The Mix-Minded Marxist
THE AUTHOR RECALLS A CHILDHOOD AND ADULTHOOD SPENT WITH AMBIVALENT, YET ULTIMATELY WARM AND ADMIRING, FEELINGS FOR THE DESIGNS OF SAMUEL MARX
When I told my son Jesse I had sold the Sam Marx furniture last summer, his response was: “Where are my friends going to sleep?” I hadn’t thought of that. He had a point. This story begins in 1951, after my grandfather George Ehrlich retired from business. He and my grandmother, Sarah, commissioned Samuel A. Marx—the eminent Chicago-based architect and designer, whose work reflected an elegant aspect of modernism—to devise and furnish a spacious and up-to-date house overlooking the ravines in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. My son’s question referred to the ninety-three-inch-long sofa and matching club chairs—custom made by William T. Quigley, Inc. Over the years, an inordinate number of teenagers had slept on these pieces, something neither Marx nor my grandparents could have envisioned.
As the oldest grandchild I spent a lot of time in the house, designed as a series of low flat planes extending out from the living room, the architectural core. The furniture was crafted with exotic materials: crackled lacquer, burled wood, ebony, smoked mirror, cork, and parchment. For a child, it was a struggle to sit on the puffy and scratchy surfaces and puzzling to look across the remote distances. Many of the objects—the three-tiered bookshelf or kidney-shaped table, for instance—existed on a different scale and in a purer form than things in houses I was familiar with. The only Yiddish word I remember my grandmother using was haimish, meaning “homey”—once, at the end of her life. The house was not haimish. The palette—ivory, wheat, walnut, turquoise, eggshell—was glamorous, sophisticated, and sumptuous. There was a sense of edgy wellbeing, but it was not grandparenty. A few years after the house was built my grandparents engaged a professional photographer, Nowell Ward, to create a bound portfolio of images of the house, some of which you see on these pages.
What could you do there? I could run down the hall of wardrobe closets, make faces in the kaleidoscopic mirrors, sort poker chips, plink out show tunes on the piano, memorize the names of books on the floating bookshelves—East of Eden, The Last Hurrah, Kon-Tiki—all classic 1950s titles, since my grandparents had gotten rid of virtually everything they owned before moving in. My grandmother hated clutter. With my grandfather, I could go outside. The walls of glass and banks of windows invited you into layers of landscape. Inside someone was always changing linen or slipcovers. The kitchen linoleum squeaked when you walked across. A crumb didn’t fall on the black Formica counters that wasn’t swept up immediately.
My grandparents gave luncheons and card parties, listened to symphonies and show tunes on their record changer, read two newspapers a day, never missed Meet the Press. Gradually their health declined and it took a toll on the house. On his way to the dining room, my grandfather began making a shortcut, using his cane to poke aside the Dorothy Liebes hanging textile screen and step around it. The weave unraveled. There was wear on the sleeves of his armchair. Someone repaired the cork table with scotch tape. Medicine stained the rug. My grandmother wandered across fraying carpets, lost and agitated, looking for keys.
After my grandparents died, we divided the furniture. I got some lamps, side tables, a bookcase, upholstered pieces, a set of ceramic figures, and the kidney-shaped table (literally on its last leg). I liked the way the furniture connected to my grandparents and my past but it didn’t look right in our Wilmette, Illinois, farmhouse. In the ample space of my grandparents’ house, the parchment covered cylinder lamps were part of a group of streamlined forms, harmonious and balanced. Now they were out of place and out of proportion. When my husband took a new job, the furniture came with us to New Haven, but the club chairs rolled without constraint across the wood floors of our box-shaped colonial. I had the chairs recovered, removed the casters, added a few inches to the legs. We tried them in different spots of the box-shaped room. Fish out of water.
Last year we moved to New York City, squeezing the furni-ture into, in the parlance of Manhattan real estate, a “classic six.” That’s when the sofa got its workout, sometimes accommodating four, or even five, kids who had fallen asleep while watching a DVD. When we realized we needed to move again, we decided it was time to give the Marx furniture a better home and purchase some things that would be in keeping with the scale of our own city space. Though I know it was the right thing to do, I was sad to give up those objects I had lived with for over half a century. I look at the photos of my grandparents’ house and see how beautifully conceived it was as an architectural framework, and I miss the things that were in it. I also understand that the experience of living with the house and its furniture educated my eye. But give Samuel Marx due credit: he designed a house and furnishings that were meant to complement one another. The latter would never have been entirely at home anywhere else.
Photography by Nowell Ward