July 2008 | Theworld of fine decorative arts has been populated by many colorful characters, but only one who could have stepped out of the pages of Damon Runyon or—if your tastes run to less sentimental portrayers of the criminal underworld—Mario Puzo.
His name was James Mont, a.k.a. James Pess, a.k.a. Demetrios Pecintoglu—the name he was given at his birth in Istanbul—and his life and work were a mind-boggling admixture of the louche and the luxurious. From the early 1930s and into the 1960s, Mont was one of the most prominent designers and decorators on the East Coast. His forte was creating furniture that offered a stylish and dramatic, yet modern, take on historical forms and details—most of his designs drew on Asian influences, though he often employed classical elements in his pieces. The flamboyance of Mont’s designs was exceeded only by that of his lifestyle. His friends and clients included show business figures such as Bob Hope, Irving Berlin, and Lana Turner, as well as mob kingpins such as Frank Costello and “Lucky” Luciano. Mont was a suave and gregarious habitué of cocktail lounges, enjoyed flashy cars and the company of chorus girls, but he also had a violent temper that on one occasion led to his serving a prison term for assault.1 In an interview, Todd Merrill, a New York vintage design dealer who has made a special study of Mont, said he believes the man’s personality and his work were of a piece: “He was glamorous and loud, and the furniture he made had a kind of showy opulence. It appealed to people with no interest in machine age or severe modernism; they wanted interiors that were lively and decorative. And a Mont interior definitely wasn’t boring.”
Details of Mont’s career are (for reasons that will shortly become apparent) sometimes sketchy. By some accounts, his father was a noted artist in Turkey, and Mont himself is said to have studied art and architecture in France and Spain before immigrating with his family to the United States in the early 1920s. He got his start as a decorator in the mid-twenties while he was running a Brooklyn electrical supply shop where, in addition to hardware, he sold lamps of his own design. Frankie Yale, a local mafia capo, the story goes, stopped in with a girlfriend one day and was so impressed by the charming proprietor and his creations that he hired Mont to refurnish his house. Soon Mont was the decorator of choice to crime bosses. Some of his earliest specialties were collapsible bars—a must in the era of Prohibition—and tables and desks with secret compartments2 “perfect for stashing away a gun and some cash,” Merrill notes.