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Charles Hollis Jones- Mr. Lucite

Most over-referred to line in a movie: Mr.McGuire to young Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967): “I just want to say one word to you – just one word… plastics. There is a great future in plastics. Think about it.” Braddock of course spurns this advice, but does so at his own peril. It turns out to be great advice, even for uber-coolio mod designers. Charles Hollis Jones, born in 1945, had the good fortune to be born at just a time when new types of plastics were being introduced, and had the good sense to explore it as a new artistic medium, riding its physical properties whither it would go, exploring new boundaries. Initially, at the artistically precocious age of 16, Hollis was attracted to glass, but found it too limiting: Says Hollis: “I really fell in love with glass, but it couldn’t do what I wanted it to do.” His artistic vision stipulated that transparent geometrical volumes sustain structural tectonic integrity, in ways that would shatter glass.

Sometimes, certain people have the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, and sometimes, certain people have the good fortune to recognize what other people have been missing under their noses all along. Jones had a little of both. Acrylic was invented 15 years before Jones was born, in 1930, by British chemist William Chalmers, in what was soon known to the rest of the world as ‘plastic’ or ‘Plexiglas.’ In 1936, DuPont patents its special formulation of acrylic resin, dubbed Lucite. In World War II, acrylic was put to good use in aircraft canopies, nose cones, and gunner turrets. Other than this, it had come to ill-repute from the purveyers of cheeze, who used clear acrylics to make cheap jewelry and goofy desktop novelties. As art historian Jeffrey Meikle put it, acrylic artifacts ‘reflected a stylish frivolity.’ So, between its associations with wartime utility and peacetime kitsch, acrylics were passed over by serious artists and designers.

Jones was born in rural Indiana, and hit the ground running, designing and building his own toys, including a bicycle out of coffee cans and discarded parts. At 14, he designed and built his first piece of furniture, a cabinet for his father’s office. Sure, lots of kids fancy
themselves to have design skills, drawing cars, and tinkering with rubbish, but how many go straight from Ma and Pa Kettle’s kitchen in rural Indiana to land a job at 16 with the prestigious Roide Enterprises company in Los Angeles? Jones is one of those prodigies that you just can’t help but love to hate, not ever seemingly to struggle or claw his way to the top, but rather just waltz into the dream jobs every designer wishes for, as if it were written into the Declaration of Independence that he should have it. At Roide Enterprises, Jones was something of a design ‘proof-reader’ for other designer’s works, his self-described job to remove the ‘frou-frou’ and ‘clean up’ designs that weren’t selling well. Two years later, at his boss’ suggestion, he went to work for Hudson-Rissman, a chic West Hollywood design showroom. In *six* months, Jones went from delivery boy to head of the design department, though his work there and the store’s focus was mostly limited to small pieces and accessories.

During this time, he was offered a full scholarship to Indiana University, yet he turned it down in favor of self-education, devouring his way through all three libraries at UCLA. In his words: “I was after knowledge!” – though some years later, he did opt for a more formal education when, with the full financial support of Hudson-Rissman, he attended night classes at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.

Through the next seven years, Jone’s made acrylic and Lucite his signature medium, reversing perception of Lucite pieces from kitsch to cool, and building a client list that would make Walter Gropius cry hot tears of shame: celebrities like Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra (to name just a few), as well as some of the twentieth century’s most important interior designers and architects, like Paul Laszlo, Arthur Elrod, Hal Broderick, Steve Chase, and John Woolf.

Finally, in 1970, after having fully established himself in the design world, Jones struck out on his own, opening his own showroom at the Pacific Design Center, and freed from the limitations at Hudson-Rissman, finally was able to work on larger scale pieces. Says Jones: “I liked art you could bump into, not that you looked at on a shelf. I wanted to make big furniture!” — In his experimental explorations, he pioneered techniques for joining large Lucite castings in perfectly transparent and seamless joints. Where metal frames are employed, Jones developed a proprietary technique to join metal and Lucite without screws or fasteners spoiling the integrity of the design. By virtue of these techniques, as well as Lucite’s structural and physical properties (such as ‘transmissivity’ – not reflecting light (like glass does) but absorbing it, thereby rendering his pieces ever more ethereal), Jones has been able to create improbable pieces that not only attain aesthetically impressive forms, but which also refract and radiate light, lensing an interior, as if folding in space upon itself.

Throughout his career, Jones has received countless awards and accolades, including most recently the 2007 nomination for the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Currently, he is still very much the busy designer, having recently rolled out a new line of designs, the Nouveau Vu line, which recalls the nature-inspired Art Nouveau era designs. He laughingly admits: “I didn’t even know how to make it when I first designed it!” a familiar and favorite position he has placed himself in throughout these many years.

While some have tried to trace his hallmark, more geometrical designs to Bauaus influences (or even art deco), he eschews such attempts. He warmly embraces his rural, Indiana roots, reporting his greater influences came instead from the geometry to be found in his mother’s quilts, as well as in the post-WWII “pattern house” architecture produced by his father’s lumber yard. These more homely and yet richer, more genuine, and more profound sources for his design inspirations, that sprung from childhood memories and his first authentic contacts with the forms and colors, are the true mainspring behind his success.

Thanks to Julie Iovine and Todd Merrill, authors of Modern Americana (for historical info and pictures), as well as to 1stDibs.com (for pictures).

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Discovering Carlo Mollino

Carlo Mollino is said to have said: “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic.” What lovely nuttiness!

Mollino was fiercely individualistic and nonconformist, a true iconoclast and a fearless, swashbuckling, fire-eating boundary-breaker. Like DaVinci on crank, Mollino was a designer, architect, engineer, race car driver, stunt flier, photographer (preferred nudes), fashion designer, stage designer, writer, dabbler in the occult, and all-around artistic nose-tweaker, chain-yanker, and eye-poker. A curse on anyone who would try to place him in any category or school of art, especially the Modernist camp. – One moron (name unmentioned) whom I read tried to cast him as a modernist because he took pains to consider the functional aspects of his furniture design. Well, by that criterion, everyone BUT the Modernists could be call “Modernists” since Bauhaus et al furniture is notoriously uncomfortable and mal-functional. Vitruvius (1st century BC) required attention to function (aka ‘utility’ (along with: aesthetics and ‘firmness’ (well-built-edness))), so one could hardly claim to call Mollino a Modernist because he followed ancient Vitruvian prescripts, especially in light of his more ardent attention paid to design aesthetics, and how wildly eccentric and peculiar those Mollino aesthetics could be! — If anything, he had more in common with the Jugendstil and Secession camps, in his preference for high craftsmanship and handmade nuance individuating each piece, in stark contrast to the gospel of mass-production rubber-stamp furniture evangelized by the Modernist.

Because he did not cram himself into the pigeon-hole of an ephemeral artistic fad, his designs remain even today fresh, unanticipated, and thrilling, though no longer ‘scandalous’ as they were to his contemporaries. Sure, he had his influences, from historical Roman/Italian architecture to ancient Egyptian design/architecture to Dadaism to Surrealism to second-Futurism, and beyond. But, his work was entirely his own, without precedent.

Born May 6, 1905 to a wealthy & austere father (Eugenio), who himself was an engineer/architect, and mother (Iolanda), who also certainly had high expectations for her son, being herself the daughter of one of Italy’s most famous generals, Carlo was forever haunted by a parental (especially paternal) lack of confidence in him, which pushed him inexorably to overcompensate in his achievements. He early on (in elementary school) showed prodigious ability in art, and lost himself, as a child, in his father’s study, frenetically delving from one book to the next, from adventure stories to engineering drawings to musical notation (which he appreciated on a purely visual level) to theoretical works. The experimenter’s restless lust for knowledge combined with the young artist’s fertile, precocious and inventive powers, gave rise in Mollino to an irrepressible artistic expressiveness, yielding such authenticity that his works never cease to astonish, as opposed to the increasingly stale forms from the ‘sacred halls’ of the Bauhaus.

On the other hand, such extreme individualism leaves no heirs. Mollino has become a richly endowed open/closed set of parentheses within design history. That being said, his iconoclastic *style* has been (attempted to be) repeated again and again by those who wish to trailblaze new paths through the design wilderness. Let us, though, take careful stock of his rootedness in the design past. {Here’s where I start to editorialize:} We are warned by historians that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. This is true for designers as well. A hallmark of ignorance (willful or not) is endlessly re-inventing the wheel, parading out tired design cliches as if they were new. Such ignorance includes *especially* those who are only aware of the recent trends. It’s like the 12 year-old who shops punk-wear at Hot Topics and thinks they are sporting a rebellious look that their parents didn’t already live through in the 1970s. Much of the pablum that gets cranked out of the contemporary design scene is that same re-tread of been-there.

Mollino teaches us that the *true* rebel, the *true* iconoclast, is the one that fluently speaks the language of the past, draws upon the rich conceptual resources of that ancient deposit of human creativity, then, against that clearly defined historical backdrop, creates a *genuinely* new design, which represents a *progression* in design history, and not a *digression” (or worse: a diarrhea squirt of nonsense masked as ‘avant-garde’).

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