One lucky guy from Santa Barbara, B.R., tells me that his daughter's friend in Beverly Hills, upon a visit through a nice neighborhood, found two incredible exotic chairs, obviously midcentury. He threw on the brakes and loaded them up, eventually giving them to B.R.
I myself would have done the same; these two chairs are so inspiring. These fall in to the category of midcentury design that I like the best, called Hollywood Regency. Those who have read this column know that this is my style, which I call (when added to rich colors and oversized cushioned furniture) Early Brothel.
At first glance, they look Chinese, but the 1950-60s had a taste for Asian, albeit imagined as fantasy oriental: chinoiserie. Throughout history, when the geometric lines of a certain era became too restrictive and severe, the swing of the pendulum went to the grace of Asian designs. This happened in the 18th century and again in the 19th century. And here we see it in the 20th century.
B.R. tells me that he suspects the chair's designer is the notorious James Mont, the bad boy of midcentury furniture design, and I think he's right.
Why bad boy? Darkly handsome, mysterious, with an unidentifiable foreign accent, James Mont was born Demetrios Pecintoglu in Istanbul in 1904 to an artistic family. In 1920, the family moved to Brooklyn, and Demetrios landed a job in an electrical supply shop, where he dabbled in designing lamps. One of his lamps was purchased by the local mob boss. We don't know the back story, but from that single lamp, Boss Frankie Yale was inspired to ask James Mont (now his new name) to design Yale's house. James caught fire, and became the mob's fave designer, making houses for Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano.
The road was short to Hollywood aristocracy from there, and James Mont designed for Bob Hope, Irving Berlin and Lana Turner, who also cavorted with the mob.
James Mont is today a sought-after designer for his luscious designs in that Hollywood Regency style, that peculiar mix of kitsch and elegance, modernism and classicism; think mirrored, sleek, hand-rubbed furniture, gold and silver highlights, bold statement colors, and white shag. Think huge rooms, deep black velvet sofas with long low backs, think a whole side of a room as a bar, think glamour.
Of course, when James Mont began designing for the mob, we didn't drink, because of Prohibition. Prohibition meant we shouldn't drink, so James designed foldaway portable bars in the Chinese or tropical taste and desks with secret drawers, all gleaming with that lacquer finish we see on B.R.'s chairs. This became a signature, and high society loved the wit of it.
Other famous Mont finishes include that wonderful midcentury look of sand-blasted oak rubbed with a hint of pastel over gold, silver leaf, or hand-rubbed chalk finishes. He loved the accent of a smoked mirror, animal skins and royal velvets. His designs were often whimsical, they often moved, such as his lamps on a giant spring, or his designs were both unlivable and impractical, such as oversized breakfronts in the tiki taste or white on white upholstery, or costly blood red mohairs.
Mysterious, brilliant, well connected, he had, of course, trouble with women. His first marriage ended 29 days in when his own Korean-born wife was found dead, apparently of suicide, but since James had a fiery temper, and mob friends, no one found out. A year later, his attractive female lampshade designer accused him of assault, and was so humiliated that as James awaited trial for "5 to 10" years, she, too, committed suicide. Of course, all this talk of Sing Sing added to his panache as a designer and a bad boy, and a real tastemaker. And being a tastemaker is a rare thing, especially when such a man as James Mont started from nothing, but had good looks and talent oozing from his pores.
Once you have seen a Mont design, you'll not forget the look. You can put any Hollywood icon in one of his chairs, or set any overweight mob boss at his tables, or see any aging society lady pushing guests into her oversized dining rooms in Beverly Hills. You'll recognize the large scale, the fab finishes, the glamor and the humor. And in Miami, in Palm Springs, in L.A., and in my house, you'll find Mont.
B.R. got lucky; his pair of chairs is worth $800 — at least.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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