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.