The Connoisseur’s Eye
With a curator's passion for richly detailed art and artifacts of California's Spanish heritage, designer Martin Newman creates allegorical vignettes of Palm Springs history.
A 20th century Mexican raised-panel book cabinet offers storage for pewter and bronze candlesticks and a collection of graphic 1920s and ’30s slip-glazed pottery.
Photography by David Glomb
Palm Springs antiques dealer Martin Newman is a rare man in the region — an interior designer who specializes in historic restoration of haciendas, ranchos, villas, and adobes. His focus and passion are early California interiors and furnishings dating back to the first European settlers in the state. Newman is sought out by California’s leading historical museums for his expertise in appraising and identifying Spanish and California antiques dating from 1730 to 1930.
Newman grew up around Malibu in the ’60s and ’70s and first came to fame as a wardrobe stylist for Bob Dylan. The feathered cowboy hats and Norfolk jackets that Dylan wore on his 1976 Rolling Thunder tour were devised and collected by Newman, based on his own sartorial splendor. The legendary and myth-making jacket worn by Dylan on the cover of his Basement Tapes LP was fashioned by Newman from a hand-woven Mexican serape blanket.
Newman’s exploits creating the wardrobe and styling for Dylan’s shows led to work on the interiors of the Dylan family houses. Newman created Spanish and Southwestern-style houses with interiors ornamented with handcrafted Spanish-inspired tiles, forged-iron gates and lanterns, and a whiff of early Spain.
“I became totally obsessed with the great arts and architecture the Spanish brought to California,” said Newman. “I admire the rustic character of the craftsmanship, the sensuality of the materials, the boldness, and the colors.”
Newman had always been intrigued by California history, he said, and studied the Indian lore of Southern California and the lives of the early Spanish and Mexican settlers in the state.
“I loved the great arts and architecture the Spanish governors and missionaries and officials brought from Andalusia, Alicante, Zaragoza, or Asturias,” recalled Newman, who restores villas and haciendas in Palm Springs, installing authentic period furniture, antique textiles, handcrafted lighting, and fine art.
“Spanish furniture of the 18th and 19th century was brought to California by sailing ship, and it is soulful and powerful,” he said. “It’s superbly handcarved with beautiful detailing. It was often country furniture, not for palaces or cathedrals, and made by country craftsmen, so the bold carving has great presence.”
In his search for fine colonial furniture and decorative arts, Newman started haunting estate sales, flea markets, and celebrity house auctions in Los Angeles and Pasadena, looking for authentic Spanish pieces, as well as architectural details, tiles, archival film, plein air paintings, and portraits.
As he became more knowledgeable of this Spanish-inflected world, Newman also became a connoisseur of early California fiesta attire and started collecting the embroidered and appliquéd wool gabardine jackets and elaborately flounced skirts worn by the equestriennes.
“Bob Dylan put me on the interior design map for other stars, songwriters, actors, and film producers who had a passion for the early California lifestyle,” said Newman. “For them I found the best-quality, forged-iron lighting, tiles, architectural details, fabrics, and Indian rugs.”
Newman said he continues to be captivated by the romance of early idyllic California and the idea of a pastoral Arcadian setting on the edge of the Western world.
“Spanish aristocrats and the Spanish military were given land grants, and they brought out the craftsmen and materials to create traditional furniture from southern Spain, which was heavily influenced by the Moorish taste,” he said. “These were hospitable people, and they built ranchos and haciendas and farmed the land and lived with great style and grace, making a new homeland.”
Newman now lives in Palm Springs and spends much of his time creating gracious and refined Spanish-style houses for his clients.
He has gathered a museum-worthy archival record of early drawings, paintings, photographs, and publications recording the early interiors of Palm Springs, when date palms dotted the valley and the earliest resorts were being built in the sand-strewn landscape.
In his own house, hidden behind walls, tall gates, and sentries of palm trees, he has gathered his prized possessions, collected over decades.
Among the highlights of his collection are his superbly carved 17th century, four-poster marriage bed and a handsome 17th century Spanish walnut buffet. In his kitchen, he uses a 16th century single-door cabinet from northern Spain to display an 18th century Spanish Talavera blue and white ceramic compote.
Newman is often consulted by California collectors for his expertise on appraising and identifying Spanish colonial, Spanish revival, and early 20th century California tiles, decorative arts, lighting, and furniture. Among his clients are major collectors of California’s historic décor, including Diane Keaton, a knowledgeable and witty connoisseur.
Newman is focused on finding antiques that are rare, handcrafted, and both beautiful and useful. He admires the Spanish revival furniture of great character that was crafted in Southern California in the ’20s and ’30s. Architects like Reginald Johnson, Wallace Neff, and George Washington Smith were designing the great Spanish-style estates in Montecito, Pasadena, Bel-Air, and Palm Springs; and they commissioned fine, carved Spanish revival amarios (cabinets), Peruvian-style tables and desks, and Craftsman-style corner cabinets and chairs. The pieces have great integrity and stature.
Newman’s true calling is to find the real thing, the great originals that came to California with the earliest Europeans, but he has a relaxed appreciation for 20th century décor that shows the hand and quality of fine craftsmanship.
“Antiques are becoming harder to find,” he said. “The best are in museums or in private collections.”
Newman is so passionate about adding to his collections that his pieces have spilled from his museum-like residence out to his palm-shaded terrace and patio.
Antique forged-iron weathervanes, Hillside pottery, 17th century Spanish oil jars, stone-like concrete urns, orange and turquoise Bauer oil jars, jade- and indigo-colored Gladding McBean urns, Mexican tile-top tables, rust-tinged early gas station signs, and arabesques of iron railings are all clustered together in Newman’s homage to California’s arts and crafts.