"DESIGN is an opinion," declared the opinionated designer William Haines. "Not a profession."
But Jean Mathison, Haines' administrative major-domo from 1955 until his death in 1973, begs to differ. She asserts that for Billy Haines, the Jazz Age MGM film star who became the premier interior decorator for glamourhungry movie queens and business barons, design was a profession -- and a calling.
"He used to say that if he had been born during the time of Louis XVI, he would've decorated Versailles," she says. Mathison, an ebullient 80-year-old storyteller from Hollywood's golden age, and Peter Schifando, a 53-year-old L.A. designer still catering to Haines' clientele, have joined forces and archives: Hers fill a two-car garage, and his consist of thousands of blueprints and renderings. Together they are securing Haines' legacy with "Class Act: William Haines, Legendary Hollywood Decorator," which hits bookstores this month as the first major monograph on the designer.
On a recent Friday morning, Mathison pays a visit to Schifando's Melrose Place studio. She is the historian; he is the practitioner carrying on the Haines aesthetic, the touchstone of the current craze for Hollywood Regency design. Schifando painstakingly reproduces 50-year-old Haines furniture designs and does interiors for the original Haines Inc. A-list, dynasties with the names Reagan, Warner, Bloomingdale and Annenberg.
As Mathison alights like a midcentury glamour girl on one of Haines' classics, the low and soignee Elbow chair, Jonathan Joseph, Schifando's business partner at Peter Schifando & Co., enters the studio library. He has just returned from a visit to "Mrs. Reagan's" where, while attempting to replace a tile, he accidentally tripped a security wire, summoning unamused Secret Service agents.
"It's a complete continuum," Schifando says of his role in maintaining the glittering legacy of Haines and of the late Ted Graber, Haines' protege who redecorated the Reagan White House and whom Schifando worked with in the late 1980s. For the past decade, Schifando has sold Haines reproductions to top Los Angeles decorators such as Michael Smith, who recently redesigned Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, and Kelly Wearstler, who put a flashy mod spin on Hollywood glam at the Viceroy hotels in Santa Monica and Palm Springs.
"Haines is one of the great icons of Los Angeles design," says interior designer Antonia Hutt, a Haines devotee who is featured in Mathison and Schifando's forthcoming book. "But there is so little documentation of his work that it will be an invaluable resource."
Jason Stein, the associate director of 20th century furniture and decorative arts at Bonhams & Butterfields, agrees. "The period photographs of his commissions in the original residences cement William Haines' importance," he says. "It's timeless design, wonderful modern Neoclassical pieces that have stood up and work well in many types of environments."
The photographs in "Class Act" (Pointed Leaf Press, $95) prove Stein's contention. A 2000 shot in Hutt's West Hollywood condominium features four Brentwood chairs, a 1955 Haines design with 1-foot-high white leather seats that tiptoe over splayed tapered legs.
With its tightly tufted seat and floating backrest, the Brentwood has been endlessly aped. Furniture manufacturer Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams approximates the Haines look with the Astrid chair, $1,000. Patrick Dragonette's dining chair homage, the Lauren, can be purchased at his Los Angeles store for $3,600. Schifando's reproduction of the original Haines design is sold to decorators for nearly $5,000, twice the price Haines charged 50 years ago. Back then, Haines' silver-spoon clientele paid for quality and exclusivity. "He did not need to seek publicity," Mathison says.
Publicity had a way of finding William Haines, nonetheless. Born Jan. 2, 1900, in Staunton, Va., he was a man of the 20th century, leaving home as a teenager and finding his way to New York City at the dawn of the Roaring '20s, when the handsome, charming and unapologetically gay Haines roared with the best of them. After his friends jokingly submitted his photo to a "New Faces" talent search sponsored by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. and Haines won, he ditched his job as a runner on Wall Street, headed to Hollywood and signed with MGM.
Untrained as an actor, Haines designed a screen persona -- brash but immensely likable -- that clicked. He starred in silent films with Joan Crawford ("Sally, Irene and Mary") and Marion Davies ("Show People") and by 1926 was earning enough to purchase a two-story Hollywood home at 1712 N. Stanley Ave. A devotee of English architecture and antiques, he engaged James Dolena, one of the preeminent architects of the era, to transform the Spanish exterior into a Georgian jewel box.