Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Legendary John Dickinson

In 1980, I wrote a profile on San Francisco interior designer, John Dickinson.

The legendary decorator, admired for his fetishy white plaster tables and boldly sculptural furniture designs, was at the height of his career. Dickinson had recently designed a highly original (and
controversial) 25-piece furniture collection for Macy’s, had just completed the super-chic decor for the Sonoma Mission Inn, and was in demand among the Pacific Heights mansions, in Canada (where he designed a women's club), in New York, Los Angeles, and all over California, for his extravagantly imagined interiors. John and I were kindred spirits--passionate about design--and I decided to write a book about his interiors and furniture designs.

Sunday mornings for two years, I would drop my son off at Sunday school, then head over to John’s iconic 1893 firehouse
residence on Washington Street in Pacific Heights to tape conversations for three hours. I provoked and prodded and he discussed and dissected every aspect of design. "A real cliche is what I call "fabric decorating","John told me in one early design chat. "That's where a decorator
will go to a wholesale fabric house and find a printed fabric and from that printed fabric will pick up the green for the curtains, the white for the solid color, and if they're very daring, will use a green and white stripe for contrast. In other words, it's all there
and it's all very boring. It's not even decorating. I mean, it's hardly furnishing!"

Dickinson, dashing and debonair, turned our Sunday tapings into theater.

Climbing the well-worn pine stairs to his second floor living room/atelier (formerly the firemen’s dormitory), I’d hear Dickinson playing merry Cole Porter at his grand piano. As I swung open the
tall white-lacquered door, he would finish “You’re the Top” with an arpeggio and a flourish of Sulka silk robe, pink Oxford-cloth pyjamas and swirls of Hermes silk scarves.

I’d make coffee (his potion: extra-strong Nescafe with a long pour of whipping cream and 6 lumps of white sugar). John would make himself comfortable in his faux bamboo four-poster bed and pose like a pasha. Some Sundays decorator chums like designer Diane Burn or photographer Victor Arimondi would join us, but most Sundays we were a design duet.

“To me, the dullest room in the world is furnished in nothing but Louis XV or Chippendale or Queen Anne,” he said. “A house should be a very personal composition of things you can’t live
without--not a museum."

Dickinson, who grew up in Berkeley, was opinionated,
witty, erudite, generous, and thoughtful in his comments, and always down-to-earth. He talked and I taped, until he died in the spring of 1982. I transcribed the tapes, but the book project was set aside after one publisher’s deathless response: “We wouldn’t do a book on a dead decorator.”)

Dickinson loved the design paradox Andree Putman calls, "rich and poor"--expensive upholstery details worked in plain canvas, an elegant slipper chair upholstered in white Naugahyde, muslin curtains done in the most Balenciaga way, expensive wool cord used as simply as jute twine.

Many design insiders today still consider John Dickinson the most innovative and original American interior and furniture designer of the 20th-century. Designers as diverse as
Andree Putman, Michael S. Smith, John Saladino, Vicente Wolfe and Gary Hutton sing his praises.

“John Dickinson’s furniture passes every test--for originality, quality and style,” said Liz O’Brien, a leading New York dealer in 20th-century design. “His design is for the ages. It’s burned into our cerebral cortex.”

After John's death in 1983, I approached a noted publisher in hopes of getting my book on John Dickinson published.

"Oh, we would never do a book on a dead decorator," said he. Hardly a week goes by that I am not asked 'are you ever going to do a book on John Dickinson'. I have incorporated his work, his interiors, into many of my books instead.

In the meantime, the demand for his plaster tables and custom design remains high among the auction crowd.


Brillante Interiors said...

I am a brand new reader of your blog and enjoyed every single line of the Paris post.
I also stayed in Hotels many times (even the famed George V)but last time I rented a place in the Marais. It was superb. Thanks for the memory.
About this post I totally agree with the quote about a house needing to be a very personal composition of things. It is so sad to see houses with a total designer look!

Victoria Thorne said...

What a delight to see you here! And to read about John Dickinson...and behold his inspired work...a triple delight. Thrilled to find you blogging, Ms. Saeks. Can't wait to (continue to) read all about it.

Rose C'est La Vie said...

Thank you for introducing me to John Dickinson. The images you conjure of your Sunday meetings are delightful and amusing. How great that you have kept such a marvellous trace of an intriguing and talented character.

Valerie Wills Interiors said...

Hi Diane,

You may already know this, but the Firehouse is currently for sale. My realtor friend can arrange a viewing if anyone is interested, just let me know.

Valerie Wills Interiors

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

John Dickinson was a major talent--and the best expression of his work was the firehouse.
I was there the morning he died. I felt at that time that John Dickinson's spirit had left it--and knew that others would take it over and make it their own, with their ideas and style. This indeed has happened.
It is an historic building--and a series of owners have made many modifications (including installing an elevator, removing John Dickinson's fabulous bathroom (with vast pub mirrors and dark panelling) (that owner through the bathroom looked 'too gay' and ripped out all of John's fabulous and very handsome design) and another ripped out his dressingroom with closets shaped like Victorian houses...and the kitchen went, and the bedroom was altered, along with the garden, the garage ( when JD lived there it was incredibly chic and was very rough like a firehouse garage with oil dripping on floor and treacherous for high heels). Jerry Brown installed a massive mahogany bookcase, covering up most of the wall visible in the shots I published on blog--which were taken by john Vaughan). So today it is a different place--and it is wonderful in today's style. I have published John Traina's firehouse--and love the style and verve and accomplishment and taste he has brought. It is indeed for sale--through Sotheby' a call to Sotheby's might conjure up a visit. It is a sensation property--the exterior is almost as John Dickinson left it. Note--if you drive my at night on your way home from a party, look up in the tower. John Traina has installed a light and it is most magical. The person who acquires this firehouse will be a very fortunate person.

Newell Turner said...

Hey Diane, The blog is great, and you know how excited I am to read or learn anything more about John D.! While I'm one of the songs on that broken record that keeps please, maybe now there's a more enlightened publisher? I have a framed photo (I think by Victor Arimondi) of the firehouse sitting next to the computer on my desk at House Beautiful. It inspired me every day and gives me hope for more of that level of interior design talent from San Francisco. Keep posting...I look forward to reading! Best, Newell

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Newell-
So happy you are now reading my blog!
John Dickinson: there should have been a book, and he and I were working on a book for several years.
John died, tragically, and then when I went to see (my eventual) publisher at Chronicle Books, he famously said, with great sympathy and kindness, I might add 'Oh, we would never do a book on a dead decorator.' I went on to write many successful books with Chronicle.
John Dickinson: several design enthusiasts have expressed interest in writing a book on John Dickinson. So far, no book in hand. I do occasionally mention a Dickinson book to a publisher--and naturally they are more interested in books with more current appeal (and a live decorator, like Michael Smith and Orlando, both very much alive and successful and practicing). To note: when I am in France, someone always asks me about John Dickinson, He is a cult favorite there. (I introduced John to Andree Putman, who was already aware of his work.) Perhaps it will happen!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


A quick note: the photo of John Dickinson and the firehouse was taken by Fred Lyon, I think. He is standing outside the firehouse with his Jaguar in your photo? If so, it was taken in the early seventies by Fred Lyon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Diane,
I was doing a google search on John Dickenson and luckily found your blog! I work in an east coast Art Museum and we have a John Dickenson chair in our collection. It is a wonderful piece, but unfortunately, at some time in the past someone has overstuffed it and reupholstered it in this awful white brocade. We would like to restore it back to its original design. We know that Dickenson used naugahyde for the Sonoma Mission Inn. SFMOMA also has a similar chair that is covered in naugahyde. Did he ever use real leather upholstery?

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


You should send me an email at
Send me an image of the chair--and I can also authenticate it...what is its provenance?
Yes, he did use leather often...usually gray or taupel.
The Naugahyde on his sofas was simply a cheap way to get a look of white leather...he prefered leather.
Send me a lo-res image and let's discuss...refer to all my books for his design.

Jasper Bode said...

Dear Diane, the question remains: is there or will there ever be a book published on John Dickinson. Stumbled upon his work in a book published in 1976 and bacame an instant fan. Doing research online brought me to your blog, which is the closest thing to a publication I found. However I would love to own a book with his work. So please let me know if that has happened by now, if not it should!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Thank you for your enquiry.
A week does not go by that someone asks me when my book on JOHN DICKINSON is coming out.
Be sure--I have spoken to publishers about it. They see him as a 'niche' designer with perhaps a more limited appeal than a 'live' designer who would be able to go out and promote a book and who would have 'live' clients' to buy the book. I can understand it. Publishers was to sell books. I do too.
Occasionally, over the years, I hear of this person or that who is said to be 'writing' a book on John Dickinson but so far nothing has come of it.
In the meantime, keep reading my blog--and SIGN UP AS A MEMBER--and I am sure I will be writing further about the wonderful MR DICKINSON. cheers to you, DIANE

Philip Bewley said...

I loved reading this post again. The Style Saloniste is a treasure trove in its archives.

About Last Weekend said...

Hi nice to meet you - what a fabulous designer, love his crafted very fun things

Anonymous said...

probably the stupidest thing i ever did was throw out the house and garden which had a full spread of his gorgeous house in it -- including the incredible closet doors, which i have dreamed of ever since. the walls of his living room! the brass and steel stove! oh just everything was the most beautiful room i've ever seen. thanks for this.

Nancy Ziegler Nodelman said...

I saved that H&G article and I experienced the Macy's exhibit.
The fire house was my dream house.
I would have retained the distressed walls, that kitchen, those doll house closets, the
closets, the dramatic high pedestals..... His house and furniture have been my enduring inspirations.

The good fortune that (indirectly) brought me to your blog was an Architectural Digest reference to reproductions of JD plaster tables.

oo said...

I just came upon your website and read your article about a truly iconic designer.I have a interesting story to share about the drape and bow floor lamp I have made by John Dickinson.Over the years I've paid close attention to the attempts of others that have tried to replicate this lamp.Some are better than others but nobody has gotten close.You can see a huge difference in the bow and the way it's pleated in the middle but what really sets it apart is the time and attention to detail Mr Dickinson spent putting the finishing touches on the skin of the plaster.It looks like a real drape.The relative who passed this on to me had a extensive art collection of oil painting and over 20 sculptures in different mediums all signed by well known artists.A local charity he supported was having a fund raiser so he selected some of his artwork for there auction.Because of the items he donated they decided to hold a separate auction by invitation only at his house.Do to some of the rare pieces on display other than the ones he was donating several prominent art collectors and appraisers were there along with one art critic.This lamp was in the room but was obviously not for sale. The art critic said this lamp stole the show and got more attention than anything else in the room.So much so that the monthly article he wrote for the newspaper was on this sale and titled "The most artistic piece in the room wasn't for sale".It was a wonderful piece on John Dickinson's imaginative eye in creating unique cutting edge pieces in a minimalist style.In the article the writer noted the time that must have went in to sculpting this and that the folds were even a slightly different shade of white in the creases creating realistic looking shadow.This was almost 30 years ago and I think I have the article somewhere.If I find it I can mail it to you if you want it for your archives.I'm glad I found your blog keep writing these great articles.