Showmanship and fantasy: the designs of James Mont

Bankrolled by the mob, Mont opened a store in Manhattan, on Fifth Avenue, in 1932. It was to be one of many business addresses for him. A spendthrift and a gambler, he was forever dodging creditors and tax collectors. Between 1932 and 1940 Mont operated from four separate midtown Manhattan locations. He would declare bankruptcy three times in his career. Still, his exotic and expressive designs—muscularly scaled Asian style furnishings with simplified silhouettes, augmented with lavish hardware and finishes—brought him a steady stream of customers, as well as grudging (given Mont’s shady connections) esteem in the professional design arena. (Mont was, for example, invited to create a “Chinese Modern” room for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.) Showmanship played a large part in his success. He cultivated a reputation as a perfectionist. While escorting a prospective client through his shop, he might suddenly start to slash at a chair with a knife, declaring it imprecisely upholstered. Though often such outbursts were an act, he had a genuine vicious streak. He unmercifully beat his nephew John Karfo, when the boy failed to have his uncle’s shoes shined, as ordered. Mont married the twenty-five-year-old Korean-American actress Helen Kim in 1937—Bob Hope attended the ceremony—and twenty-nine days after the wedding she was found dead in their Park Avenue apartment. Her demise was ruled a suicide, but it is open to speculation whether Mont’s violent nature played a hand in her death.

Mont paid for his brutal tendencies in 1940, when he was convicted on assault and battery charges. The year before he had lured the lampshade designer Dorothy Burns to his apartment on the pretence of discussing a business deal, but apparently had other things in mind. When Burns resisted Mont thrashed her so savagely that she was confined to a hospital for two weeks. (During the court proceedings, Burns, feeling disgraced by Mont’s attack, hanged herself.) Mont was sentenced to a five- to ten-year jail term, which he served in Sing Sing penitentiary.3

Mont emerged from prison in 1945 apparently chastened, and certainly more creative. He had spent his time in jail drafting new designs and experimenting with finishes. While his previous work could often be “over the top to the point of kitsch,” Merrill says, after his release, Mont developed a vocabulary that, while not surrendering Asian and classical motifs, became more restrained and elegant. Chinoiserie is a curiously enduring genre in Western decorative arts. For his part, Mont put down his love of the Asian to his ethnicity. “I am an Oriental,” he said. “[To me,] the delicate touch of Oriental spice…is just as necessary in furniture design as it is in fine cooking.”4 Others explain the popularity of chinoiserie in Mont’s day as a matter of zeitgeist. “It was a form of escapism,” says design historian Donald Albrecht. According to Merrill, “in Paris and New York before the war, and then through the fifties, you saw sensual, fantasy style design in the work of Dorothy Draper, Tony Duquette, and Mont. There was no theory or manifesto behind their work, as there was for the high modernists. Mont and the others took a much more emotional approach to design, embracing history, but adapting it to modern uses with scale and color.”

Merrill sees Mont’s work as a kind of modern variant of the “grand tour” experience that influenced the work of eighteenth-century designers such as Thomas Hope, who, after visiting Greece and Italy, developed classical detailing for their pieces. “After the Second World War you had soldiers returning from the Pacific and from Italy,” Merrill says. “They brought back artifacts, and discovered a taste for Asian and classical themes.”

It is easy to infer that the war influenced one of Mont’s most creative finishing techniques, in which alternating patches of silver and gold leaf create a camouflage print effect on his pieces. Finishes, indeed, are where Mont truly excelled. He might take a wooden case piece, sandblast it, treat the surface with stale beer and rottenstone, then pickle the whole thing. He would stain a piece of wood, then rub it with a chalk-colored pigment to pick up the figuring in the grain. Lacquered pieces took a monumental effort: each was coated with as many as fourteen layers of resin, which craftsmen hand-sanded and polished between each coat. Mont’s metal-leafed pieces are extraordinary.5 “Before he applied the leaf---ing, he would paint a piece with several undercoats in different colors: pale green, blue, lavender, yellow,” Merrill says. “When the leafing was affixed, he had his workers rub it in places almost to the point of transparency, so you could pick out a hint of the colors below. Silver was allowed to oxide slightly before a final clear lacquer topcoat was applied. The effect is amazing.”

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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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