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The Straus Suite by T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings


Straus Living Room Design, Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings Papers, 1915-1977. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

The Straus Suite was part of a custom interior commissioned in the 1940s by Carol Austin and Robert D. Straus, and designed by Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings. This collection, which has remained in the Straus family until now, represents one of the earliest and most complete intact custom sets to be offered at auction. The original interior drawings by Robsjohn-Gibbings for the Straus House are preserved at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. While some pieces such as the biomorphic coffee table are similar to models that were mass-produced by Widdicomb, others are more unusual either in form, scale or finish.

American design in the late 1920s and early 1930s tended to rely heavily on European and English antiques, and reproductions of those styles, something that Robsjohn-Gibbings saw as tired and lacking in originality. According to the Journal of Interior Design:

Americans’ nostalgia for European furnishings, which he learned to perceive as a social and cultural illness, became the target of his repeated criticism. His reaction against a slavish adoration of Georgian, Victorian and French antiques compelled him to develop a modernist approach to design.

In Robsjohn-Gibbings’ own words: “All periods have been done, and done to death.”

While Robsjohn-Gibbings is most widely known for his collaboration with Widdicomb, his initial success in the United States was secured by his innovative interior design services. His popularity during the late 1930s and early 1940s amongst America’s social elite as tastemaker and decorator-of-choice provided credibility for his future endeavors.His clients included Elizabeth Arden, Doris Duke, Stanley Marcus and numerous others.

Born in London, Robsjohn-Gibbings attended the University of Liverpool and received a degree in architecture from London University. He began working for Charles Duveen, the renowned decorator and antique dealer, at the firm Charles of London. In 1929, he transferred to the New York office; this opportunity allowed Robsjohn-Gibbings to meet many wealthy American clients and set the stage for his own successes in the United States. Robsjohn-Gibbings returned to London in 1933 to work for another decorating firm before making the move back to New York in 1936 to establish his own design and architecture firm, Darveed Incorporated (later Robsjohn-Gibbings Limited), with architect Rene Brugnoni. The firm’s prominently placed offices at 515 Madison Avenue also served as a showroom for Robsjohn-Gibbings to display his modern furniture. The sleek aesthetic of the showroom and ground-breaking Greek-inspired furniture designs earned the young designer the attention needed to launch a massively successful career.

Robsjohn-Gibbings incorporated his furniture as an integral part of his interiors. Well-read in the history of art and design, Robsjohn-Gibbings looked to the timeless architecture and furnishings of Classical civilizations, especially Greece, for inspiration. His intention was to create spaces that were eternally relevant, yet specific to the client. By design, his furniture could be placed in any interior at any moment in time, past or future, because it relies on inherently neutral motifs and aesthetics that have consistently been used over thousands of years.

Casa Encantada, a palatial 38,000 square foot, 43-room mansion in the ritzy Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, is arguably one of Robsjohn-Gibbings' most important commissions.Hilda Boldt Weber broke ground on Casa Encantada in 1937, but tragically her time at the storied California estate was short-lived as the cost of the construction, gardens, custom furnishings and upkeep (Weber retained a staff of 40 people) decimated her finances. As the property changed hands over the years, much of the architectural elements and interior decoration remained intact until 1981 when financier David Murdock sold the furnishings at auction to, ironically, furnish the house with antiques. The next owner bought back some of the original pieces and returned them to Casa Encantada in an effort to restore the original interior.

In 1940, Stanley Marcus and Herbert Marcus hired Darveed Inc. to redesign the second floor women’s salon at Neiman Marcus in Dallas. The project was part of an overall $500,000 expansion and modernization of the luxury department store. Robsjohn-Gibbings selected Marcel Vertes to create original murals as the centerpiece of the second-floor women’s salon.

Correspondences preserved in the Stanley Marcus Papers at Southern Methodist University offer a fascinating glimpse into this major commercial project, and demonstrate the young designer’s self-assuredness. In a tense letter to Robsjohn-Gibbings dated April 26, 1941, Stanley Marcus expresses concern about the sophistication of the murals and tells Robsjohn-Gibbings, “Whether you agree or not, I think it is up to you to get Mr. Vertes to submit another idea so that he can get the job. Otherwise, Mr. Marcus is at the point of wanting to cancel.” Robsjohn-Gibbings and Vertes ultimately landed on an agreeable design that was applauded by local media at the Grand Opening.

The critical importance of good press to a successful design career was not lost on Robsjohn-Gibbings. In an October 17, 1941 letter to Stanley Marcus, the designer writes that he had written Marcus twice asking what he, “proposed to do about making arrangements for the publicity of this floor,” and that he also, “was arranging for publicity in New York.” Since he apparently never heard from Marcus in regards to publicity plans, he bluntly tells Marcus that, “I went ahead and made the necessary arrangements through my own office, as I always do following the completion of a job such as yours.” Interestingly, Robsjohn-Gibbings and Brugnoni never received a formal invitation to the Opening. Brugnoni wrote Marcus on August 27, 1941 to say that he was planning to come to Dallas to review “contracts and costs for the work on the second floor.” He continued to write, “However, in view of the fact that no invitation has come to me for the opening, I wonder if you would let me know when you think it would be advisable to come down to go over these figures.” Tragically, most of the custom interior was destroyed in a massive 1964 fire.

Robsjohn-Gibbings worked on numerous projects in Texas, mostly Dallas and Houston, including interiors for Mr. and Mrs. J. R. Parten, Margaret and James Elkins, and Carol Austin and Robert D. Straus.

In 1937, Carol and Robert Straus commissioned architect John Staub to design a modern house at 1814 Larchmont Road in Houston. The hard lines and striking features of the white brick home were a departure from Staub’s more traditional style. The Straus House was his first venture into modernism, and one of the first of its kind built in River Oaks. At only 26 and 30 years old when the house was completed, the young couple were also one of the first Jewish couples in River Oaks pre-1960. Following construction of a sleek pool house by Staub in 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Straus added a two-story addition to the original structure, also designed by Staub, to accommodate their growing family in 1941.


The Straus House by John Staub, 1814 Larchmont Road, Houston, Texas, photographed in 1940

 

The Strauses hired T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings to design a custom interior to complement their modern art collection. When Robsjohn-Gibbings began his work at 1814 Larchmont, the Strauses’ home was furnished in a more traditional taste, primarily with 18th-century Regency furniture. When the stylish interior was complete, the Straus House represented a unique collaboration between an emerging design icon, an architectural maven and a brave young couple with a forward-looking vision. Between the timing of the project and the unusual design, the final product endures today, decades later, as a notable early landmark of early modernist architecture in Houston.

While it is unclear as to exactly how or when Mr. and Mrs. Straus selected Robsjohn-Gibbings for the interior design of their River Oaks home, they undoubtedly discussed the designer with friend and fellow modern art collector Stanley Marcus. Marcus was also a close friend of influential art collectors Dominique and John de Menil, mutual friends of Mr. and Mrs. Straus. The Strauses maintained an apartment in Dallas, and Mrs. Straus regularly visited the famed department store to shop; Mrs. Straus would have been aware of the newly designed women’s salon by Robsjohn-Gibbings at Neiman Marcus prior to selecting the designer for their Houston home’s interior.

The Straus House was first featured in a Houston Post article upon completion in 1937 where it is noted for its unusual modern style. The house was also featured in two 1940 articles in Architectural Record and River Oaks Magazine.

The earliest known reference to the Robsjohn-Gibbings interior at 1814 Larchmont Road is a February 13, 1949 article in The Houston Chronicle titled “Art Association to See R. D. Straus Collection”. The article features a photograph of Carol Straus in front of a newly acquired painting by Max Beckmann with her right hand resting on one of the custom Robsjohn-Gibbings side chairs. According to the article, “Mr. and Mrs. Straus recently had the interior of their large home redecorated to complement their art collection.” The article continues the discussion of the home’s furnishings by remarking that, “Noted decorator-designer Robsjohn-Gibbings was called in to devise furnishings that also would be handsome in their own right, yet not so dominant as to take away from the effect of the paintings.”

In March 1950, House & Garden published a feature on Texas homes that included The Straus House. Photographed by Andres Kertesz, the article beautifully showcases the couple’s impressive art collection alongside the custom furniture by Robsjohn-Gibbings. The article mentions that, “T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings selected the colors for the living room and designed most of the furniture for this room and the library.”

The Straus Suite is illustrated in an original rendering by Robsjohn-Gibbings now preserved in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Between the archival drawings and photographs published in House & Garden, these pieces are undoubtedly a fully realized custom order completed prior to 1949.

Unfortunately, the Archives of American Art inaccurately dates the drawing to the 1960s, which is refuted by photographic and anecdotal evidence. The Straus Suite was created between the time that the addition to 1814 Larchmont was completed in 1941 and the first reference to the completed interior in February 1949. The Houston Chronicle article refers to the interior as “recently completed”, but offers no other clues. The subjectiveness of the term “recently” makes definitively dating the Suite difficult. However, by 1951 Carol and Robert Straus had built a new home designed by Herman Lloyd at 53 Briar Hollow Lane (now demolished). The timing of the move from Larchmont to Briar Hollow suggests that Robsjohn-Gibbings executed the interior prior to 1949 as it would be peculiar for the Strauses to begin construction on a new home within a year or two of hiring a renowned decorator to update their Larchmont residence.

Based on available information, The Straus Suite was most likely commissioned some time between 1945 and 1948. After meeting Roy Neuberger, while briefly stationed in New York City during World War II, the Strauses began collecting modern and contemporary art. In his memoir, Neuberger places Mr. Straus in New York in 1943. Considering it would take several years to amass a collection large enough to warrant a redesign of their home’s interior, the earliest possible date of the Robsjohn-Gibbings commission is likely ca. 1945.

Robsjohn-Gibbings continued to produce custom orders even after his 1946 deal with Widdicomb; The unusual scale and absence of any Widdicomb labels further confirm that these were not mass-produced pieces. A 2009 article in the Archives of American Art Journal dates the Suite to ca. 1946, but does not provide any explanation. Over six decades later, The Straus Suite’s enduring appeal and relevance is a testament to the legacy of Robsjohn-Gibbings.

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