The mercurial personality of the American midcentury designer James Mont generated fodder for gossip, but his more tangible contributions — lavish furniture — are being shown in the U.S. for the first time in an exhibition.
Mont’s distinctive touch can be seen in a five-piece bedroom set fit for an emperor, a six-seat sofa with a Grecian insignia and a table with a smoked mirror top and Corinthian column base he designed for businessman Ellis Orlowitz and his family when they lived in the King Cole Penthouse in Miami Beach, which Mont also designed.
These and other Mont designs are on display in “James Mont: The King Cole Penthouse” at Todd Merrill’s second Manhattan collection at 63 Bleecker Street through December. Commissioned in 1963, the penthouse is said to be the last interior completed by Mont, who died in 1978. He was said to be involved with every last detail, including approving the interiors of built-in closets and selecting ornamental handles for dresser drawers.
Mont was born Demetrios Pecintjoglu in Turkey in 1904, and later changed his name and immigrated to the U.S., where he set up his own business in a five-story East 52nd Street workshop and catered to such VIPs as Bob Hope, Lana Turner, Irving Berlin and Lucky Luciano. His East-meets-West background no doubt played into his coining “Chinese modern,” a style that combines Asian influences with contemporary touches and one that his own work reflects.
Along with developing a reputation for designing speakeasies during the prohibition period, Mont attracted deep-pocketed clients. Many indulged his penchant for over-the-top gilding, and blending Greco-Roman detailing with Asian modernism. Mont often used dozens of layers of lacquer and gold leaf on his pieces, and unlike most, he thought nothing of trimming a silver leaf piece with gold trim.
June Greenfield, Orlowitz’s first wife, recalled meeting Mont in 1945. She told Merrill that Mont was “unusual, gregarious and talkative.” The Philadelphia-area house he designed for her and Orlowitz “felt like living in a nightclub,” she said.
There may be something to the designer’s mythic reputation for throwing furniture down stairs and yelling at clients, considering that Greenfield reported watching him jump up and down on furniture fanatically for no apparent reason.
Aside from an exhibition in Paris at the Galerie Eric Philippe about six years ago, Mont’s work has not been celebrated until now. He honed his craft in Europe, studying art and architecture in Spain and France, before working as an apprentice in a Parisian furniture company.
Mont fans can learn more about his life and see the exhibition online at merrillantiques.com. Online and published versions of the exhibition catalogues also are available. Architectural drawings, letters and contracts also will be showcased in the exhibition. Mont’s creations will be featured in “The New Americana: High Craft to High Glam Furniture, 1946 to 1996,” a book that will be published by Rizzoli next fall.