Renowned for his imaginative fusion of austerity and fantasy, elegance and humor, John Dickinson (1920-1982) crafted many of the most innovative American interior and furniture designs of the 20th century. Fantasy and Function: The Furniture of John Dickinson—comprising a dozen furniture pieces and more than 30 framed drawings—will be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from September 26, 2003, through March 7, 2004.
Organized by Darrin Alfred, SFMOMA curatorial associate of architecture and design, the exhibition is drawn from the Museum’s impressive collection of 250 works by the San Francisco–based designer. “Dickinson’s designs demonstrate his ability to both startle and amuse the viewer in a constant pursuit of originality,” explains Alfred. “His designs and use of industrial materials, though widely copied, still look unique and fresh even after 20 years.” The exhibition features a suite of furniture and drawings commissioned by Macy’s and designs for Dickinson’s own residence, a Victorian firehouse in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. Among the items on view: the designs for carved Victorian structures that served as his closet doors, an elegant white leather and lacquered wood chair with animal legs, and a painted wood table lamp, the base of which is in the form of human leg bones.
Dickinson preferred to make dramatic contrasts with the scale, shape and patina of furniture and accessories rather than through the use of color and pattern. With a spare, classically derived idiom, he drew inspiration from selective historical references, heightened in scale and assembled in a sophisticated yet casual manner. Dickinson’s highly original and detailed furniture—tin-skirted tables, animal-leg chairs, and African inspired stools and tables—exemplifies his flair for mixing unusual materials such as galvanized metal, white plaster and faux bamboo with a figurative playfulness.
A Berkeley native, Dickinson studied at the Parsons School of Design before taking a job in display at Lord & Taylor. He left New York for San Francisco where he became well-known for his idiosyncratic approach. With clients ranging from the Sonoma Mission Inn to art patrons to department stores, Dickinson’s fantasies and individual character made him one of America’s most astonishing decorators from the 1960s until his death in 1982 at the pinnacle of his career. His sought-after pieces continue to fetch high prices at auction houses and galleries whenever they come up for sale.