Helena Rubinstein, the Polish multimillionaire cosmetics magnate, wasn’t one for understatement.
She amassed art, furniture and décor in bulk, arranging pieces scattershot throughout her 26-room Park Avenue penthouse: Chinese pearl-inlaid tables, gold Turkish floor lamps, life-sized Easter Island sculptures, six-foot-tall blue opaline vases. At one time she owned 16 paintings by Renoir, 20 Raoul Dufys and 40 sculptures by Elie Nadelman. She devoted an entire room to Dalí. She had the largest collection of African art thought to exist in private hands.
With the help of a young David Hicks, Rubinstein upholstered her drawing room in purple tweed and filled it with carved Victorian chairs covered in pink velvet. Underfoot was an acid-green carpet designed by Miró, seen above in a c. 1955 photo by Slim Aarons.
But nearly 50 years after Rubinstein’s death, long after her six homes in the United States, France and England were disassembled and her Picassos and Chagalls sold for millions, she remains perhaps best known — in design circles, at least — for her Lucite bed.
Lucite, now mostly associated with decor of the 1960s and 1970s, was introduced by DuPont in 1936, the same year Rohm & Haas debuted Plexiglas (the same polymer, under a different brand name).
Both made a splash at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, but after World War II broke out, the clear acrylics were reserved for military use. They were light, shatter-resistant and cheap to produce, making them practical for submarine periscopes and aircraft windshields.
Following the war, interior decorators began using Lucite in tony homes in New York, Paris and Hollywood. Claudette Colbert displayed her 1934 Best Actress Oscar for “It Happened One Night” on a Lucite table in her living room.
Perhaps it was a decorator who introduced Rubinstein to Lucite. In the 1930s, she had her famous Lucite sleigh bed made in Paris. Concealed fluorescent lights made the headboard and footboard glow.
Below she is seen sitting up in bed, conducting a business meeting and surrounded by her advisors, who sit in eight matching Lucite chairs.
New York-based Grosfeld House was an early manufacturer of Lucite furniture and produced many pieces throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Artists and fashion designers, influenced by the popularity of space age design, began using futuristic materials in their work in the 1950s and ’60s. Dalí painted on Perspex, the sculptor Leroy Lamis made geometric cubes from Plexiglas and Marilyn Monroe donned Lucite sandals.
Furniture makers, anxious to capture the modern aesthetic, used Lucite in chairs, tables and light fixtures, often incorporating molded or sculptural elements. The French designers Estelle and Erwine Laverne, who opened their New York furniture company in 1938, were famous for their Lucite chairs. Making the case for transparent furniture in 1959, Erwine Laverne told a New York Times reporter, “The most important element in rooms is people, not furniture.”
The Lavernes introduced the Lucite Champagne chair in the late 1950s. You’ll notice it bears a striking resemblance to the Tulip chair, designed by Eero Saarinen for Knoll in 1955-56. This was intentional: Estelle Laverne, speaking in 1959, said,
“[Saarinen] cleared up the clutter of legs in rooms [with pedestal furniture], but we wanted to go one step further.”
The Lavernes introduced four additional Lucite chairs in 1959: the Lily, Jonquil, Buttercup and Daffodil, collectively known as the Invisibles. The Buttercup retailed for $140 and the Lily was $280, about $1,035 and $2,070, respectively, in today’s currency. They were available with “water-filled iridescent pillows,” because, Erwine Laverne said, “water is more comfortable than air to sit on.”
Lucite’s popularity boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks in part to designers such as Neal Small (“The Prince of Plexiglas”), John Mascheroni, Charles Hollis Jones, Dorothy Thorpe, Joe Colombo, Paul Laszlo, and Mark Eckman for Karl Springer.
But in the past decade or so, there’s been revived interest in Lucite, with many companies producing designs inspired by the 1930s and 1940s. Plexi-Craft and Aaron Thomas sell acrylic pieces; CB2 has its popular Peekaboo nesting tables.
The monetary value of vintage Lucite pieces, meanwhile, has skyrocketed. After Helena Rubinstein’s death in 1965, her nine-piece Lucite suite was broken up among four buyers at a 1966 auction, bringing $1,500 all together. The bed sold for $200, about $1,330 in today’s currency. At the 1975 New York Art Deco Expo, the New York antiques dealer Alan Moss listed four of the chairs and the sleigh bed for $10,000, just over $40,000 in modern currency. (Today the French photographer-turned-antiques-dealer Roger Prigent owns the bed, which he keeps in his study.)
The Paris Apartment, in Miami, sells a reproduction of one of Rubinstein’s original chairs:
At $3,200, it’s a steal.
Meanwhile, Alan Moss is selling one of Rubinstein’s original chairs, below.
The asking price? $32,000.
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