High-Fashion Furniture

F. Wilbur Seiders/Courtesy Charles James, Jr and Louise James/The Menil Collection

Designer Charles James reimagined the modernist de Menil house in Houston as a Kodachrome daydream.

By 1950, just as Philip Johnson was finishing one of Houston’s first modernist glass houses for James and Dominique de Menil, Dominique’s couturier, Charles James, had started work on the interior. “They wanted to soften the bare modernism,” says Susan Sutton, curator of the Menil Collection’s upcoming show, “A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James.” The designer—famed for sculptural gowns in rich colors and fabrics that defied the militant dress of the World War II era—set about creating fantastical, voluptuous pieces of furniture, like the Lips sofa in camel wool, and upholstering walls in fiery ocher and fuchsia felts. (Angered by this subversion of modernism, Johnson renounced the house well into the ’70s.) The exhibition—opening three weeks after the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective of the designer’s work—places James’s furniture side by side with sketches, photographs and dresses from Dominique’s wardrobe, revealing the breadth of his vision for the first time. May 31 to September 7; 1533 Sul Ross St., Houston; menil.org.