The Deep Dive
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The request was unusual, but Tommi Parzinger agreed to oblige the potential client, a Mrs. Miller, with an after-hours meeting at her Manhattan apartment. The next day he reported that she was a lovely lady who had asked many intelligent questions. "I was the one who told him it was Marilyn Monroe," recalls the designer's longtime associate, Donald Cameron. "He had no idea." It's not that Parzinger didn't know who Marilyn Monroe was—like everyone else in late-fifties America, he did. Anyway, as Cameron notes, "if you'd seen her with her hair looking as if it had been done with an eggbeater, you might not have known her either." But Monroe was far more likely to go unrecognized by someone like Parzinger—who was consumed by the creation of his own brand of beauty—than by the average person.
In his mid-century heyday, Parzinger was a designer for upmarket decorators and their clients, his midtown showroom a high-style salon for admirers of sleek, impeccably crafted furnishings that were contemporary but never outlandish. "In Parzinger's showroom you knew you were in the presence of a really special talent—it was so unique, so unexpected, people didn't know how to react," recalls interior designer Nancy Chase, who like Billy Baldwin and others liked the work very much. "He was a Renaissance man in the sense that there was nothing he couldn't design."
"I love what he did, which was very individual," says dealer Patricia Palumbo, who credits her discovery of one of the designer's consoles in an antiques store with her decision to open her New York shop three years ago, and now to reissue selected Parzinger designs under Cameron's guidance.
Though best known for his fine-boned furniture, Parzinger showed remarkable versatility in a career that spanned six decades and two continents. Born in Munich in 1903, the son of a wealthy sculptor, by the age of 17 he was enrolled in that city's Kunstgewerbeschule, studying the art and craft of ceramics, glass, metalwork, and furniture. This old-school training gave him a grounding in tradition and a breadth of technique—from drafting and modeling to gilding and joinery—that he would draw on for the rest of his life. He won attention across Europe for a variety of designs, including porcelain for German manufacturer KPM and other companies, wallpaper, fabric, interiors, books, and posters.
In 1932 his entry in a poster competition sponsored by a German steamship company garnered first prize, a trip to the United States on the S.S. Bremen. The visit set the stage for Parzinger's move to this country, precipitated by an event that occurred upon his return to his homeland. "He won a state-sponsored poster competition, and the brownshirts told him that he'd have to join the Nazi Party by the following day to claim the prize," says Cameron. "Instead he went to the American embassy to get a visitor's visa and departed immediately, leaving everything behind."
Like his compatriots Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, Parzinger was part of the diaspora of designers who fled Europe's rising hysteria in the 1930s. But unlike them, he took a nondoctrinaire approach to modernism. Although well acquainted with the Bauhaus, the Weiner Werkstätte, and other modern design movements, he believed design could be thoroughly contemporary without forsaking the precepts of the past. This was an attitude that was shared by designers such as Edward Wormley and T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. Parzinger would have found little to quarrel with in the words of Wormley, whose postwar designs for Dunbar Furniture tailored modernism to American tastes: "Modernism means freedom—freedom to mix, choose, change, embrace the new, but to hold fast to what is good."
After settling in New York in 1935 Parzinger designed silver, brass, and crystal pieces as well as furniture for Rena Rosenthal and her eponymous Madison Avenue shop. In 1939 he established Parzinger, Inc. (renamed Parzinger Originals in 1946). The Parzinger showroom, located for most of his career on East 57th Street, became known for its alluring arrangements of furniture and other objects by the designer, accentuated by paintings, African carvings, Navajo pots, Polynesian spears, and other well-chosen counterpoints. The furniture itself was clean-lined and beautifully proportioned and finished. "Parzinger's furniture has . . . a jewellike quality in finish and metallic ornament that gives a precious, one-of-a-kind look to simple, modern shapes," enthused a New York Times writer in 1957—adding that "just one of his pieces, perhaps a chest lacquered in a clear color that looks like melted turquoise or ruby, can do for a simple room setting what a diamond clip does for the basic black dress."
In its lapidary refinement the furniture echoed the designer's exquisite silver, now much sought after by collectors. Parzinger applied traditional techniques to modern forms, adding flourishes that would have been anathema to the Bauhaus boys. His use of ornament was restrained but luxurious, evidenced in fine handmade metal pulls and other hardware, outlines of brass or porcelain-tipped studs, upholstery piping, and inlaid and carved-wood accents. Finished in lustrous wood veneers or richly colored lacquers, Parzinger's rectilinear sideboards, dressers, and other case pieces rested on tapered legs or crisply articulated iron or wood stands. His version of a fourposter was a svelte bed with slender uprights, each post topped by a wooden knob. A mahogany dining table centered on an inlaid starburst that split like an atom into two with the addition of an inlaid leaf. Turned-out legs and a tufted cushion grounded a streamlined chaise— perfect for the modern-minded courtesan.
Aside from furniture (for Charak Modern, Willow & Reed, Hofstatter, and Salterini), Parzinger designed wallpaper, perfume bottles, and packaging. He designed lighting fixtures for Lightolier, fabric for F. Schumacher, and brass accessories for Dorlyn. From six in the morning until noon he'd paint in his home studio. In 1949 he asked Cameron (not long out of the Canadian Army and Ontario College of Art) to work with him. "I was lucky to have him as my mentor," Cameron says. "He was brilliant, cosmopolitan. He could do anything; it was frustrating and inspiring. He'd do beautiful renderings very quickly; it took years, but I learned to do them quickly too. Now I can hardly tell our renderings apart."
Cameron became Parzinger's business and creative partner, overseeing production and contributing designs. He recalls, "I tended to deal more with clients," which included the Fords, Rockefellers, DuPonts, Mellons, and Israeli ambassador Abba Eban. Companies like McGraw-Hill and J. Walter Thompson commissioned executive office interiors. Over time, the firm created thousands of limited-production designs, but its well-heeled clientele often ordered custom versions and one-off pieces. "In some instances we'd incorporate unique fabric prints, hardware, woods, or colors," Cameron says. "Though we were considered the most expensive furniture showroom, we were also one of the best values. Everything was beautifully crafted."
The showroom reflected the elegance of postwar New York and its café society. Parzinger and Cameron had their clothes custom-made, and they lived in apartments surrounded by their own designs. "Looking smart was part of the fun of life in New York then," explains Cameron. "You never went anywhere without a jacket and tie, and you wore a dark suit to go to dinner." Parzinger liked to host small dinner parties at his apartment, where friends witnessed the warmth behind his Teutonic reserve. He would join Cameron for drinks or dinner at favorite spots such as La Côte Basque, The Carlyle, and The St. Regis. "What I wouldn't give for one night at El Morocco with those men!" sighs Palumbo.
New York dealers in mid-century modern who sell Parzinger pieces (among them Palumbo, Lin-Weinberg, Alan Moss, Retro-Modern, and Forty One) report growing interest in the designer's work. Prices are rising but still relatively reasonable, given its stylishness and topnotch craftsmanship. "Contemporary designers who come out of a cabinetmaking tradition have received less attention than the better-known modernists, whose pieces were for the most part mass-produced," notes Liz O'Brien of Forty One, which has examples of Parzinger's work priced from $4,000 to $10,500.
Cameron sometimes encounters knockoffs masquerading as Parzinger pieces, but they lack the refinement that was the designer's hallmark. "Our pieces required a great deal of work," he says. This is equally true of those that Palumbo is reissuing. A metal artisan in upstate New York is using lost-wax casting to duplicate the original hardware. The furniture is being made in Montauk by master woodworker Ron Attinello, who's worked with Cameron to achieve the requisite level of craftsmanship. "These pieces are demanding," Attinello says, citing their precise joinery, subtle curves, and multilayered finishes.
Among the initial reissues: the chaise; a fluted commode with incised brass handles; a brass-studded lacquer cabinet on a wood plinth; a curved-leg end table; a white-lacquered sideboard; a long, lacquered settee with brass accents; a tufted pouf; a dining table with holly-inlaid mahogany top and contrasting bleached-maple base; sunburst mirrors; and various lighting designs.
The line will attract those who have found that Parzinger designs can mix well with more severe modernist pieces as well as unfussy traditional furniture. Their number includes New York interior designer Larry Laslo, who has purchased Parzinger furniture for both his clients and himself. "These designs have an exuberance, with none of the tackiness that's often prevalent in mid-century modernism," he observes.
No one would have been more pleased at the enduring appeal of his work than Parzinger—or, perhaps, less surprised. "He really believed in what he was doing," declares Cameron. Seeking what he called "a viable middle ground" between trendiness and tradition, Parzinger achieved his stated goal: to create "things that are timeless and will always have their place."
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Jeff Book covered custom flooring in the January/February 1999 Departures and superlative staircases in the March/April issue.