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FURNISHINGS : Movieing to Simple Style of Interior Design

July 20, 1991|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the early days of Hollywood films, legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn would survey his movie sets and tell his crew to "get that junk out from behind my actors."

Goldwyn's demands resulted in sets with simple lines and no clutter. The elegance of the streamlined sets wasn't lost on the audience sitting in the darkened theaters. Americans copied the look of those sparse yet sophisticated sound stages in their own living rooms.

How films influenced the look of interiors for the past 70 years is the focus of the "Master Filmmakers" exhibit at the Decorative Arts Study Center in San Juan Capistrano through Aug. 31. It's a show that should please both movie buffs and anyone interested in interiors.

"People did duplicate the rooms and houses" they saw in the movies, says Michael Koski, exhibit chairman and vice president of Design Center South in Laguna Niguel, which co-sponsored the exhibit.

"Look at 'Gone With the Wind.' What oilman in Texas still doesn't want to build Tara?" Koski says.

Occasionally a single movie has touched off an architectural or interior design trend.

In 1948, the sets for "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" became the dream house for many, according to Koski.

The movie sparked a resurgence in Americana; white clapboard interiors, chintz-covered chairs and braided throw rugs became fashionable. The exhibit has several photos from the movie, including a shot of Myrna Loy resting her hand on a wingback chair in the living room.

To illustrate the styles set by movies, the center has collected photos, artist sketches and furnishings from Hollywood studios.

Koski and other exhibit coordinators pored over old movie stills at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives and toured Disney, Universal and Paramount studios for old props. A few film industry insiders loaned memorabilia from their personal collections.

Jon Jahr, chairman of center exhibitions and an interior designer in Corona del Mar, remembers walking through studio warehouses and seeing rows of telephones, typewriters and other props stuffed into boxes and separated by decade. Few props in the exhibit can be traced to a particular movie, a disappointment for film lovers, because the studios kept no inventory.

Yet among Jahr's favorite finds: an original drawing of a set from "The Picture of Dorian Gray," pictures of set models used for "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and Art Deco-style sketches from "Cleopatra."

"That was Hollywood in the '20s looking at ancient Egypt," Jahr says.

Not all of the exhibit's props and pictures are old.

"Some of the pieces Disney lent are from 'Ruthless People.' They're done in the Memphis style," Jahr says.

The exhibit has a three-legged boomerang cocktail table and a funky chair made of bright multicolored geometric shapes from the movie illustrating the funky quasi-Italian look.

"The fact that Hollywood used this style made it acceptable to a more sophisticated audience," Jahr says.

Although the show deals briefly with post-'40s movies, its focus is primarily on the streamlined look of movie sets from the '20s and '30s. Exhibit organizers have dubbed the style "Hollywood Moderne," but most people loosely describe it as "Art Deco," a term not coined until the '60s, according to Koski.

MGM designer Cedric Gibbons first introduced Hollywood--and American homeowners--to modernism, says David Hayes, exhibit lecturer and chairman of Ferry-Hayes Designers Inc., an interior design company in Atlanta.

In 1925, Gibbons visited an exposition at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, where the modern style was already captivating designers. Gibbons loved the new motifs and brought them back to Hollywood.

He designed his first sets in the modern style for "Our Dancing Daughters" with Joan Crawford in 1928. The sets, as seen in pictures in the exhibit, are clean and unadorned, with straight lines, a curved banister along the stairway and receding arches over the doorways.

"Modern was sleek without unnecessary ornamentation," Hayes says. "It was also fresh, fun, new--and inexpensive. You didn't have to be third-generation wealthy to own it."

Many other modern movies by Gibbons followed, and stills from them are in the show: "The Gay Divorcee" with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, "Duck Soup" with the Marx Brothers and "Grand Hotel."

Convinced that movies should have a rich quality, Gibbons banished painted backdrops and insisted on luxurious props.

"Those sitting in the theater had to have it all," Koski says.

Among the innovations for homes credited to Gibbons: Venetian blinds, indirect lighting and more luxurious bathrooms.

Stills from "My Past" in 1938 and "The Magnificent Flirt" in 1929 show bathrooms with ziggurats, huge tubs, marble counters, large circular mirrors and shelves of sparkling toiletries. After going to the movies, everyone wanted a more lavish bathroom, Koski says.

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