James Mont: Bad Boy of American Design

It's not often that you hear the words, "murderous," "scandalous" and "nefarious" thrown around in the refined world of interior design, but when it comes to charismatic mid-century designer James Mont, those are exactly the words that apply...

The Man -

James Mont was a man shroud in mystery, one whose life details were often sketchy, at best. Presumably, he was born Demetrios Pecintoglu in Istanbul in 1904. His father may have been a noteworthy painter in Turkey, and he himself may have studied art and architecture in France and Spain. By all accounts, he moved with his family to the United States in the early 1920's.

His entry in to the world of design came when he was working at a Brooklyn electrical supply shop, selling lamps he had designed himself. It was there, that his showmanship supposedly caught the attention of a local mafia capo named Frankie Yale. Yale commissioned him to refurnish his house and, before long, Mont became the preferred decorator of Mafiosi, counting Frank Costello and "Lucky" Luciano as clients and friends. James soon charmed his way into the lives of many show business figures, including Bob Hope (who would later become the best man at his wedding), Irving Berlin and Lana Turner (who would later herself become entangled with the mob).

Mont's shady business connections would prove to be much less scandalous than the damage his vicious temper would create, however. In 1937, he married twenty-five year old Korean-American actress Helen Kim. Twenty-nine days after they were married, Kim was found dead in their apartment. Though her death was ruled a suicide, it was always speculated that Mont's temper may have played a role in her demise.

In 1940, James was convicted of assault when he attacked lampshade designer Dorothy Burns at his apartment and put her in the hospital for two weeks. This time, he would pay the consequences of his actions: he was sentenced to 5-10 years in Sing Sing. Unfortunately, Ms. Burns was so humiliated by the attack that she hung herself before the trial was over.

His Designs -

It's amazing, given the scandalous nature of James Mont's life, that his designs would become so sought after and highly regarded. Even today, it's almost impossible to search for Deco, Regency and Mid Century furnishings without coming across the work of the man and his imitators. His bold, exotic, often Chinese-inspired pieces stand out in decadent relief against a field of restrained modernism.

Mont's early designs included home bars that could fold down to a mere six inches (and away from Prohibition-enforcing eyes) and tables and desks with secret (gun-toting) drawers, but it would the Chinese motifs and labor-intensive finishes that he developed later on that would really set his style apart...

First Row:
• Chinoiserie bar from the 1963 James Mont design of Ellis Orowitz's Miami penthouse.
• A pair of lacquered lamps designed to look like spinning tops, mounted on springs that create movement both up and down and side to side.
• An example of Mont's cerusing technique. The oak is first bleached, then sandblasted and rubbed with chalky pigments to create the appearance of silk moiré.
• A pair of 1950's side chairs in James' signature silver leaf and snowy velvet.
• A 3-piece Asian style screen made of red lacquer and smoked mirror - another favorite of Mont's.

Second Row:
• A pair of pagoda style lamps finished in silver leaf and adorned with ceramic figurines.
• Black lacquered occasional tables with contrasting cerused legs and a triangular shelf.
• A beautifully carved bamboo cabinet detailed in gold leaf. Chinese-inspired pieces like this one were being designed at the peak of America's fascination with pre-Communist China. Mont, who was born in Constantinople, claimed "I am an Oriental," and maintained that "the delicate touch of Oriental spice...is just as necessary in furniture design as it is in fine cooking."
• This pair of white lacquer end tables showcases the designer's affinity for the medium, applied and polished by hand, in fourteen separate coats.
• Mont was known for applying layers of color beneath his gold leaf and burnishing it until it was almost transparent. In the case of these two Chinoiserie dressers, crimson and black can be seen peeking through, creating a warm glow.

Third Row:
• Can't you just imagine mobsters lounging on this one?? A 1950's sofa of glam velvet, tufted, sculpted and generously proportioned.
• Mont moves into modern. These sculptural walnut frames echo some of his earlier upholstered styles, but the clean lines of this piece position it neatly in the mid-century cannon.
• Ever the lady's man: a pair of lady's and gentleman's chairs upholstered in vintage Chinese red mohair.
• A pickled wooden side table that converts into a set of library stairs. Similar to a piece designed for Broadway columnist Louis Sobol in the 1940's, except that Sobol's extended to 10' and this one maxes out at 52".
• Chinese design through a modernist's eye: a pair of 1950's table lamps in lacquered oak with parchment shades.

Perhaps in the end, Roger Pigent of Malmaison Antiques in New York said it best, "Such a dangerous man, but oh, what taste."

MORE JAMES MONT DESIGNS: Currently Available James Mont pieces on First Dibs

Images: 1st Dibs