Sunnylands Exhibition Honors Designer William Haines

The Rancho Mirage landmark spotlights Hollywood decorator William Haines’ contribution to the Annenberg estate in an exhibition of exquisite custom furnishings.

October 3, 2023
Story by Will Dean
Walter and Leonore Annenberg and William Haines shared a love for symmetry, illustrated here in the living room with mirrored sitting areas featuring custom Haines designs.

The kindest thing Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer ever did for William Haines was fire him.

True to the sharp wit for which he was known, Haines liked to credit the ascent of his second career to Mayer’s potentially devastating decision. (He also got a little help from movie queen Joan Crawford, but more on that later.)

When confronted with Mayer’s 1933 ultimatum to marry a woman for show or give up his glittering movie career, Haines chose the man he loved. The romantic act of defiance ended his stellar acting career when he was in his early 30s. But it led him down a new path with his life partner as an interior decorator and furnishing designer to the stars.

Among Haines’ luminary clients were late ambassadors and philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg, who frequently hosted world leaders and tastemakers at their winter retreat in Rancho Mirage, known as Sunnylands. With exquisite design sensibilities and exacting detail, Haines created more than 400 custom furnishings and finishes that transformed the 25,000-square-foot estate into a resplendent desert gem.

William Haines at his Hollywood home in 1927, prior to switching careers.

Because his creations were bespoke for every client, they are almost impossible to find today. The exhibition Variations to a Theme: William Haines at Sunnylands provides an opportunity to see his work up close. It is on view at Sunnylands Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage through June. Admission is free.

As an actor, Haines appeared in more than 50 films. The industry trade paper Motion Picture Herald listed him among the top 10 highest-grossing stars of 1930.

Still, MGM exec Mayer wasn’t convinced that Haines’ popularity could withstand the scandal of being outed as a gay man. Fans were accustomed to seeing Haines on screen — in silent films and a few of the early talkies — as the handsome, all-American, presumptively heterosexual collegiate or military recruit.

But Haines had no interest in enduring the changing film industry without his beau, Jimmie Shields, by his side. He had been with the Navy veteran for seven years when Mayer gave him the ultimatum.

Out of the spotlight, Haines discovered interior decorating as an alternative path to the beautifully adorned life he’d imagined during his childhood in Staunton, Virginia, and formative years in Greenwich Village, New York City.

He developed a deep affinity for acquiring and selling antiques while under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — so much so that Haines and Mitchell Foster, his acting stand-in, had opened an antiques store in Los Angeles in 1930.

With his movie industry connections, Haines had an impressive list of potential clients for interior decorating jobs right out of the gate. Actress Joan Crawford, Haines’ best friend since her arrival in Los Angeles, was the first star to hire him. He outfitted Crawford’s home in Brentwood. Thirty years later, she beckoned him again to decorate a New York City penthouse she shared with husband Alfred Steele, CEO of Pepsi-Cola Co.

In the Royal Sitting Room, pale green redwood wall paneling frames a Claude Monet reproduction.
Haines went on to design interiors for studio chief Jack Warner, actresses Gloria Swanson and Carole Lombard, and director George Cukor, among others. In 1945, he established William Haines Inc. with Ted Graber as a design associate.

This new path would eventually lead Haines to the Annenbergs at Sunnylands, which was built between 1963 and 1966.

Walter and Leonore were fans of Haines’ work long before they hired him. They had seen the posh interiors he created in the late 1940s for their friends, Sidney and Frances Brody, art patrons and collectors with a residential showplace in Holmby Hills.

A Japanese table lamp seen through a bamboo-style armchair and a pop of yellow.

Haines had collaborated on the Brody project with leading modernist architect A. Quincy Jones. When Haines introduced him to the Annenbergs in the early 1960s, they swiftly hired Jones to design Sunnylands.

From the beginning, Haines and Jones were a synergistic team. Landscape architects Robert Herrick Carter, Emmet Wemple, and Rolla J. Wilhite also contributed to the Annenbergs’ property at various times, and Dick Wilson designed a nine-hole golf course.

“The interior decorator, the landscape gardener, and the architect should all be consulted in the beginning,” Haines said in a 1972 interview with Architectural Digest. “The three should be hired as a unit and work together. Each one should know what the other is doing. Also, the architect should respect the decorator as much as the decorator respects the architect.”

A sofa bench with biscuit tufting.

“It’s the ultimate gift if you’re a designer,” says designer Patrick Dragonette, a well-known authority on Haines. “If you can assemble a team, and you’re in concert from the get-go, that’s ideal.”

A symbiotic relationship with the homeowners was another essential component of Haines’ work. “A home is the most personal thing in the world,” Haines told Architectural Digest. “The designer has to know the clients better than they know each other if it is to be a successful partnership.”

Neither Haines nor the Annenbergs shied away from color.

A curved back accents this leather-upholstered chair.
Haines used leather upholstery for activities requiring an upright position, such as backgammon. This walnut Conference Chair is one of eight.
The Annenbergs’ furniture collection consists of simple and elegant pieces that are uniquely beautiful yet accessible, says Anne Rowe, Sunnylands’ director of heritage. Every piece was tailored to a section of the house.

To encourage intimate conversations and create a comfortable atmosphere in large rooms, Haines would arrange multiple sitting areas in a space. These groupings often mirrored one another and included Brentwood chairs, hostess stools, and other pieces that Haines designed to be easily movable to accommodate groups of varying size.

In the Room of Memories, a trapunto-quilted sofa circles with a matching “Seniah” (“Haines” spelled backward) swivel chair.
With 20-foot ceilings under a Mayan-inspired roof, Sunnylands’ atrium provided the perfect opportunity to display this technique. Designed to showcase the Annenbergs’ vast collection of masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and many other great artists, the room is undeniably grand.

“The scale is so unbelievable and so rare in residential architecture. Yet because of his brilliance, it doesn’t feel big once you’re in it,” Dragonette says. “It overwhelms you when you walk in, but then the intimacy of his use of symmetry puts people at ease.”

Haines and the Annenbergs add a touch of color.

Haines selected the finishes and fabric treatments featured in the home with input from the Annenbergs. His unexpected color choices, such as celadon green walls, were inspired by the surroundings. Sofas and chairs were upholstered in biscuit tufting or trapunto quilting, occasionally with an overlay of hand-embroidered flowers. “It’s gilding the lily, then gilding the gilded lily,” Rowe says.

“I have never met a Haines chair or sofa that is not comfortable,” Dragonette says. “Haines’ clients knew they were not only going to get something gorgeous, but [also something] imminently comfortable.”

It’s a luxurious, soft approach to modernism that midcentury-modern enthusiasts don’t often see. Dragonette calls Haines’ approach “an exclusive design experience” because he catered to how people — albeit wealthy people — really lived.

William Haines Inc. refashioned many opulent and storied homes before and after Haines’ death from cancer in 1973. The firm’s achievements include decorating the Annenbergs’ London residence during their ambassadorship in the 1970s and the private living quarters in the Reagans’ White House in the ’80s.

Jelly beans decorate the guest rooms.

Whether Haines will be most remembered for his impeccable decorative talents or his films, it’s clear which legacy he preferred. “He found a way to be creative and expressive that didn’t require him to not be himself,” Dragonette says. “He formed this tremendous network of great friends, and the Annenbergs were a lynchpin in that. They all accepted him for who he was.”