Monday, November 5, 2012

A Passion for Collecting, the Joy of Discovering John Dickinson

John Dickinson’s Iconic Designs Continue to Surprise

A revolution has hit the world of antique, art, and collecting and interiors will never look the same.

Forward-thinking designers like Michael Formica in New York, schooled in classical and modern design, are putting a new spin on interiors, blurring the lines between furniture and art, and embracing bold new furniture materials. 

I was privileged to see the images in the newest issue of House Beautiful. I was so inspired. Michael Formica is an accomplished and prescient designer—and his use of John Dickinson's designs stirred my imagination. I thought of the importance of John Dickinson, and the essential nature of paying homage to the past in design and interiors.

The dramatic pair of classical John Dickinson white plaster tables, elegantly positioned in Michael Formica’s New York living room look like mysterious sentinels at each end of the sofa. living room. These unexpected tables can take an alert and curious observer on a design journey.

They can also inspire a new realm of collecting. Formica fearlessly mixes with the Wanders rope chair, a Noguchi table, and the crisp geometric Salvetti Open Box table.

For me, Formica’s living room decor renewed my admiration of John Dickinson’s highly original furniture designs, and a new appreciation of my mentor and friend.

Michael Formica has been collecting John Dickinson pieces for more than two decades with a focus on less-known late twentieth-century designers. These tables are Dickinson’s most iconic, most versatile designs, at home on the Upper East Side and in a San Francisco firehouse. 

Formica’s collecting focus—so individual and rare—can also be an inspiration to collectors beginning their search for twentieth-century iconic design that has a touch of eccentricity. John Dickinson’s work in white plaster, hand-carved wood, and galvanized metal, has this quality. 

Michael Formica has collected and been a little obsessed with John Dickinson lamps and tables and stools for over twenty-five years.

He bought a John Dickinson white plaster twig lamp many years go from New York antique dealer Louis Bofferding, and he has added to his cache of John Dickinson pieces, highly selectively.

“We now expect to see unique and unusual combinations of designs seemingly casually thrown together but in reality they’re highly studied for counterpoint and "edge",” said Bob Garcia, partner in Therien & Co., a top dealer in San Francisco for four decades. “In the world of antiques and 20th century furniture, interiors are energized by contrasting experimental one-off twenty-first-century pieces in a room with classically-inspired Italian or French thirties

Formica later discovered Dickinson’s galvanized metal tables, and now has a hand-carved wood prototype ‘Tripod’ table, inspired by African tribal designs.

Formica’s style of collecting – the best of the best, but not the expected or the tried-and-true—results in rooms that have style and drama, with vivid juxtapositions and a jolt of surprise. 

Many collectors have not yet heard of John Dickinson.

It is time to meet this genius designer, and to learn from his wisdom, his sense of refinement, his good humor, and his highly opinionated concepts of design. 

John Dickinson

Today, true connoisseurs are staking out their own territories, exploring and Mapquesting the wilder shores of design history with grit and wit.

An international roster of design stars, including trend-setters like Konstantin Grcic, the Bourellec brothers, Marcel Wanders, Marc Newson, Tom Dixon, Garouste & Bonetti, and California-born Dickinson are among the iconic talents that collectors are seeking out today as their experimental shapes and space-age materials give them an edge on tip sheets for design immortality. 

Interior of Dickinson's firehouse residence in San Francisco.

San Francisco furniture and interior designer John Dickinson worked in the seventies and eighties as almost a renegade, enjoying his 'outsider ‘ status that made him even more admirable to admirers like Andree Putman, David Hicks, and Mark Hampton.

As many of my readers know, the furniture designer/interior designer John Dickinson was a mentor of mine as I was embarking on my path as a design book author. I knew John’s work well.

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

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 Michael 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.” 

Photographs of John Dickinson and his San Francisco firehouse residence were taken by the great San Francisco photographer, Fred Lyon, and are used with permission.

"The Regency or Egyptian influence was not in my mind when I first designed white plaster chairs and tables with animal feet,” John Dickinson told me. “ I was after something mock primitive and quite surprising. The fetish-y thing is quite marvelous and it hadn't been explored at all. Designers usually have gone the other way, taking something primitive and refining it way beyond recognition. That way you usually end up with something banal. If you go the other way, as I did, you usually end up with something very peculiar looking but something quite successful. 

Interior of Dickinson's firehouse residence in San Francisco.

Darrin Alfred, formerly a curatorial associate of architecture and design at SFMOMA, once said of Dickinson, “Dickinson’s designs demonstrate his ability to both startle and amuse in a constant pursuit of originality.” A major exhibition of the San Francisco-based designer’s drawings and furniture pieces were on display at the museum in 2004.

“His designs … still look unique and fresh even after thirty years,” Alfred added. Part of the reason for this was his use of industrial materials in neutral tones.

Dickinson preferred to create drama by altering the scale, shape and texture of furniture instead of using colors and patterns, which would date with the passing of years and changing styles. Using an austere, classically inspired visual vocabulary, he drew upon historical and cultural references to define a style that appeared refined yet casual, and timeless yet up-to-date.

Interior of Dickinson's firehouse residence in San Francisco.

John Dickinson designed and lived in an historic firehouse in San Francisco.

The white-painted firehouse exterior, with its original massive doors, convoluted fretwork, elegant pediments, and noble tower, is still perfectly preserved, and decorated with the same carved wood hose with a gilt nozzle that John Dickinson designed. Many of the signatures of Dickinson’s era—brass nameplates, the white-canvas curtained portiere, and a steel fireplace—are intact.

The firehouse was de-accessioned by the City in the mid-sixties and snapped up by designer John Dickinson. He achieved instant legendary status in the design world after House & Garden published the totally original interiors in the mid-seventies.

In the soaring 25 feet x 50 feet upstairs space, formerly the fire fighters’ dormitory, Dickinson positioned his iconic plaster tables, an elegant Art Nouveau table, collections of African ‘airport art’ sculptures, and sinuous Victorian chairs covered in pale gray leather.

John set very high standards for himself, for the craftspeople who executed his work and for all his designs. He was always paring his designs down, never romancing a room with frills or what he called "fluff."

"Prettiness has nothing to do with style," John told me. "Logic precludes prettiness. If you're stripping down rooms, as I do, there's no place for it."

Perhaps because he was very inaccessible—he seldom left San Francisco—and his work and persona somewhat intimidating, there is a mystique about the man and his designs that continues to attract younger designers.

Established designers as diverse as Ron Mann, Angelo Donghia, Ward Bennett, Michael Taylor and Robert Hutchinson are (or have been) among his legion of admirers.

Like Jean-Michael Frank who said about his designs, "One doesn't work in centimetres but in millimetres", John Dickinson was a perfectionist. Nothing about his rooms was left to chance but they never looked stiff, intimidating, pretentious or on-show. Chairs were to be used and moved, pillows were to be leaned on. Lights were for reading or drawing, tables were the right height for books, drinks, ashtrays, newspapers. 

From the collection of San Francisco designer Steven Volpe, John Dickinson’s seventies draped table was crafted from sheets of industrial metal finely perfected to simulate draped fabric.

The John Dickinson 'Look'
John Dickinson's look was original, daring, witty, learned, rigorous and rather rarified. His signatures included his remarkable line white plaster tables and lamps,(no longer made but still some wonderful examples in rooms in San Francisco), natural canvas upholstery, simple scuptural shapes, classical references, white-painted wood, plain taupe or gray carpet outlined in white or black, muted colors and not too many of them, luxury in the details and in fine craftsmanship, and usually some charming eccentricity in the design.

Tables have faux primitive animal legs, lamps and mirrors sprout twigs, a console has the rough texture of hacked stone, a three-legged lamp-base was inspired by an African tribal wood stool. One chic small table he designed looked, he said, "like rough boards pegged together by a five-year-old."

Who could forgethis bedroom with walls upholstered in black horsehair with a faux bamboo four poster, and another bedroom in an 1882 Victorian with a remarkable stainless steel four-poster smack in the middle. (That bedroom, one of John's first published works, and that bed still exist.)

Dickinson loved the paradox of what Andree Putman calls, "rich and poor"--expensive upholstery details on plan 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.

Today, his designs feel more relevant than ever. 

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

The Wisdom of John Dickinson: The quotes, edited from the tapes I recorded over several years

In 1979, I wrote a profile on designer John Dickinson for San Francisco magazine. John and I found the collaboration so much fun we decided to work together on a book about his interior and furniture designs. Every Sunday morning I would tape conversations with John, talking about aspects of his design. He was highly provocative, opinionated, witty, erudite, generous, thoughtful in his comments, down-to-earth and hard-working. For more than two years he talked and I taped and I redaced and edited and wrote, until he died in 1983. I transcribed the tapes, but the book project was set aside for the moment.

I still have all the tapes, plus transcriptions.

These exclusive quotes are among my favorites. These quotes were all recorded and redacted from my conversations with John. The text is copyrighted.


"Taste is a word I avoid. Good or bad, it's all so nebulous. The more you're dealing with taste, the more you're on shaky ground. Vulgarity to me is another matter. Vulgarity has great vitality."

"There's no cop-out in using pairs of things in a room. Matching chairs, sofas, lamps or tables can bring discipline, strength and balance to a scheme."

"You cannnot do a lasting room design based on a current fad or novelty. There's a fine line between being amusing and being eccentric. A whole room based on amusing things would not be a laugh."

"There are many places in a house that do not warrant expensive furnishings. It's really not essential to spend everywhere. Muslin curtains can be the prettiest things in the world if they're sewn beautifully. You just don't have to make a big production of everything in a room."

"Some of the easiest things to use as inexpensive accessories are natural objects. Seashells are heaven. The bigger the better. Coral's marvellous if you can get big pieces of it. It must be large--little pieces don't mean anything."

"I have long thought that if one has a fireplace, to feel one must out of necessity and total obligation hang something over it is absolute nonsensea. I think a blank space over a mantel is very interesting. "

"I don't like viewing my designs as sculpture. It's too pretentious. This is not art, it's decorating. It's not fine art, it's decorative art and there's a world of difference."

The new John Dickinson reproduction collection by Sutherland

Recently, David Sutherland, with permission from the Estate of John Dickinson, has produced a very elegant series of John Dickinson designs in a new material that makes them suitable for indoors and outdoors.

David Sutherland has built his company partly on his own refined design sensibility but also by partnering with the greatest artists working in the design world today.

Now he reaches to the past and the future at the same time by bringing new, vigorous life to the work of one of design history’s acknowledged masters.

The Sutherland John Dickinson Collection is available through interior designers and architects, and represented in showrooms nationwide and internationally.

To view the collection, visit or call 800-717-8325 for further information. 

John Dickinson originals:

Collectors should follow antique dealers like Louis Bofferding and Liz O’Brien in New York, as well as auction houses like Sotheby’s, in New York, and Bonham’s in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Some collectors swoop through the vintage galleries in Palm Springs hoping to score John Dickinson pieces. In San Francisco, Coup d’Etat, Darin Geise’s brilliant antiques and vintage gallery, has recently displayed several highly collectible one-of-a-kind John Dickinson pieces, including the singular ‘Skyscaper’ bookcase, and elegant animal-legged occasional chairs. Parchment-covered coffee tables and consoles are occasionally sighted.

Happy hunting! 

Photo Credits:
Michael Formica apartment photographed by Bob Hiemstra for House Beautiful. 

John Dickinson images: photography by Russell MacMasters, Fred Lyon, Victor Arimondi, and other images from the collection of Diane Dorrans Saeks. All are copyrighted.
Photography of John Dickinson Collection for Sutherland, courtesty David Sutherland.


peggy braswell said...

How I adore JD! + must have a draped tin table. What a visionary he was. Thank you.

Michael Hampton said...

Thank you for the gorgeous and inspiring post on John Dickinson Diane. In particular I love the photo of Mr. Formica's living room with the african pillows on the sofa which in my opinion reference to some of the African influences in Dickinson pieces.

I can remember seeing the John Dickinson retrospective at Moma many years ago. It was one of the most memorable exhibits I can recall and truly inspired me as a designer.



Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Peggy and Michael-

I've had such lovely responses to this feature--including a personal email from Michael Formica, who loves the story. It is all great.
There is a never-ending interest in John Dickinson. His designs resonate and continue to haunt in the best way.
From my friend Suzanna Allen I had a note asking me, finally, to complete the book on John Dickinson. I am not sure of that...let's see what fate brings.
I thank my dear friends, as always, for their enthusiasm and their passion for design, for John Dickinson, for style travel, for interiors and for books and everything that is beautiful.
very best, DIANE

Philip Bewley said...

This post should be on the roster of required reading for design students (of all ages)
I loved it. Thank you.
Exceptional, as always.

Coulda shoulda woulda said...

That was a brilliant piece - it was like a great vanity fair article but with more substance and style - thank you