Like he does with his material of choice, Charles Hollis Jones reshapes himself. At 63, the iconic virtuoso of transparent plastic resin furniture has embarked on a series of chairs, four-poster beds, tables, and bar stools that will likely surprise anybody who remembers the almost puritanically Modernist work shown in the Elrod Showroom during the 1960s.
These new works are “organic,” in Jones’ words. An armchair, like Daphne in the Greek legend, seems to be turning into a tree. A bedpost bends like bamboo in the wind. New bar stools resemble Russian constructivist rockets. What in the world has gotten into the famed minimalist of see-through furniture, who appointed much of Palm Springs’ Movie Colony during the 1960s and 1970s?
Even if he were coasting on his credentials, Jones would have a formidable reputation. His client list was unsurpassably hip, including Frank Sinatra, Tennessee Williams, John Lautner, interior designer Paul Laszlo, and industrial designer and longtime Palm Springs resident Raymond Loewy. In the early 1970s, at the height of his influence, Jones had a bright-red showroom in West Hollywood full of wall-sized tapestries of his own design, tinted plastic sconces, and transparent Lucite sofas and chairs. In this remarkable room, we could see a moment in cultural history, when the coolness of the Rat Pack started heating up into psychodelia.
Jones is a rich source of Palm Springs gossip, so much so that his anecdotes threaten to overshadow a serious discussion of his art. Sinatra bought 40 Lucite tissue boxes and another 40 Lucite-lined wastepaper baskets. The flamboyant dealer and tastemaker Arthur Elrod flogged his work tirelessly in his Palm Springs showroom. Tennessee Williams agreed to buy several pieces — that is, if Jones would join him for a drink. “Tennessee would come to Hollywood to sell screenplays, and he would spend half his money buying things from me,” Jones says. The playwright commissioned one of Jones’ most original chairs: a composition of three plank-like pieces, with the front and back legs set at skewed angles.
Lautner, the flinty, uncompromising disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, specified Jones for at least three of his structurally bespoke houses. Lautner valued Jones’ design for its purity, as well as for the ability of Lucite to “disappear” and give dramatic primacy to the round, domed Elrod living room, which looks like the underside of a flower. “Build me a view, Charlie. Don’t build an obstruction,” Lautner liked to say to Jones. On one occasion, however, the architect asked the designer to create a pair of bronze doors, this time saying, “Build me an obstruction, not a view.” Jones demurred, however; he works only in plastic. “I don’t want to be known for anything else,” he says.
If he had not moved forward artistically, in all probability his reputation would have remained firmly stuck in the 1970s. His earlier pieces, with their purist design and construction, seem emblematic of the faith in technology and long-held hope for a materialist utopia that characterized U.S. culture until the Vietnam War, the rise of the counterculture, and the ethos of the natural in favor of the machined look. By the late 1970s, Jones recalls, “People got tired of plastic.” Among the culprits who damaged the good name of the material were the thousands of cheap, chintzy knockoffs of designs by Jones and other quality designers like John Maraschino. The discovery of an early Maraschino piece in the late 1950s was an inspiration to the very young Jones, literally fresh from the farm. “It was not the design so much that interested me,” he says, “it was the material.”
Now, Lucite seems posed to regain its standing as a highbrow material, with new-generation architects, including Marmol Radziner and Associates of Los Angeles, consulting with Jones and commissioning pieces from him.
According to his official biography, Jones was a prodigy with little formal training. He grew up in rural Kentucky, where his father, a carpenter, refurbished antique-covered bridges. “That’s where I got my interest in structure,” he says. His mother, a member of the Pentecostal Church, made intricate quilts, which Jones still treasures. His first essay in furniture design was executed in wood when he was 14 years old. Before he turned 20, he was working for furniture manufacturers. After striking out on his own in 1971, the boyish-looking Jones had two showrooms and a factory with 120 employees.
He has worked steadily, in and out of fashion. Now, sitting in a print shirt that looks like a Jackson Pollock drip painting and switching among a variety of elegant plastic-framed spectacles, an older, slightly wizened Jones sits in a Burbank bungalow that looks like a miniature showroom. He hints that he has spent a good portion of his current earnings repurchasing rare or one-of-a-kind pieces from his past.
Always a technical innovator, Jones has invented a painstaking method of bending and twisting plastic resin to realize his new organic vocabulary. One Jones technique, which he calls “curing,” involves a cycle of heating and cooling the material so that once it is bent, it is less apt to snap back straight. “It makes the molecules happy,” he says of the process. Another technique, inspired by glassblowing, involves blowing air into a molten plastic cone, enabling a craftsman to twist and torque the material. One product of that technique, The Apple Chair, will be exhibited Feb. 13-15 at the Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale at Palm Springs Convention Center.
Jones continues to be a technical innovator and an idealist. He offers to review several versions of a creative motto, written in a highly personal language. “Inspiration is not enough,” runs the title of one version. By “failing in the sketch,” he writes, the designer “finds sympathy for the idea,” as yet unrealized. And in seeing the germ of the idea, the designer develops the “willingness” to pursue it through four or five additional sketches, in which the idea slowly evolves.
Jones, who has always valued integrity of workmanship as much as design, has never allowed his practice to slacken into mere facility or repetition. That is one reason why his designs — from the minimalist, Bauhaus-inspired work of his youth to the unpredictable, organic work of his later period — continue to hold our attention and our sympathy.