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Modern Americana

Clients: Todd Merrill Antiques/Rizzoli Publications
October 2008

Excerpt 1: Charles Hollis Jones
Although various synthetic materials found their way into post-war furnishings, it was not until the 1960s that plastics truly came into their own. (It was 1967, for example, when Mr. McGuire advised a young Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, “I just want to say one word to you—just one word… plastics. There is a great future in plastics. Think about it.”) Charles Hollis Jones, whose career began in 1961 (when he was just 16 years old), arrived on the scene at a pivotal moment—although by a somewhat indirect route. “I really fell in love with glass,” recalls Jones, “but it couldn’t do what I wanted it to do.” Looking back now, more than 45 years after Jones began his career, it is difficult to imagine that acrylic—the material that would become his signature medium—wasn’t Jones’ first choice. He was not the first to design acrylic furniture—Grosfeld House, for example, was producing traditional furniture designs from acrylic in the 1940s. But Jones was among the first to treat acrylic as a unique material, to meet it on its own terms—and apply it to distinctly modern designs. Numerous designers experimented at one time or another with what is a highly seductive medium, but none pursued acrylic with Jones’ dogged determination. Jones built his entire career around acrylic (although he also designed scores of all-metal accessories early on), creating everything from table lighters to four-poster beds and custom staircases from the material. It has been his innovative approach—combined with a broad range of manufacturing processes—that has allowed Jones to transform acrylic’s image from slick to chic. Of course, not everybody approaches acrylic with Jones’s sensitivity. And, “the uneducated use of acrylic,” says Jones, “is a disaster.”

Excerpt 2: Arthur Elrod
Few designers have transformed American interiors to the extent Arthur Elrod (1926–1974) did. With his uncanny ability to combine luxurious furnishings and informal lifestyles, Elrod created his own decidedly glamorous—and distinctly American—version of modernism. And one that has stood the test of time. The Hollywood Regency look so popular today—an eclectic mix of the highly decorative tempered with the sobriety of modernism—is something Elrod mastered in the 1950s. Upholstered pieces were plush despite their crisp lines, with fabrics ranging from muted desert hues to Jack Lenor Larsen’s bright psychedelics. Highly polished lacquers were used for case goods and, in some instances, for wall treatments and architectural elements. And Elrod designed it all, including the floating cabinetry and pierced room dividers that would remain among his signature touches. “I think Arthur started a whole new approach to interior design through his customization of furniture, and integrating it into the space,” said interior designer Marybeth Waterman, who began her career in the Elrod office. “It was appropriate and directly responsive to the architectural space.”

Excerpt 3: Harvey Probber
If the public has only recently become aware of Harvey Probber’s vast body of work, it is not because he wasn’t prolific. For more than forty years Probber designed and marketed his furniture designs, winning over interior designers and discriminating consumers with his clean lines, expert craftsmanship, and a range of luxurious materials and exquisite finishes rarely seen in modern furniture design. In fact, Probber’s success was anticipated almost from the very beginning. Before he was twenty years old, one of his sketches—of a residential interior appointed with modern, low-slung furniture—was published as part of an “Interiors to Come” magazine competition. When he took his first full-time job in the furniture business in the mid-forties, with Trade Upholstery in New York, a mailer announced to clients that Probber was a “brilliant newcomer, whose freshly original approach… marks him for prominence.” His early Sling chair and Nuclear seating group were chosen for MoMA’s Good Design exhibition in 1951. Yet despite his impressive list of accomplishments and enviable career, Probber’s work was not included in the first wave of the midcentury modern revival that began in the 1990s. But by that time, Probber had grown accustomed to (if not entirely comfortable with) what had become a recurring theme: he was simply ahead of his time.

RESOURCES

Todd Merrill Antiques

Rizzoli Publications

Charles Hollis Jones

Modern Americana at Amazon.com

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© 2008 peter j. wolf