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.” 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 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.