Hollywood and Glamour at the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939

Peter Schifando Los Angeles, 2012

At the height of his movie career, and the top box office star of 1929, William Haines quit the studios to become one of Hollywood’s most successful decorators. Designing for fellow movie stars Joan Crawford, Ann Sothern, Carole Lombard, Hollywood studio mogul Jack Warner, and with the help of influential friends Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst, his new career was secure from the start. Only four years after giving up the movies, Haines was invited to design a room for San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939.

Influenced by over ten years of movie making, Haines knew the set designers, costume designers and some of the finest craftsmen of the world drawn to Hollywood by the promise of work. These craftsmen produced Hollywood’s most lavish sets and many of them continued to work with Haines in his new career as decorator to the stars.

The Golden Gate International Exposition, held concurrent with the New York World’s Fair of 1939, was one of the most important international design exhibitions. The fair was held to herald the recent openings of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and to celebrate the Pageant of the Pacific showing industrial design, decorative arts, culture and products of nations bordering the Pacific Ocean. The theme of the newest and best in modern living and international cooperation, expressed needed optimism for Americans in the tenth year of the Great Depression.

The Desert Living Room athe The Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939

Haines’ design for his Desert Living Room mirrored an extraordinarily luxurious Hollywood set with rare California Joshua wood paneling and inlaid leather covered flooring. Furnishings included a built-in sofa covered in felt and laced rawhide trim, a desk and chair covered in parchment and laced rawhide trim with silver and turquoise hardware, a backgammon table covered in rawhide with laced rawhide trim, lamps covered in parchment and mounted in silver and turquoise and burnished, tortoise-finished saddle leather chairs. The room also included a fireplace mantel made of silver and turquoise, with a slate hearth with andirons of acrylic and crystal, antler wall sconces of acrylic and silver, hearth cushions of angora and curtains of sheer mohair, all under the gaze of a desert skull painting by Georgia O’Keefe loaned by his friend and art collector Wright Luddington of Santa Barbara.

Among the hundreds of other artists and exhibitors at the Golden Gate International Exposition were Alvar Aalto, Tommi Parzinger, Gilbert Rohde and Frances Elkins. Exhibits with the “designs reflecting the present-day culture of Western Europe and America” included sculpture by Brancusi, Calder, Giacometti; tapestry by Miro, Matisse, Picasso; silver by Puiforcat, Jensen, Spratling; glass by Lalique, Marinot, and Venini, and ceramics by Dufy, Ginori and Wright. San Francisco’s exposition brought together designers and an exchange of design ideas for the future “world of tomorrow.”

Billed as an opportunity for the general public to walk with Hollywood Stars, the fair was a unique experience to see the glamorous designs of William Haines for the first time.

Actress Ann Rutherford

In 1942 the actress Ann Rutherford and her husband David May II hired William Haines to design the interior of their Hollywood residence. Haines included the game suite from the Golden Gate International exposition and the following five lots in the movie star’s library.

It would be hard to underestimate the importance of the 1939 golden Gate International Exposition. Although it is seldom referenced today, it stands with the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris of 1925 and 1937 in its influence on designers and craftsmen as well as on the public.

—Liz O’Brien