PaperCity Magazine

May 2014 - Houston

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MAY | PAGE 27 | 2014 of his children's line was Grace of Monaco, who purchased his designs for the newborn Princess Caroline.) Ultimately, however, James' wholehearted devotion to his art would be his ruin. He was so absorbed in his craft that he was reduced to living in a suite of rooms at the Chelsea Hotel, where the more obliging of his patrons — including Elsa Peretti — continued to underwrite his life and work. His marriage to patron Nancy Lee Gregory (with whom he had a son and daughter) dissolved in 1961. In 1964, he made the acquaintance of iconic illustrator Antonio Lopez, who chronicled James' work until the end of his life. In the intervening years, James often lectured and briefly collaborated with Halston (who would, in time, become a collector of James' noted erotic drawings). After one of these collaborations met a tepid response, the close relationship unraveled. James became the only clothing designer to ever receive a Guggenheim fellowship — just four years before his death from pneumonia in 1978. DOMINIQUE AND CHARLES Charles James entered the life of the de Menil family in the late 1940s. Dominique met him entirely by happenstance when a neighbor at 111 E. 73rd in Manhattan, Princess M. Ruspoli, Duchess de Gramont (who figures largely in Marcel Proust's Remembrances), asked her to deliver a note expressing Ruspoli's hope to never see or speak with James again. In so doing, de Menil met the designer and soon had James making pieces for her. In the ensuing years, John and Dominique de Menil, and their children Marie (later called Christophe), Adelaide, Georges, Francois, and Philippa (later Fariha) opted to live more permanently in Houston. Unhappy with their current house in River Oaks, they decided to build their own. They tapped architect Philip Johnson for the one- story abode on San Felipe, hidden behind a sinuous brick wall and grove of bamboo shoots; it was one of Johnson's earliest residential commissions. Towards the end of construction, John proposed that they commission Charles James to decorate the interiors, hoping he could mitigate the feeling of transparency that Dominique sensed in Johnson's open floor plan. James accepted and arguably made the most significant contributions to the home's sensibility and scale. He strongly felt that the ceiling needed to be raised upwards by 10 inches — a move that inspired resentment in Johnson, who felt his work was being defaced by a mere dressmaker, a sentiment that dissipate over time. James' decisions for the space directly mirror how he constructed his garments. He started with color. He arrived everyday from the Warwick Hotel, dressed in a khaki jumpsuit, and used the garage as his studio. He refined his plans by using a board for each room, on which he would test out color combinations until perfected. Having settled upon a specific palette, he would then mix each color expertly. This could last well beyond sunset, oftentimes resulting in the eldest children, Christophe and Adelaide, being asked to hold lights so James could continue mixing. This involved process brought color into every area of the house he felt needed it. Just as he gave nuanced color choices greater impact by incorporating them into the most intimate portions of his garments, so did he paint the most personal points within the house in the most remarkable tones. Examples include the hallway just outside the daughters' bedrooms, the interior of both the storage closet off the living room and the bar, and within Dominique's dressing room, where every door hinged to the L-shaped corner wardrobe is painted a different harmonious external color, with the edges and interiors acting as complements. Further amplifying color choices within the house was James' desire to accentuate the spatial beauty of the home through surface treatments such as applying butterscotch felt on the walls both inside and directly outside a guest powder room off the entry. Within the hallway directly outside the girls' rooms, two sets of double doors were installed. The outermost faces were left a muddy gray to match the hallway, while the back side was outfitted with mirror, the secondary door was covered in vermillion felt, and the most interior face of the door was covered in antique French cerise velvet. He designed three pieces of furniture for the house with exacting detail: a pair of sensual sofas (actually conjoining settees), a chaise longue for the living room and a banquette for the playroom-cum-dining room. Their adherence to curvilinear forms have distinct overtones of his garment making. James insisted that every surface of the sofa slope — an effect he achieved with convex reversed curves created by an internal structure of metal bailing; it took five different artisans, each successively working for six months, to complete the wool-covered pair. (The upholstered banquette also adheres to this rule of organic shape, but it cannot impart the impact of the bombastic duo of sofas.) The chaise longue, where John would read the morning newspaper, was positioned against the backyard-facing floor-to-ceiling windows. Its wrought-iron frame, meant to evoke the elegant and fluid movement of a deer's leg, was made from pine slats and upholstered in buttoned saffron and gray raw silk. Dominique continued to have dresses made by James once the house was completed. She also had him design a couture gown for Christophe for her debutante ball in 1952, which she wore for debuts at both New York's Knickerbocker Club and here in Houston as well. In typical James fashion, he insisted that the outer layer of dress be shades of silver and royal blue in New York; then, when she wore it in Houston, he outfitted the outermost skirt in pure tones of off-white and ivory. Christophe remembers feeling "very special and very alone" in the gown and that "it would carry you almost" as one moved it about, the skirt echoing the forward and backward motion of a bell. Indeed, inhabiting a James gown placed the wearer in an alternate reality of highly labored perfection. "You couldn't sit," she said. In fact, when dressing on the night of her Houston debut, the zipper broke, and she had to be sewn into the gown. Adelaide, too, would enjoy the designs of James. Indeed, it seems the legacy of Charles James dressing de Menil women continues still, as Christophe plans to bestow her other James gown — a sleeveless ensemble with a black satin bodice, bow and an enormous pink skirt — upon her great granddaughter, Secret Snow (daughter of the late artist Dash) when the time is right. Dominique, wearing a James evening jacket, with architect Philip Johnson at River Oaks Theatre, 1949. "CHARLES GAVE ME A FREEDOM THAT I NEVER LOST AND THAT WILL CHERISH FOREVER." — CHRISTOPHE DE MENIL TRIA GIOVAN TRIA GIOVAN TRIA GIOVAN Christophe de Menil in her four-leaf-clover gown, which she donned for her 1952 Allegro debut at River Oaks Country Club. Charles James-designed sofa, framed by Philip Johnson's architecture, 1956/1957. Jade-green, raw-silk–covered Venetian rococo settee made of walnut (circa 1755-1765), acquired at James' behest. James' chaise lounge, created for the de Menils' house. James paired cinnabar felt, antique cerise velvet, mirror and a muddy blue-gray on the doors in a hallway. The red velvet bustle-like curtain between Dominique's dressing room and bath, echoed in her gown hanging on the shower curtain rod, where she often steamed garments. Dominique de Menil wearing a James gown, composed of alternating silk millinery ribbons. Dominique's dressing room James hand-painted the surfaces of Dominique's dressing room cabinets. CLARENCE JOHN LAUGHLIN S. DE L'EPINE THE HOUSTON POST, COURTESY THE MENIL ARCHIVES WILLIAM ABRAMOWICZ FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN, COURTESY THE MENIL ARCHIVES JEAN RIBOUD HESTER + HARDAWAY

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