Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

By R. Louis Bofferding

The great room of Dickinson's Firehouse residence in San Francisco. Photo by Fred Lyon

“One should never design with the idea of being extraordinary,” said John Dickinson, the San Francisco furniture and interior designer in a 1978 interview. “I don’t like viewing my designs as sculpture…this is not art, it’s decoration.” To say otherwise would have been pretentious, yet the quote doesn’t quite square with the work itself. Take, for example, three items: the armoire that’s trompe-l'œil-painted to resemble a Bay Area row house facade, the tables “draped” with galvanized-tin tablecloths, and the hand-carved African fetishes he mounted on bull-nosed bases, and sprayed with glossy white automobile enamel. All, like pretty much everything he designed, are nothing if not extraordinary.

“Design is like vocabulary. There are so many ways to say the same familiar things, so originality is paramount. After all, somehow, somewhere, it’s all been done before.”

Dickinson hit the mark, however, in another interview in which, to mix metaphors, he cracked the door open between design and art. “Design is like vocabulary. There are so many ways to say the same familiar things, so originality is paramount. After all, somehow, somewhere, it’s all been done before.” This explains the course he embarked on a decade earlier, when the concept of post modernism was still in gestation, which allowed him to tack between modernism and historicism, function and eccentricity. The result was a body of work that was, for the most part, practical, cerebral, and elegant.

Prettiness has nothing to do with style. Logic precludes prettiness. If you're stripping down rooms, as I do, there's no place for it.

John Dickinson