Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Style is Born: William Haines, Star Turned Designer

"Design is an opinion, not a profession." -- William Haines

The silver screen's loss in the thirties was the interior design industry's gain.

The year was 1930 and a young William "Billy" Haines was the country's top box office attraction and on contract with powerhouse Metro Goldwyn Mayer. He excelled as the attractive and athletic All American “smart alec” character (he was often coined the "wisecracker") and enjoyed leading man status to starlets such as Carole Lombard, Marion Davies, Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford who would become a lifelong friend and client for over fifty years.

Haines with his long time friend Joan Crawford

While films such as Tell it to the Marines, Show People and Brown of Harvard made him a popular actor, he found his true calling when he opened an antique store on Hollywood’s La Brea Avenue. Frequented by fellow co-stars and gossip columnist du jour Hedda Hopper, his innate style and passion for collecting did not go unnoticed and soon a decorator was born.

Joan Crawford became one of his very first clients (they starred together in three films at Metro) and he designed her Brentwood home through three divorces that represented special design challenges. “Cranberry” (as he affectionately called her) had a collection of over two hundred dolls and black velvet prints of dancing women that had to be gingerly disposed of. He also decorated the Manhattan penthouse she shared with husband and Pepsi President Alfred Steele. The 1800 square foot apartment was so luxe he nicknamed it “Taj Joan”.

Joan Crawford at home

Self taught as a decorator, Haines offered an alternative to the fashionable art deco interiors (made ever trendier by the films of the day) and virtually lifted the dark somber Spanish and Tudor bungalows into the sunlight, giving birth to the California style we know today.

Carole Lombard at home

The look became known as Hollywood Regency and represented a contrast to the decade’s stark minimal looks found in the modernist movement. With its roots in nineteenth century England, the style combined English, French Regency and Greek Revival with the grandeur and glamour of Old Hollywood. 

Haines at home

The centerpieces of a Haines interior are his custom collections. His iconic collection includes the biscuit tufted sofa, the popular perennial Seriah chair (Haines spelled backwards) and the charming Elbow chair (a smaller scale slipper chair which allows a woman in a ball gown to sit sideways!) Other Haines hallmarks included touches of Chinoiserie, museum mount lamps with objet d'art, one of kind lamps for each client and his use of distressed leather table surfaces.

Elbow Chair

Touches of Chinoiserie

Pedestal Floor Lamp

Before his death in l973, Haines passed the baton to associate Ted Graber who designed one of the firm's most important commissions, the private White House residence of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

His legacy thankfully continues today through the efforts of designers Peter Schifando and J. Jonathon Josephs. Schifando (former associate of Graber) and Jean H. Mathison (former long time assistant to both Haines and Graber) wrote the visually stunning chronicle on the life and designs of Haines in  Class Act: Williams Haines, Legendary Hollywood Decorator (Pointed Leaf Press, 2005).

The firm boasts an archive of over two thousand original drawings plans and finishes from the collection. They have also reissued his furnishings using the same manufacturer of the past fifty years. Their Brentwood, Hostess and Elbow chairs remain some of the firm’s most popular items.

Brentwood Chair

Seniah Chair

Lobby of Beverly Hilton Hotel

For more on the William Haines collection, see their website

Photo Credits: William Haines Designs, Margaret Herrick Library

Portions reprinted from A Style is Born, Traditional Home, June 2007 by Cathy Whitlock

Note: A special thanks to Heather Clawson of Habitually Chic for her post on my upcoming book re-de-sign: New Directions For Your Interior Design Career.