The House that Charles James Built

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By the 1950s Charles James had established himself as an innovator in European and American fashion, perhaps the first true, Parisian-style couturier the U.S. had ever known. Beloved by Christian Dior, who called him “the greatest talent of my generation,” James was known for grand, sculptural, forward-thinking gowns in unusual colors, textures, and aesthetics–like a brown cocktail dress, a blood-red velvet gown, his famed four-cornered “Clover Leaf” dress–all of which were extremely unusual and avant-garde at the time. The beauty of his work was lost on few, least of all Dominique de Menil, an heiress and art collector.

Dominique had met James after she and her husband Jean (later John) escaped Paris in World War II. In New York, a neighbor had asked Dominique to bring James a note stating they would like to never speak to or hear from him again. The note had the reverse effect on Dominique, who became a regular couture client of James, seeing him as an artist instead of just a dressmaker. But she and her husband saw more possibilities in his work than just clothing.

Dominique and John arrived in Houston, Texas, where he began work at Schlumberger, the company founded by Dominique’s father, physicist Conrad Schlumberger. The de Menils would build a modernist home designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe disciple Philip Johnson—who would later become famous for his iconic Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut—in Houston’s tony River Oaks neighborhood. The area was dotted with antebellum mansions and Tudor-style villas. The de Menil residence was a long, 5,500 square foot home built on a single plane, free of excessive landscaping, and faced the street that most of the area’s servants took to work, causing a scandal in the neighborhood. It was simply not how things were done. But the de Menils were cosmopolitan and progressive and they certainly cared little for the thoughts of their conservative neighbors. Completed in 1950, theirs became the state’s first great modernist home.

But it still needed an interior designer. Enamored by James’ designs, his simultaneous Victorian and modern references and his love of voluptuous curves, the de Menils commissioned James to design the interiors of their home. They knew modernist design would be a little too stark for their tastes, and instead wanted to choose a designer whose vision would balance the sharpness of the home’s construction. It is the only interior design commission James is known to have produced.

Into the de Menil home, James brought color, texture, and curve to the sleek modernist architecture, even raising the ceilings about 10 inches to incorporate his designs. He wallpapered with robustly toned felts in fuschia and butterscotch and white, used fabrics typically attributed to clothing like silk, velvet, and wool, and designed custom furniture for the space—including his famed lips couch in camel-colored wool, which would become a design icon, inspired by Man Ray’s painting “Observatory Time: The Lovers.” He also made a long, sensuous sofa, a wrought-iron chaise inspired by the delicacy of a deer’s leg, among others. The same draping and architectural elements of his clothing are present in his furniture designs as well.

James’ work pushed against traditional modernist design, so much so that an infuriated Johnson renounced the house until after John de Menil’s death. But James had always had the intention of causing trouble, and his designs were exactly what the spirited de Menils wanted. Dominique de Menil maintained James’ designs in her home until her death. The home has been restored so it can continue to last, with James’ designs intact.

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