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THE INCREDIBLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING PLASTIC

In the seminal 1967 film “The Graduate,” a newly minted college grad played by Dustin Hoffman is given a word of advice by an older friend, a word meant to launch him on the road to riches: “Plastics.” It was sound counsel. Plastics, molded and bent into dynamic shapes, were already a familiar signature of the ‘60s. In the years since, the mania for collecting mid-century furniture has fueled demand for transparent plastic chairs, tables and accessories.

Among the pieces collectors are starting to snap up are acrylic and metal creations by Charles Hollis Jones, who has spent the last 40 years bending and shaping. “Innovators of 20th Century Style,” a May 16 auction at Christie’s in Beverly Hills, will feature 80 of Jones’ sculptural pieces (previews will be May 11-14). The featured furnishings include a swiveling vanity stool like the one he created for Lucille Ball in 1963, a pair of acrylic base sofas that appear to float when lit from below, and six “Wisteria” chairs he designed for Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans home. Small accessory items, such as the acrylic and chrome waste bins and tissue boxes that Jones designed for Buffy Chandler, will be auctioned as well. After seeing the tissue holders in a showroom, Frank Sinatra ordered 40 of them for his Palm Springs residence, Jones recalled. “He told me he needed one for every table in the house. He also ordered 40 wastepaper baskets--it was like a department store order.”

As a teenager, Jones had been designing chicken coops and trough feeders for the family farm in Bloomington, Ind., and cabinets, tables and lamps for his dad’s house-pattern business. He got turned on to acrylic while visiting Los Angeles when he was 16. There he met furniture manufacturer Joe Roide. “He told me he needed a designer,” says Jones, who had just won an art scholarship to Indiana University. “And I told him I designed things. I definitely preferred designing to milking cows.”

After his return to Bloomington, Jones started designing display furnishings for Roide for stores such as Bullocks Wilshire and Barker Bros. Right after graduating from high school, he moved to Los Angeles, where he continued working for Roide. Within six months, Jones was head designer for Hudson-Rissman, a prestigious furniture accessory showroom. There he created the seamless acrylic and metal furnishings with invisible cast joints that are his trademark.

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Jones was fascinated by the way acrylic was fashioned into furniture. The malleable thermoplastic material--first patented in 1931 and currently marketed under such familiar trademarks as Lucite, Plexiglas, Acrivue and, in Europe, Perspex--is an incredibly versatile material. “You can mold it to any shape. You can also cut it, drill it and glue it almost like wood. It’s shatterproof and lighter than glass yet has great strength. And it’s so beautiful . . . the way it carries light through it.”

The downsides of acrylic--it scratches easily, attracts dust and at times becomes a cloudy blue or yellow with age--are easily remedied, Jones says. Jeweler’s rouge and a buffing wheel can be used to polish it to its original smoothness, while 210, an acrylic cleaner, keeps away dust and discourages coloring caused by dryness and exposure to the sun. “You’ve got to keep acrylic moist so it doesn’t dry out. Think of it like a good piece of lacquered furniture.”

During his four decades as a designer, Jones has picked up numerous honors, from the Brilliance of Design award given by the German government to the 1970 California Design Competition 11 award for his Lucite and metal “Edison” lamp that landed in the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art. Along the way, his pieces have graced homes of the rich and famous: Sinatra, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Diana Ross, Johnny Carson, Sylvester Stallone. He also supplied acrylic pieces for a half-dozen homes designed by Modernist architect John Lautner, including designer Arthur Elrod’s futuristic Palm Springs residence, used in the 1971 James Bond film “Diamonds are Forever.” “Lautner always liked my work because you could see right through it,” says Jones. “It didn’t obscure his design.”


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