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A clear vision

Designer Charles Hollis Jones stuck with his streamlined acrylic furniture long after it was out of style. Now his work is seen as art.

March 08, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Charles Hollis Jones could see clearly into the future. His furniture, fortune and reputation would be based on acrylic.

It was 1961, a time when jet-agey swank was the thing. He fused the translucent material with glaring metal, and smiled as orders from Sinatra, Dino and Johnny Carson -- the guys -- poured in.

For two decades, he was riding high on the fumes of thermoplastics. He molded acrylic that was as thick as an airplane window into U-shaped sling chairs. He stacked it high, clipped its corners and made sturdy slab tabletops. He won design awards for his architectural Edison table lamps.

His geometric pieces, which seemed to dematerialize when light filtered through them, fit the glass-and-steel showcase homes being built in the movie colonies of Beverly Hills, Malibu and Palm Springs. Sylvester Stallone paid $32,000 in 1978 for a queen-size bed with a lighted acrylic base that looked as if it were fired up and ready for liftoff.

Hollis Jones made bar stools for the Playboy Club and vanity tables for the Mondrian Hotel. He hobnobbed with Modernist superstars, from architect John Lautner to industrial designer Raymond Loewy. His furniture was used to depict cool in the Bond flick "Diamonds Are Forever."

Hollis Jones was flying.

Then cheap acrylic knockoffs landed on the scene. Condo dwellers with a love of disco music and mini bars bought mass-produced chairs and end tables made from eighth-inch acrylic, half the width Hollis Jones would even think of using. Over time, the imitations clouded up and got scratched. Eventually, they were tossed away with Bee Gees' LPs.

Hollis Jones' streamlined vision of the future was out, replaced by tastemakers' craving for overstuffed couches and ornamental dark wood antiques.

But he stayed loyal to the malleable material, defending it at cocktail parties, buying back his work at fire-sale prices and repairing it. He would sit through the in-out-in-again cycle of good design.

He's not pacing any longer. It's "in" time again for mid-century Modern, and he is inhaling rarefied air once more.

Christie's/Los Angeles included 80 of his modular pieces along with work by Loewy and Billy Haines in an auction of 20th century innovators two years ago. A Manhattan gallery, R 20th Century, exhibited his work last fall. And he will speak to thousands of fans of contemporary furniture today and Sunday at the Palm Springs Modernism Show.

Like others who have found the path to second chances, Hollis Jones is humble: "I didn't know I was making art at the time."

Quality of craftsmanship

Hollis Jones is 57 and looks like Martin Sheen. He used to wear Tom Wolfe-ian white three-piece suits, but today he's in a brown blazer and stepping around a storage unit on Melrose Avenue that is filled with pieces of his past.

"This 'Wisteria' chair is like the one I made for Tennessee Williams," he says, patting its red seat cushion and tracing its transparent trapezoidal legs with his finger.

The chair's back and legs seem to be held together by air. Fasteners would detract from the sleek silhouette, so Hollis Jones found a way for heated acrylic to expand snugly into joints, which were mostly chrome, polished nickel and brass.

He used non-scratching acrylic that had been cured after it was cut, then cured again after it was glued together. Some chair and table legs, he boasts, were beveled 12 times to hold their shape.

Collectors who recognize the quality of his craftsmanship are now paying top price for a piece. A beveled chair he sold for $400 in 1963 recently found a buyer willing to pay $3,500.

To Hollis Jones, acrylic is rebellious. His dad, who was in the timber business and sold house patterns, "thought black walnut wood was the only thing." The teenage son went in the opposite direction, mesmerized by glass and new-age plastics. (Acrivue, Lucite, Plexiglas and Perspex are brand names for acrylic.)

He made display cabinets for department stores before he could drive and worked for a Los Angeles furniture showroom before opening his own. Altogether, he came up with 500 designs -- "I never did run out of ideas" -- and 50,000 of his pieces were made. He continues to do custom work.

"Acrylic was patented in 1931 and I've been working with it two-thirds of its life," he says.

Many of the pieces in his private collection will be on display at the Palm Springs Modernism Show at the convention center. He no longer has his showroom in Beverly Hills, but being less conspicuous serves him well. Friends called him recently to say that one of his swivel stools was being sold on EBay. They went to the seller's home and Hollis Jones was introduced as "Raymond Loewy."

"He wanted $850, but I got it for $225," whispers the designer. "He really didn't know what he had."

*

Modernism events

The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation is holding several fund-raising events during the Modernism Show this weekend, including a book signing with architectural photographer Julius Shulman that also benefits the Palm Springs Modern Committee. Charles Hollis Jones will lecture today and Sunday.

Time: 3 p.m.

Place: Palm Springs Convention Center

Tickets: $15

Information: (760) 837-7117; www.pspf.net

Palm Springs Modernism Show: More than 60 dealers of Art Deco, mid-century, Bauhaus and Art Moderne furnishings, jewelry and artwork, through Sunday at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 227 N. Avenida Caballeros. Admission is $10. For more information: (954) 563-6747; www.antiqnet.com/dolphin

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