle not only the structural design of a project, but the interior design as well. As his reputation grew, he proved himself a master of many styles—rococo, chinoiserie, neoclassical, and streamlined moderne. But even in the grandest, most traditional interiors Marx would insert simple trim pieces, such as side tables and andirons that offered a small bit of visual relief in a voluptuous decor. “Marx appreciated the best of classical design,” says Liz O’Brien, a Manhattan design gallery owner and the author of Ultramodern: Samuel Marx, Architect, Designer, Art Collector (2007). “What he rebelled against was bad historicism. What he did was to apply classical standards of balance and mass to modern things.”

After completing a series of much-applauded commercial projects in the late 1930s—in particular the 1937–1938 renovation of the famed Pump Room at Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel—Marx attracted a clientele willing to give him stylistic carte blanche over their commissions. He used the opportunity to fully explore his concept of modernity as part of an historical continuum of design, developing a vocabulary for furnishings that eschewed excessive ornamentation in favor of spare, mainly geometric forms (see Figs. 1, 6–11). It is significant to note that many of Marx’s patrons were, as he was himself, collectors of modern art. His paramount concerns, however, were for superb quality of construction and for livability. In seating pieces, he would take classic forms—a slipper chair, club chair, a side chair with a Queen Anne silhouette—amplify their proportions to suit a twentieth-century human body, and cover them in lush, welcoming upholstery by Dorothy Wright Liebes, the San Francisco–based grande dame of American textiles (see Fig. 7). For his case goods and tables, Marx found a kindred spirit in the exacting Chicago cabinetmaker William J. Quigley (d. 1946). While the pieces Marx designed were simple in shape, he imbued them with luxuriousness in their finishes. Together, he and Quigley devised a repertoire of finishes that included crackle-glazed lacquer (see Fig. 8), parchment, reverse-applied silver leaf on glass, limed oak, and bleached elm. Marx was also among the first designers to incorporate Lucite into his work. “Luxury is subtle in Marx’s work, but everything he did was painstakingly considered,” says O’Brien. “By using U.S. craftsmen executing pieces at the highest level of their abilities, I think you can say that Marx was the first designer to devise an authentically American form of modernism.”

What film stars dread most was most likely the biggest break of William Haines’s life: he was fired. In 1933, with Hollywood still operating under the near feudal “studio system,” MGM canceled Haines’s contract. A matinee idol of the silent picture era, he had outgrown his stock screen role as a wisecracking undergrad.

There was a second act in the life of William Haines. While an actor, he had developed a reputation as a man of taste; in 1930 he had even opened a small antiques shop and had decorated for friends such as Joan Crawford (1908–1977). An instinctive decorator rather than an educated one, Haines was as much of a convert to modernism as his clients. His own house was his first laboratory, where he honed his eye as a colorist and his talent for blending decorative styles. He bought a gloomy Spanish colonial house in 1926 and reinvented it, painting the walls white, installing Adamesque moldings, commissioning an azure and white art deco mural based on classical themes, and adding a dash of fantasy with chinoiserie wallpaper and objets d’art—the last being a design flourish he would employ throughout his career.

Haines’s stature grew as he undertook decorating projects for movie stars such as Carole Lombard (1908–1942) and Constance Bennett (1904–1955), and by the mid- to late 1930s he was attracting the patronage of studio bigwigs such as director George Cukor (1899–1983) and producer Jack Warner (1896–1981). Decors for the latter two would incorporate a range of design genres—rococo, neoclassical, Georgian, and nineteenth-century Mexican silver furnishings. But Haines was also beginning to introduce trim modernist elements such as copper-clad moldings and fireplace surrounds, sleek curvilinear sofas, and his Hostess Chair, a klismos-inspired piece that saw many iterations, but which always included comfortable yet elegant biscuit-tufted backrests and seats, and legs clad in leather. “Haines did not like hard-edged modernism—he liked to keep it soft, but ultra-luxurious,” says Peter Schifando, keeper of the Haines archive. “He wanted to create decors that were easy to live with, and yet he understood that an interior was ultimately just a backdrop—a lesson he learned from his time as a movie star.”4

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

» View All