Thursday 11 April 2024

T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings (1903–1976)


T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings (1903–1976) was a British-born architect and furniture designer.


Harry was born in Widnes, Lancashire (now part of Cheshire), on April 8, 1903 (School admission form and Naturalisation papers)[needs update] and named Thomas Harry Robjohns Gibbings. He was the 7th children of William and Miriam Gibbings and attended Hale Church of England Elementary School and Widnes Municipal Secondary School leaving at the age of 17. There is no evidence of him attending higher education although many sources claim he studied at London and Liverpool University. He was definitely living at the family home in Liverpool from Autumn 1928 until he sailed to the US in November 1929 and again in 1930, when he took up residence in New York. He applied to be a naturalised American citizen in 1940.


It is suggested that he worked briefly in the 1920s as a naval architect, designing ocean liner interiors, and then as art director for a motion picture studio. In 1926, he may have become a salesman for an antiques dealer who specialized in Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture, and Robsjohn-Gibbings was assigned prominent accounts such as Elizabeth Arden and Neiman Marcus.


In the late 1930s and 1940s he was the most important decorator in America. After opening a shop on New York's Madison Avenue in 1936, Robsjohn-Gibbings proceeded to design houses from coast to coast for such scions as tobacco heiress Doris Duke, publisher Alfred A. Knopf, and socialite Thelma Chrysler Foy.


The design work of T. H. Robsjohn Gibbings is hallmarked as a modern mixture of the classical elements of Ancient Grecian design, and Art Deco design. It features mosaic floor reproductions, sculptural fragments, and sparse furnishings, all combining to achieve his trademark brand of modern historicism.


He disliked the prevailing tastes of the day, describing them as "an indigestible mixture of Queen Anne, Georgian and Spanish styles." He likewise considered Bauhaus-style modernism a fraud; he expressed his views in his writings such as Goodbye, Mr. Chippendale (1944), a spoof of modern interior design, Mona Lisa's Mustache: A dissection of Modern Art (1947), and Homes of the Brave (1953).


One of the designer's most important residential commissions was Hilda Boldt Weber's mansion Casa Encantada in Bel-Air. Creating more than 200 pieces of furniture for the house between 1934 and 1938, Robsjohn-Gibbings indulged his passion for Greco-Roman design by incorporating sphinxes, dolphins, lions' paw feet, and Ionic columns in table bases, torchères, and select pieces of furniture, nonetheless keeping the interior design simple and elegant. Casa Encantada survived and was sold intact to Conrad Hilton in 1952 and similarly sold on to its next owner, David Howard Murdock. He retained some of what was called the "opulent simplicity", but sold off the contents in the early 1980s. The architect might have appreciated the irony that, although the fine fittings and structure remained virtually untouched, these rooms made the perfect background for the new owner's fine collection of eighteenth century English furniture. It has since been sold again.


T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings much preferred the visual vocabulary of the classical world, particularly ancient Greek furniture and design. Robsjohn-Gibbings' look was widely emulated, and, from 1943 to 1956, he worked as a designer for the Widdicomb Furniture Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


In 1960, he met Greek cabinetmakers Susan and Eleftherios Saridis, and, together, they created the Klismos line of furniture, which drew heavily on classical forms, including the namesake klismos chair. It is still in production. Robsjohn-Gibbings eventually moved to Athens, where he became designer to Aristotle Onassis. He died there in 1976, ending a 34-year relationship with his partner, Carlton Pullin, whom he had met in New York.


His honors include the 1950 Waters Award and the 1962 Elsie de Wolfe Award.


His furniture has been collectible for the past decade and particularly those pieces he had designed for the Casa Encantada, which are fetching high prices in auctions. His work has been studied by Daniella Ohad Smith, who has delivered a paper in the annual conference of the Interior Design Educator Council in 2008 and has published an article on his concepts in shaping the modern American home.




“On Greek vases I saw furniture young and untouched by time.”


 Relatively unknown in Australia, T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings (1905 – 1976) was not only a prominent writer and tastemaker but one of the most important furniture designers of the 20th Century.  What Frank Lloyd Wright did for contemporary American architecture, Robsjohn-Gibbings did for furniture design, effectively redefining the contemporary style.


In short, Gibbings’ legacy was two-fold.  He was the first person to reconstruct classical Greek furniture, which he did by carefully studying and sketching the scenes on ancient Greek vase paintings at the British Museum in the early 1930’s.  His passion for the “purity of line” of ancient Greek furniture was unbridled, and a constant influence throughout his career.


The second aspect of the designer’s legacy developed after emigrating from England to the United States.  Throughout the 1930’s and early 1940’s, Gibbings created interiors and custom furniture for the likes of Doris Duke, Elizabeth Arden and other members of America’s wealthy elite.  His best known work from this period was Casa Encantada, the Bel-Air estate of social aspirant, Hilda Boldt Weber for which he created interiors and more than two hundred custom furniture pieces between 1934 and 1938.  Highly sophisticated, Casa Encantada embodied all of Gibbings’ passion for the designs of the ancient world.


In 1944 Gibbings wrote the first of four books, Goodbye Mr. Chippendale, in which he mocked the prevailing styles of the day, from Georgian reproductions to the Bauhaus.  However, he did praise the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, which he considered to herald a new form of contemporary American architecture.  In his first furniture collection for Widdicomb in 1946, it was Wright’s influence rather than ancient Greece that was apparent in the low-slung, modern and mass-produced designs – designs that would inspire his contemporaries and go on to define the new American aesthetic well into the 1950’s.  Just as he’d utilised the highly inspired design source of ancient Greece to create custom pieces for the wealthy, he now used the more organic, modernist aesthetic of Wright as inspiration to create simple, beautiful and affordable furniture for the masses.


Eventually Gibbings would return to his more classical roots, joining forces with Saridis of Athens in 1961 to create his own line of ancient Greek furniture, based on revised versions of the sketches he made in the 1930’s.  He moved permanently to Athens at this time, designing the interiors of prominent Athenians (including Aristotle Onassis), and in 1963 published his fourth and final book, Furniture of Classical Greece, documenting his sources and designs for the Saridis line of the same name, still in production today.


 The Klismos chair was based on a 5th Century BC design Gibbings found on a marble gravestone.  He said, “It is to furniture what the Parthenon is to architecture.”  The first pair of Klismos chairs were made as part of the ‘Sans Époque’ collection for his Madison Avenue showroom in 1936, and then adapted for Casa Encantada.  The Klismos chair pictured, in Greek walnut and strap leather was part of his 1961 ‘Furniture of Classical Greece’ collection.  It is Gibbings’ best known piece of furniture.


Casa Encantada (1934-38) was the Bel-Air estate belonging to Hilda Boldt Weber, the nurse-turned-wife-turned-widow of a wealthy mid-west industrialist.  After marrying her chauffeur Ms. Weber commissioned Gibbings, America’s most prominent decorator, to design the furniture and interiors for each of the estate’s sixty-four rooms in an attempt to gain entry into Bel-Air society.  It was to become Gibbings’ most prominent work, for which he designed over two hundred custom furniture pieces incorporating Egyptian, Greek and Roman elements such as Klismos chairs and tables with either dolphins or seated sphinxes for bases.


Unfortunately Hilda was never accepted into Bel-Air society, despite the Gibbings designed interiors of Casa Encantada.  She eventually gambled away her fortune, and the estate was sold in its entirety, right down to silverware, to Conrad Hilton in 1952 after Hilda committed suicide.


Gibbings’ first line of mass-produced furniture was for the Widdicomb Furniture Co. in 1946.  It was to be the largest and most influential furniture line of his career.  Gibbings was greatly inspired by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose influence can be seen in this patio setting, photographed for the cover of House Beautiful in 1950.  Gibbings stated, “I don’t believe you have to design down for mass-produced furniture.”


Gibbings and his partner, Carlton W. Pulin published the book, Furniture of Classical Greece in 1963, following the launch of his 1961 collection by the same name.  The book documented Gibbings’ sources and original designs, and included photos of ancient Greek ruins as a backdrop for his collection, like this theatre on the island of Delos.

No comments: