Monday, January 15, 2018

Legends of Design: Billy Haines

In 1928, actor William "Billy" Haines was one of the most famous, top-draw stars in silent films. And in 1930, the Quigley Poll, a survey of film exhibitors, listed Haines as the top box office attraction in the country starring is such films as "Brown of Harvard," "Tell It To The Marines," and "Alias Jimmy Valentine." But there was one little problem...Haines was openly gay (at least to those in Hollywood) at a time when such information had to be kept secret. But the real problem was Haines was unrepentantly gay.

So in 1933, Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM where Haines was under contract, gave Haines an ultimatum: give up his long-term relationship with his partner Jimmie Shields and submit to a sham marriage with a starlet chosen by the studio (these secret arrangements were called "lavender marriages" in Hollywood) or be fired, blacklisted, and forfeit his career. In 2017, such behavior is sexual harassment and extortion but then, Haines had no real legal recourse.

But he did have his human dignity. And he chose to remain an authentic human being and remain with his partner Shields. Indeed, they were together for the next 40 years until Haines death in 1973. They were even dubbed "the happiest married couple in Hollywood."

But Haines had always been interested in homes and what goes into them and during his last few years in pictures, he had opened up--as a hobby--a furniture and antique shop in Los Angeles. After being forced from his very successful acting career, he concentrated on the shop full time. Soon he began furnishing rooms and then designing whole interiors for some of his movie star pals, including his good friend Joan Crawford for whom he created a daring design statement: an all-white house.

Billy Haines and Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford

In 1939, he designed a show room at the Golden Gate International Exposition Worlds' Fair in San Francisco to illustrate the new American Modern aesthetic in which pieces of many different styles and time periods could exist in harmony. He chose to create a desert-themed space with textured walls made of California Joshua wood panels, a fireplace surround of silver and turquoise, a buckeye-burl and rawhide coffee table, and leather and parchment flooring, all topped off with a skull painting by legendary artist Georgia O'Keefe. This easy blend of modern and traditional silhouettes has come to be known as Hollywood Regency. Haines' taste spread like wildfire and influenced set design for motion pictures in Hollywood. Just take a look at Katharine Hepburn's luxurious apartment in "Woman of the Year."

Desert Room by William Haines
Detail of Desert Room by William Haines
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Woman of the Year"

He also designed homes for other Hollywood legends such as Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies, Frank Sinatra, and George Cukor as well as jet-setters, socialites, and politicians like Betsy Bloomingdale and and Ronald and Nancy Reagan when Reagan was governor of California. Haines' work proved to be so in demand that he hired two other designers, Michael Morrison and Ted Graber. Graber and Haines designed the interiors for Walter and Leonore Annenberg's fabled "Sunnylands" estate (stay tuned for a future blog posting about this famous home) in Rancho Mirage, California. And Graber went on to design the White House for then-President Ronald Reagan.

Sunnylands by William Haines
Sunnylands by William Haines
Sunnylands by William Haines
The West Sitting Hall used as a living room by the Reagans in the White House
Nancy and Ronald Reagan in their master bedroom at the White House

And finally, he contributed greatly to the interior vernacular of the day with bespoke seating and objects of his own design. His chairs have certainly stood the test of time: he invented a new, lower style of seating for hostesses to perch on at parties, leaning an elbow on the back and chatting to guests. The Elbow Chair showed up in nearly every interior Haines ever created!

His Pull Up Chair was based on the same idea...

...while his gorgeous Brentwood Chair is the refined version with an exposed wood back and tufted seat.

These pieces and more are still in production at the Los Angeles design studio Haines himself started, William Haines Designs.

If you are interested in obtaining any of Haines' furniture, or adding some Hollywood Regency glamour to your home, please do give me a call.
Happy designing!

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