What modern was: Mid Century masters of luxury

By the 1940s and into the 1950s, when he began to work with architects such as A. Quincy Jones (1913–1979), who favored glass walls and flat roofs with wide overhangs, Haines had established a stylistic inventory that included both “feminine” and “masculine” modernist furnishings. His Elbow Chair—a slipper seat with a lip extending from the backrest—was designed to flatter a woman, who could sit upon the chair sidesaddle, and drape an arm becomingly across the seatback. Haines’s Conference Chair, in contrast, had a lean arced backrest with an angled edge, which seems to impart a sort of manly strength to anyone seated in it. While these designs figure again and again in Haines interiors, he always tweaked the forms for each client. “Haines furniture is all about quality and respect for craftsmanship,” Schifando says, “but it is also about uniqueness. He wanted it to be clear that his pieces were made for one person.” This is perhaps why Haines understood that modernist furniture, while ostensibly more uncomplicated than its antecedents, actually required even higher standards. As Haines said, “You can gussy-up and hide things behind veils and ruffles and suedes, but when you come to simplicity the truth comes out.”5

Modernism, from the Wiener Werkstäate of Josef Hoffmann, to the Bauhaus, to Gilbert Rohde, to Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, and even to Ikea, has always had a democratic strain: the idea that good design should be available to all. As such, modernism was long antithetical to the majority of the privileged classes. What, they asked, is the point of having furniture that anyone can have? The custom work of Robsjohn-Gibbings, Marx, and Haines led the elites to an understanding that modernism is first and foremost an aesthetic and intellectual movement and, further, one that traces its lineage to the revered design genres of past ages.

1 T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, and C. W. Pullin, Furniture of Classical Greece (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1963), p. 14.
2 James Buresh is the author of a forthcoming monograph on Robsjohn-Gibbings interiors to be published by Acanthus Press.
3 T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Homes of the Brave (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1954), p. 98.
4 Peter Schifando and Jean H. Mathison, Class Act: William Haines, Legendary Hollywood Decorator (Pointed Leaf Press, New York, 2005), p. 110.
5 Quoted ibid., p.117.

GREGORY CERIO has written about antiques from American portrait miniatures to Russian silver for a variety of publications.

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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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