Dressing Up the Menil House, Scaring the Architect Away

DRESSING UP THE MENIL HOUSE, SCARING THE ARCHITECT AWAY Dressing Room of Menil House, Decorated by Charles James, 3363 San Felipe St., Houston“Philip [Johnson] felt we should have a Mies van der Rohe settee, a Mies van der Rohe glass table and two Mies van der Rohe chairs on a little musty-colored rug,” explained Dominique de Menil about the distinctive yet undeniably Miesian modern home at 3363 San Felipe St. the already-somewhat-famous museum curator-turned-architect had designed for her and her husband. “We wanted something more voluptuous.” And so in 1950 the first family of Schlumberger hired Mr. Voluptuous himself, the dress designer Charles James, to create the new home’s interiors — something he had never done before, and never would do again. How’d that turn out? Here’s Joanna McCutcheon, giving some background to the Menil Collection’s current exhibition featuring clothing and furniture James designed for his patron: “Upon entering the house — a clean, strictly modernist construction of brick, steel and glass, he immediately demanded that the ceilings be raised 10 inches. He wanted additional room to facilitate his plan of coating the walls in lurid felt and velvet. . . . The walls of the Johnson house were swaddled in dyed felts, while dark spaces were illuminated with shocking colour. Horrified, Johnson refused to include the house in his portfolio for decades afterwards.” [Disegno Daily] Photo of Menil House dressing room: Menil Collection

5 Comment

  • Apparently Johnson said later that they were not very well off yet at the time and had to sell off half the land they had bought, so he designed the outside with a blank brick wall thinking that it would be covered up by a neighboring house. Didn’t happen, of course. You do have to wonder about putting an extravagant interior into a minimalist house. Someone I know who visited there when the Mrs. was still alive said they had a strong case of reverse snobbery, eating very simple meals, etc., as though to look down on more luxurious people. Sounds like there were a lot of contradictions in that little rarefied world.

  • That house is really cool inside. On the outside the bricks are the same as the Rothko– maybe the bamboo, too? I met her several times; such a terrific person. In charge, on top, sweet, sincere and authentically compassionate about people. As for Johnson… funny about the UST chapel. In fact, the whole UST thing, him, and her/them. An interesting history.

  • I like hearing your memories…

  • Great example of what I call an “Old Houston” story. These were the kind of over the top eccentrics we used to have here. Maybe they lived in a swampy small city but they were BIG.
    This is what we are missing today in our big city of bland.

  • White people problems…