Film & Interior Design: Seedy hotel room holds art deco gems

While catching a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver  (1976) during the James River Film Festival this spring, I spied some vintage collectible gems in the scene where Robert De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, meets with a gun dealer to procure his arsenal. The two men walk into a somewhat seedy hotel room—though it boasts a fabulous view out the window—and get down to gun business. But instead of thinking, “Look at all those weapons,” I was thinking, “Look at those art deco Bel Geddes dressers in the background.” (Okay, they’re probably knockoffs, but they’re still art deco classics.) I was struck by the irony of the downscale interior yielding what is now considered a find—and by the truth of that old chestnut “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Film lets you track design styles as they progress from latest thing to woefully out of date to retro-chic antique.

Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958) was celebrated this summer as a “Pioneer of American industrial Design” on a commemorative U.S. postage stamp issued on June 29 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Born in Michigan and raised in Ohio, he had a successful career in theatrical set design in New York and even created film sets for Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood before opening an industrial-design studio in 1927. Bel Geddes designed a wide range of commercial products, including Toledo scales, Philco radio cabinets, typewriters, cigarette cases, and even battleships. His unrealized futuristic concepts included a teardrop-shaped automobile, an art deco “House of Tomorrow,” and the influential Futurama installation (the General Motors Pavilion) for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

In 1928 the Simmons Company commissioned Bel Geddes to design enameled metal bedroom furniture that was first sold in 1932. Simmons apparently continued to manufacture metal furniture in the same style after Bel Geddes’ commission ended. Because of this, many pieces of ’30s-era metal Simmons bedroom furniture are misidentified as Bel Geddes. It probably also accounts for the wide price range (less than $100 to thousands of dollars) for this style of furniture in the collectible and antique market. The dressers in Taxi Driver were most likely made by Simmons in the 1930s, but are probably not Bel Geddes pieces. In any case, they’re still collectibles for fans of art deco and machine-age furniture.

It makes sense that, by the 1970s, metal furniture from the 1930s would be found in cheap hotel rooms. I wonder, however, whether the former film set designer, as he created streamlined bedroom furniture back in the art deco days, would ever have envisioned his style illustrating the seedy side of life on film.

As a fan of design in all its forms, and particularly of vintage furniture and collectibles from a variety of eras, I’m among those who find that the style within a film—buildings, interiors, objects, fashions, automobiles, advertising, you name it—can be as compelling as any other aspect (sometimes more interesting, depending on the quality of the film).

One of my favorite film interiors is the San Francisco apartment of Midge, a character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). A supporting character in the famous psychological thriller starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, Midge was played by actress Barbara Bel Geddes. Yes—and this is the weird part of this story—Barbara was Norman Bel Geddes’ daughter. I didn’t realize the connection as I began researching this blog entry—I thought the shared last name was just a coincidence. There’s more: Norman died the year Vertigo was released.

Midge, the old college pal and onetime love interest of Stewart’s character, is a bespectacled, smart-girl type, who becomes more of a mother figure to him—the opposite of Novak’s love-interest character, Hitchcock’s typical icy blond. Midge first appears in a yellow sweater within the yellow-painted walls of her sunny apartment. Film historians like to go on about color symbolism in Vertigo. Yellow apparently represents cowardice and caution for Stewart’s character, described by film critics as “emasculated” by his recent episode of acrophobia and vertigo that led to the death of a colleague and caused him to quit the police force. Yellow is also said to represent Midge’s neutrality and reality in contrast to the greens and reds that signal the sensual, otherworldly quality of Novak’s character.

But, colors be damned, Midge’s apartment is a classic slice of 1950s vie bohème. She’s an artist—a fashion illustrator whose drafting table looks out on expansive corner windows offering to-die-for views of the city’s hills. With its matchstick window shades, sketches on the walls, woven fiber rug, Paul Frankl-style bamboo lounge chair, Bertoia wire chair, Eames daybed, atomic table lamp, and funky little kitchen (perfect for whipping up cocktails), her bohemian, mid-century modern studio apartment is a perfect live/work space and bachelorette pad. Here’s a scene in her apartment.

At the time of filming, of course, the style was just modern—nothing retro about it. I’d like to think that, as the daughter of an influential designer, Barbara Bel Geddes appreciated the modern artist’s haven created for her character as she sat at that drafting table. Maybe it brought up childhood memories of her father.

As an aside, I see I’m not the only one to take note of Midge and her artist pad. A YouTube search for “Midge’s apartment” turns up a few scenes from the first season of the current AMC TV show Mad Men,” set in the early 1960s. They feature a mistress of the lead character, an advertising illustrator named Midge who lives in a bohemian apartment in Greenwich Village. Coincidence? I think not. The show’s creators are known for mining mid-century history and pop culture for both major plot points and minor details. In this scene in the “other Midge’s” apartment, her drafting table stands in front of large windows, and near the end you can spot a yellow Cosco step-stool chair—the same stool that Stewart’s character uses in front of the window in Midge’s apartment when he tries unsuccessfully to demonstrate that he’s kicked his vertigo problem.

[Click here if you have trouble with the video clip above.]

What are some of your favorite film interiors?

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About Ann Henderson

Ann Henderson is a communications professional and film lover in Richmond, Virginia. She enjoys creating atmosphere -- whether by combining words and images on a page (or screen) or by decorating a room with flea market finds. Ann currently edits Broadside, the Magazine of the Library of Virginia.
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2 Responses to Film & Interior Design: Seedy hotel room holds art deco gems

  1. Ted Salins says:

    Interesting and a refreshingly unique way of looking at films. As a guy, I never noticed the art deco chest of drawers in “TAXI DRIVER” – and I’ve seen it twenty times. In “MARNIE”. Hitchcock uses yellow as a vaginal symbol, disturbingly not what you’d expect and why the master director still mystifies us decades later. Last night I was with friends, one of whom works at Black Swan Bookstore. Some production design folks from “LINCOLN” came in and bought trinkets and documents to put on top of Lincoln’s desk. Well done Ann!

  2. Stacie says:

    Great post, Ann! Being a practical sort, I couldn’t help thinking, design be damned, as you might say, how heavy those metal dressers must’ve been to lug up all those NY apartment steps! Guess I’ll never be a design slut.

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