Making the Ordinary Extraordinary
By R. Louis Bofferding
“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.
John Dickinson was born in 1920, and raised in Berkeley. Around 1940 he went to New York, enrolled at Parsons, and left before graduating to work at Lord & Taylor in display, and the interior design department, then run by William Pahlmann. He designed furniture for W. & J. Sloan and Drexel. Returning to California, he worked at I. Magnin in Los Angeles, married, and built a house in Redlands that he decorated, which appeared in a 1951 magazine, his first published work. In 1956 he set himself up as an independent decorator. Then, his wife died in childbirth, and Dickinson became an alcoholic. Sometime later a San Francisco decorator, E. Coleman Dick, offered him a job if he stopped drinking. Having reached rock bottom, he did. From there, with a talent like his, the only way to go was up.
He bought an 1893 Pacific Heights firehouse...For the next twenty years he would tweak it architecturally, and furnish it so remarkably, that it became one of the most published dwellings of the day.
Fast forward to 1965, by which time Dickinson had reestablished himself as an independent designer. Receiving an inheritance on his parents’ death, he bought an 1893 Pacific Heights firehouse, which had miraculously survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. For the next twenty years he would tweak it architecturally, and furnish it so remarkably, that it became one of the most published dwellings of the day. Initially, though, he moved in with just a few possessions. He furnished it gradually with what struck his eye, and what he could afford, which was the Victorian, Edwardian, Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau antiques that no one else then wanted. Not that his decor was faux de mieux, as it were. “I love the 19th century,” he said, because “it wasn’t as classical as the eighteenth, or slick as the twentieth.” In any case, the astonishing result was a must-see among the local gentry, and visiting design-world worthies, including David Hicks, Andrée Putman, and, of all people, Sister Parish.
Gradually, as Dickinson’s career began to take off, he replaced the antiques with furniture of his own devising. One of the pieces that he had made for himself, just prior to moving in, is the aforementioned armoire, painted in trompe-l'œil to resemble a typical Bay Area gingerbread row house. Having seen “photographs of a collection of furniture owned by the Duchess of Windsor…fantastic stuff…I was so hooked that I sat right down and taught myself how to fool the eye.” What he was looking at was a pair of 1930s Louis XV-style commodes by Jansen. They were trompe-l'œil painted with ribbons, butterflies, and feathers in pastels. Dickinson, however, painted in earth tones a chipped façade that had seen better days. In the years that would follow, new designs were added, and recently purchased antiques with good bones were altered, often beyond recognition, to suit his purpose and demanding aesthetic. Among them is the towering cabinet where he placed those glossy white African fetishes.
If nearly everything in the sale comes from his firehouse, absolutely everything belongs, or once belonged, to Carlene Safdie.
If nearly everything in the sale comes from his firehouse, absolutely everything belongs, or once belonged, to Carlene Safdie. She inherited Dickinson’s estate, and recently donated some two hundred of his exquisitely rendered working drawings to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She was a former Miss America contestant, “the runner up for Idaho, where there isn’t a lot of competition,” says she with typical, self-deprecating humor. Those good looks, along with her charm, wit, and kind heart, seduced Dickinson, who was by then openly gay. In 1972 she landed in San Francisco with her financier husband, Ed, and would come to engage Dickinson to decorate their 1920s Julia Morgan townhouse, her two very high-end fashion boutiques on Sacramento Street, and, when Ed bought it in 1979, the Sonoma Mission Inn. If her husband didn’t cotton to Dickinson from the get go (getting in a fender bender while cruising the Tenderloin in Ed’s Rolls Royce didn’t help), he became an admirer when Dickinson pulled off the decoration of the Inn on time, on budget, and to rave press reviews. Long since sold, and subsequently dismantled, many of the furnishings were lost, but Carlene rescued a couple of lamps, and an imposing pair of standing lamps from the lobby, which are in this sale.
Those standing lamps are yet another instance of Dickinson taking inspiration from the 1930s (by this time the Art Deco revival was in full swing). His model was derived—copied, actually—from an Alberto Giacometti bronze model commissioned by Jean-Michel Frank, and christened feuille (leaf). Dickinson’s leafy version has a wrought-iron core sheathed in papier-mache, faux painted to replicate the oxidized patina of the ancient bronzes that had inspired Giacometti in the first place. Frank, it should be noted, exerted an enormous influence on Dickinson, which he let pass unacknowledged. This could be construed as the anxiety of influence, although what Dickinson did with it invariably came off looking like Dickinson. A more likely explanation is that he simply didn’t want his work to be seen through the scrim of history. After all, as quoted above, “originality is paramount” precisely because “it’s all been done before.” And so Dickinson could regard the post-modernist dilemma with some dispassion.
Dickinson did acknowledge, however, the influence of tribal Africa. At the decidedly down-market Cost Plus, he purchased a brand new Ugandan traveling stool that inspired his plaster end table, made in two sizes, which has since become his signature design. In addition, he had a few more hand-carved from pine, in a variety of sizes, for the firehouse. On another shopping expedition there he filled his cart with a group of new African fetish figures that he transformed into fetishes of modern design, and exhibited in a 1974 room for a SFMOMA benefit show house. Today, their colonialist implications provoke a sense of unease, but Dickinson’s eye was a roving one, which alighted on Victorian furniture here, African fetishes there, and anything in between that suited his purpose.
And now let’s revisit Dickinson’s masterpiece as an interior designer, the great room of the firehouse, in it’s second and final 1970s incarnation. We needn’t single out here the works that are in it, which are seen on the pages that follow, but it’s instructive to point out commonalities with Frank’s masterpiece in Paris, the salon of Vicomte Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles. Both silhouette white upholstery against tawny-hued walls, and both break a rule, successfully, with the use of low-slung furniture in a high ceilinged room. The color palettes were derived from materials left in their natural state. In Frank’s case they’re luxurious: straw marquetry, bronze, ivory, and rock crystal, presented against a backdrop of parchment-sheathed walls. Whereas Dickinson’s are unassuming: waxed oak, steel, and brass, against a backdrop of walls and a ceiling stained by smoke, which, over the decades, had wafted from cigars and cigarettes of idling firemen. Not only did Dickinson preserve the staining, he sealed it in, and hired a faux painter to augment it.
“What I do is always mine. I want my work to be instantly recognizable...my rooms always end up looking like me. There’s no way I can avoid that, and I don’t want to.”
How did he channel the ethos of Frank when the first monograph on his work appeared in 1979, just three years before Dickinson’s death? The answer is found in San Francisco itself. Frank decorated the Russian Hill penthouse of Templeton Crocker in 1928. He provided the architect David Adler, and the decorator Syrie Maugham, with furnishings for the Celia Tobin Clark house, on which they collaborated in nearby Hillsborough. He supplied sales desks for a boutique in a Magnin department store, and, decades later, Dickinson would come to place one of them when decorating the bedroom suite of the painter Ralph DuCasse, whose white-on-white canvases hung in the firehouse. And then there was Frances Elkins, an important decorator, and a friend of Frank’s, who imported his furniture, and lived with some of it herself in nearby Monterrey. It’s also quite possible that Dickinson, when a Parsons student, actually encountered Frank, who, as a war refugee, had lectured there just prior to his 1941 suicide.
Dickinson, on occasion, took what he needed not only from Frank, but Syrie Maugham too, as well as Paul Frankl, T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, and others besides. Yet, as with the Giacometti standing lamp, the result was always, ironically, inimitably his own. As Dickinson said about his rooms—which could have been said about his furniture, too—“What I do is always mine. I want my work to be instantly recognizable. I think this idea that everyone pays lip service to, that a room should reflect the client more than the decorator, is utter nonsense. Clients come to you for a look. It can be tempered and diluted or softened, but my rooms always end up looking like me. There’s no way I can avoid that, and I don’t want to.”
Louis Bofferding is a New York antiques dealer. In 1997 he delivered a lecture on Dickinson at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and in 2004 he mounted an exhibition of the work in his gallery.