John Dickinson 1920–1982
John Dickinson was a designer celebrated for cultivating an inventive style that blended diverse influences such as eighteenth century English forms, Art Deco, Greek classicism and surrealism, to create modern pieces that endure as both sophisticated and playful.
John Dickinson was born in 1920 and grew up in Berkeley. He attended the Parsons School of Design, where he studied under the renowned interior designer Albert Hadley. Dickinson worked for a few years in New York at interior design firms and department stores, but moved back to San Francisco to establish his own studio in 1956. Early influences for Dickinson included Jean-Michel Frank’s pared-down interiors, rendered in luxe materials and with a pastiche of historical styles, Serge Roche’s classicist re-imaginations and T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings’ Klismos designs.
Dickinson mostly worked for a small, devoted circle of private collectors in California, designing rooms and homes for clients in totality, which is how he thought his vision was best expressed. He created his first widely-distributed pieces of furniture for Drexel’s Et Cetera line in 1965 and received his first large-scale commission in 1971 to design the interior of the I. Magnin department store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. His first complete line of furniture debuted at Macy’s, San Francisco in 1978 and featured what had become emblems of Dickinson’s style: a monochromatic palette, tromp l’œil effects, using scale to dramatic effect and mixing historical and cultural motifs. The collection included stark white bookcases resembling skyscrapers, nightstands with Roman column bases, a dresser that appeared to be made of concrete slabs, tables with legs in the shape of animal bones and stackable trunks that looked as though they’d been buried for years and recently unearthed.
While lauded by the design community for its originality, the collection was expensive and its references were too erudite and eccentric for the average consumer. Dickinson’s focus returned to private commissions and in 1980 he completed the interiors for the one-hundred-room Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, which was owned by a long-time supporter of his work, Carlene Safdie. In 1982 Dickinson passed away, leaving behind a singular body of work, that mostly only exists in his furniture designs; there is one extant Dickinson interior in a private home in Northern California and Dickinson’s former home, a renovated nineteenth century firehouse regarded as his magnum opus, no longer exists. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art holds a robust collection of Dickinson’s designs and held a retrospective of his work in 2003, honoring the unwavering commitment Dickinson had to creating designs that surprise, amuse and delight those who live with them.