Monday, June 22, 2009

Exclusive Portraits of John Dickinson

Never-published images of the great designer in his San Francisco firehouse residence/atelier in 1981

I wrote an earlier post about John Dickinson, his style, his irreverent ideas, the book we had planned, and his untimely death.

I had a standing appointment at Dickinson’s San Francisco firehouse every Sunday morning at 9am. Over several years, I taped hours of conversations about his design, where he got ideas, his inspirations, his life, his work, his clients, his opinions on everything from lighting to humor in design, and from pattern (he thought it was a cop-out in décor), to color (he used it sparingly) to clients (indecisive and inattentive clients were a burden).

The color Polaroid below is one I took one afternoon in 1981. I had written a feature on John, and it had just been published. I drove over to the firehouse in Pacific Heights to show it to him. I happened to have a Polaroid camera (yes, a real Polaroid) with me. This image, which has been on my desk all these years, has never been published, never been seen.

Polaroid image of John Dickinson photographed
in 1981 by Diane Dorrans Saeks.

In the blurry picture, John is sitting in a taupe-leather upholstered Victorian chair at his Art Déco table/desk. In the background are his signature lamps, the rolled up blueprints, his drafting table, the elegant amethyst-colored mottled walls (since painted over), and the distinctive light that spilled in from tall shuttered windows.

In this image (it seems like yesterday) he is wearing a navy bespoke Huntsman jacket, made in London, and off-white Gap chino pants.

“Cheap pants, Darlin’, only cheap pants,” he would say, to note his chic dressing style that mixed super-luxe cable cashmere sweaters and custom-crafted Savile Row jackets, with impeccable $20 Gap pants. This high/low combination, chic today, was highly unusual at that time. Like Andree Putman, he loved the mix of cheap and rich, luxury and utility.

Below, the black and white image of John Dickinson was photographed around the same time at the firehouse, by the Italian/Swedish photographer Victor Arimondi (sadly no longer with us).

Black and white photograph of John Dickinson
photographed at his firehouse residence
in San Francisco by Victor Arimondi.

I had introduced Victor to John, and Victor would stop by the firehouse, shooting John at work drafting, or me typing on my portable Olivetti at the table, or elements of style in the skylit rooms.

In this never-published image, signed by Arimondi and given to me as a gift, John is indicating that the brass trim on his signature polished stainless steel fireplace, matches the trim along the wainscot.

Also in the picture: signature plaster tables, a phrenology head, and the accouterments of the John Dickinson style.

I’ve published comments John made during our hours of taping, in my books and in articles published over the years, as John Dickinson became an icon of design.

I taped years of conversations, redacted them at great length (we sometimes went off-topic), and edited the resulting quotes and observations. I sometimes see these published quotes in publications like auction catalogs and design magazine articles—and they are never correctly attributed. It always feels like a kind of theft, of a conversation, a moment, my work, and an idea I shaped and wrote.

Now John Dickinson’s plaster furniture turns up in top designers’ rooms, and in the galleries of top New York dealers like Liz O’Brien and Louis Bofferding, and at auction houses like Bonham’s and Sotheby’s.

When John was at the height of his career, he was never ‘popular’, and was never seen as iconic or collectible or even trend-setting. Some thought his work bizarre or even a bit frightening.Now it’s the mark of an in-the-know designer to have one of his metal skirted tables, a plaster tribal-influenced table, a console, a carved Stonehenge coffee table, or a twig lamp. The beat goes on.

Two photographs of John Dickinson at his 1893 firehouse residence on Washington Street in San Francisco. It may still be viewed today and looks precisely the same.

Photographs were taken by the great
San Francisco photographer,
Fred Lyon, and are used with permission.


Brillante Interiors said...

I confess I did not know Dickinson, now I am going to research his work, hoping that maybe you could soon publish a book on him, having so much material already and having had the privilege of knowing him so well. It will also be a way to put to silence all those thieves.

Newell Turner said...

I have the Fred Lyon print (in color) of Dickinson dusting his car in front of the firehouse. There's a lot that can be said about his influence on design today. All the contents of the Firehouse (plus that spectacular car) are in storage in CT waiting to be seen again. Isn't the firehouse for sale? Maybe it and the contents should be reunited?

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Brillante--

Thanks for your note.

It is especially annoying that other writers/editors/and auction catalogs use my quotes--as I taped them, edited them, polished, then, and redacted them. They are not just a comment John Dickinson made in public, or said often (he seldom gave interviews, very seldom).
This annoyance is in addition to the fact that over the years, other writers are misinformed with their descriptions of his cause of death ( chronic emphysema, heart disease, malnutrition, and other side-effects of chronic cocaine use). I was in the hospital with John, with his doctor, who gave me the results of all tests. Verbatim.
Thanks for your encouragement. As noted in the earlier post on John Dickinson, the reaction for publishers so far 'we would not do a book on a dead decorator.'

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello, Newell-

Yes, the Firehouse is for sale.
It is, however, very seriously changed.
John's famous 'Victorian facades' wardrobe has gone.
The elegant old kitchen has gone--now an 'open kitchen'.
The paint color--smoky amethyst--has gone.
The firemen's staircase that I used to climb, has gone--replaced by an elevator.
The great old rough garage is now a gallery/entrance.
The fabulous bathroom, adjacent to John's bedroom, has long gone. It was a scene of handsome tall saloon mirrors. Divine. The fourth owners, after John, ripped the bathroom out because, he said, 'it is too gay'. No comment.
The rough-hewn nature of the actual old original firehouse--has been erased.
There was much talk, after John died, of keeping it intact as a study center or a museum or landmark. Easy to think about--hard to do without major funding, security, management, staff, etc, and ongoing fundraising.
John Traina--who lives there now--has made it very attractive and stylish. Bravo to him for making it his own.
One way to enjoy it now: In my first book, San Francisco A Certain Style, beautiful photography by Russell MacMasters and John Vaughan.
Newell- thank you for your insight. i appreciate it. (My print of firehouse is in black and white.)

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Oh Diane! What a wonderful post! So many details and fascinating tidbits to read over again and again. What an absolutely fascinating man. I echo Brilliante's comment that I too hope you publish a book on's to finding a like-minded editor/publisher who doesn't make ridiculous comments like not doing "a book on a dead decorator." How utterly absurd! And I will see if I can find your SF book with photos of his interior pronto! xx

PS -- I'm so glad your link finally works!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


So pleased to be on your 'favorites' list!
Book: be sure it has been on my mind, and at least one person asks me each week, 'When are you going to write a book on John Dickinson'.
Others have considered it.
I will keep you posted.
Lisa, looking forward to your next great post. I am immersed in 'The Bolter' and thoroughly enjoying it. Research and detail are wonderful, along with the characters and a sense of place. Thanks for suggestion.

Paris Hotel Boutique said...

Diane, I'm delighted to have found your blog and will add it to my favorites!

What great memories and unseen photos of Dickinson! Too bad that you never got to finish the book, but how fabulous that you can share tidbits online with us. Perhaps a book in the future?

Glad his work still work still lives on.

Also, I live here in San Francisco. I'll have to check out the firehouse!



Michelle Schraudner said...

Just wanted to let you know that I've just discovered your blog and couldn't be more thrilled to read it. I look forward to more posts from you!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Welcome, Lynn, and welcome Michelle...

I'm so pleased you found me. I have some wonderful features in the works. I was recently in France, and made some spectacular discoveries.

Note that you can now subscribe to THE STYLE SALONISTE.


The Peak of Chic said...

Diane, I do hope that you write a book on Dickinson. His work is certainly deserving of one, and only you could write it. I believe I have a book in which his wonderful wardrobe was published- though I can't now remember which book. What I am certain of is that I have seen a photo somewhere, and the beauty of it has stayed with me.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Jennifer-

The Dickinson book: it has been said that one if in progress. I wish the author good luck.
For you Dickinson fans--I have more 'insider' posts on John Dickinson coming up. Thrills!