John Dickinson: Design and Whimsy

John Dickinson: Design and Whimsy

Anna Hoffman
Apr 12, 2012

The 20th-century designer John Dickinson died in 1982, but his work is more popular now than ever before. Coveted by collectors (did you see the episode of Million Dollar Decorator where a fight over a Dickinson side table was a whole juicy storyline?) and imitated by DIY-ers with matte white spray paint, his furniture is a combination of simplicity, functionality and surrealist whimsy.

Born in 1920, Dickinson grew up in Berkeley and went to Parsons School of Design. He returned to San Francisco in 1956 and launched his interior decorating firm. One of the top decorators in San Francisco during the '60s and '70s, Dickinson was known for his unique point-of-view and his originality. We can see evidence of this originality in his signature concrete plaster furniture pieces, designed and produced in the 1960s and 70s, which re-sell for many thousands of dollars at auction, and which have recently been re-issued in more durable glass-reinforced concrete by Sutherland Furniture.

In many ways, Dickinson's furniture was perfectly of its moment. Made of tactile fine-art materials like plaster and also industrial materials like galvanized steel, his pieces had a primitive, handmade feeling but also an almost austere simplicity. They were primitive and modern, organic and industrial, cheeky and fun but also elegant and functional.

Despite all their modernity and originality, Dickinson's pieces often referenced historical forms. His 'Etruscan' table has legs that recall the bronze paw feet of furniture from ancient Italy, and his 'hoofed' and 'footed' tables took that conceit to a more cartoonishly surreal conclusion. The matte plaster finish of his concrete furniture, meanwhile, was a direct throwback to designers from the 1920s and '30s like Jean-Michel Frank and Serge Roche, who also blended surrealism and modernism in their own designs. Most of all, Dickinson liked to play with textures, creating trompe-l'oeil objects out of concrete and steel to suggest table skirts, femurs or tree branches, and playing with traditional decor in very untraditional materials.

Why the newfound popularity? Part of it is the natural life-cycle of the cult designer whose fan base grows over time; part of it is the instant recognizability of his pieces, something that's surprisingly rare. But I also think the combination of fun and function is perfect for our age, where we like to think that we don't take our possessions too seriously, even while we care deeply about them. Dickinson often thought about objects and fetishism, and his greatest achievement was creating objects that not only referenced fetishism but that could be fetishized themselves.

(Images: 1 African tables (1970s) from Paper City Mag; 2 Hoofed stool (1965) from Liz O'Brien on 1stdibs; 3 Chairs from a set designed for the I. Magnin department store in San Francisco in 1969, from Jefferson West on 1stdibs; 4 Galvanized steel and brass console table (1971) from Galere on 1stdibs; 5 The Rope Tie and Tree Stump tables via House Gardens People; 6 Large Six-Legged African Table from Sutherland via Robb Report; 7 & 8 Dickinson's own home in San Francisco, photos by Lance Iverson via SFGate; 9 the Sirmos Floor Drape Lamp, attributed to Dickinson, on V&M; 10 Twig Mirror (c. 1970) via JED on 1stdibs.)

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