Don’t Fix It

Tony Duquette BY Wendy Goodman, Hutton Wilkinson. edited by Dominick Dunne. Abrams Books. Hardcover, 416 pages. $75.

The cover of Tony Duquette

Tony Duquette (Abrams, $75), a glossy tome that offers the most detailed survey to date of the designer’s career, is not a very political book, but it does contain one anecdote that belongs to the annals of cold war farce. It seems that during his 1959 tour of the United States, Nikita Khrushchev called on the studios of 20th Century Fox, where he watched “The Garden of Eden Ballet,” a production number from the musical Can-Can. The ballet, for which Duquette designed the sets and costumes, begins with dancers in breeches, waistcoats, and oversize animal masks frolicking against a barren landscape beneath a bright pink sky. Sprouting wire forms faintly suggest plant life. Shirley MacLaine makes her entrance from above, descending in a pale, sparkly bodysuit and a marabou-trimmed hat, riding an enormous black butterfly. As soon as the serpent hands her an apple and she takes a bite, the choreography segues from a credible rendition of classical ballet to the kind of naughty jazz-hands razzle-dazzle never seen at the Bolshoi. “The most decadent thing I have ever seen,” said a disgusted Khrushchev.

Shirley MacLaine as Simone Pistache in Can-Can, directed by Walter Lang, set design by Tony Duquette, 1960.
Shirley MacLaine as Simone Pistache in Can-Can, directed by Walter Lang, set design by Tony Duquette, 1960.

Duquette (1914–99) created “specialty numbers” for big-budget musicals with some regularity, but he is best known as a designer of furnishings and interiors. On a scatter diagram of midcentury Los Angeles taste—with Schindler radicals forming one cluster and Hollywood Regency revanchists another—he would be an outlier. His chief influences were Elsie de Wolfe, Venice, all things Oriental, and the demotic decorative mode that Reyner Banham called “plastergnomery.” It is Duquette’s allegiance to the last idiom, which Banham felt had reached its peculiar apex in postwar Southern California, that sets him apart. His preferences ran to luxe and volupté, but not calme; his designs teem with a mercantile profusion. In the lavishly illustrated Abrams book (which is coauthored by Wendy Goodman and Hutton Wilkinson), a friend recalls that Duquette “could spend a thousand dollars at the ninety-nine-cent store.” Rubber sandals, plastic salad servers, and metal steamers are just a few of the items that might crop up on his encrusted walls and in his rococo chandeliers and garden sculptures. Typically, he intermixed these manufactured objects with natural ones (antlers, seashells, feathers, snake vertebrae) and gussied everything up with paint or plaster, bits of Plexiglas or Mylar, and rhinestones— lots of them. He was also a scavenger of studio lots: Portions of a Chinese palace that he got gratis from Warner Bros. wound up at his ranch, Sortilegium, a fantasia of a place most concisely described as the Watts Towers of Malibu.

But while Duquette had a bricoleur’s love of objects that approach “the level of hubcaps,” as Metropolitan Museum of Art curator William Rieder put it, he knew a lambrequin from a palanquin. That is, he had a nuanced command of the arcana of high-end decorating. His clients included George Cukor, Doris Duke, J. Paul Getty, and Vincente Minnelli (Duquette was Liza’s godfather). If they wanted Louis XV, he gave them Louis XV; if they wanted a Lucite lair with a mirrored ceiling, they got it. Still, he gave them hubcaps, sometimes in stealthy ways. Absurd substitution— using a juicer as a finial, say—was one of his favorite strategies. Another was baroque accumulation, so that the chintzy elements achieved a certain gravitas through sheer mass—enough to hold their own in the face of rare objets and blue-chip art.

“Luxury,” historian Fernand Braudel once wrote, “is an elusive, complex and contradictory concept. . . . It can take on many guises, depending on the period, the country or the civilization. What does not change . . . is the unending social drama of which luxury is both the prize and the theme.” One might say that the typical upper-crust interior either represses this drama, through refinement and understatement, or enacts it so helplessly, so transparently, that it betrays desperation—an effect usually called vulgarity. Duquette did not repress the agitation that Braudel saw as inherent in luxury; he expressed it vociferously, but with considerable guile. For Hearst columnist Cobina Wright, he fabricated a giant ornament out of musical instruments—a lute, a violin, a guitar, various woodwinds—as well as fake roses and a candelabrum. The guile lay in the fact that the whole agglomeration was a flat and uniform white. In a picture of Wright’s otherwise sort of tasteful living room, this creation looks almost uncanny, like some unearthly vapor that has seeped down her chimney and coalesced above the mantelpiece. It’s not kitsch—it’s the ghost of kitsch.

Braudel’s remarks also chime with the common understanding of the baroque, which theorists from Heinrich Wölfflin to Gilles Deleuze have interpreted as a drama of incompleteness, of becoming. Ostensibly, then, the distaste that baroque style has historically aroused has something to do with a primal fear of irresolution and flux. But Braudel’s comments provide the means by which to transpose this existential ambivalence to the cultural field, so as to conceive of baroque drama as social drama—specifically, the drama of the arriviste. The Barberini, the great patrons of the Italian Baroque, had a petty-gentry past to live down. Many of Duquette’s clients, whether members of the film colony or water-and-power tycoons, came from even less illustrious roots. Duquette himself was born in LA to prosperous but not especially rich or well-connected parents. He attended Chouinard, the precursor to CalArts, on a scholarship. It would be ridiculous to posit him as a class warrior. But it seems fair to assert that his interiors spoke to the status anxiety he was hired to soothe—and to more general anxieties around the rampant development of American material culture—with something that looks, through all the froufrou and furbelows, like critical distance.

If there is a case to be made that Duquette was an artist rather than simply a designer— leaving aside the distinction’s own entanglements with problematic notions of status—it must rest on an apprehension of this critical distance. And funnily enough, for all the encomiums that Duquette receives in the coffee-table book that bears his name, the single negative comment is the one that comes closest to such apprehension. At the time of Khrushchev’s visit, the United States had recently made what any good dialectical materialist would call a qualitative leap. It had transformed from a society in which commodities were merely plentiful to one in which commodities were simply everywhere, accumulating in closets and garages and kitchen drawers—enormous amounts of cheap, disposable, often bewilderingly redundant stuff. (The “combination table utensil,” for example—better known as the runcible fork, or spork—enters history during this period.) Lawrence Alloway, who coined the term junk art in 1961, may have been the first to name this phase change. Duquette’s elevated brand of plaster-gnomery could be seen, alongside assemblage and Pop, as part of the deeply conflicted discourse about junk culture. Superabundance had its pleasures, but it was also threatening, the way all surfeit is threatening.

Embedded in Khrushchev’s reaction to “The Garden of Eden Ballet,” maybe, was a suspicion that somewhere in Duquette’s strange mise-en-scène lay an allegory of a new, unstable, even perilous situation. Duquette had, after all, reimagined the Fall of Man as a kind of fail-safe fête galante, with courtiers who were half-human, half-animal—mutants, you might say— gamboling in the irradiated light of an unnatural dawn. But there is more than one way for the world to end, and the ending allegorized here was not necessarily, or not only, the one that would have come most readily to the mind of the Soviet premier. America’s real power lay not in its warheads but in its wealth, which it could use to annihilate its enemies, but with which it might also annihilate itself.

Elizabeth Schambelan is senior editor of Artforum.