T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings: Born in London, 1905. Died in Athens, 1976.
Neoclassicism is a fairly dubious tradition. It wouldn't be wrong to associate it with all that is bad about the nature of Western Empire—powerful men looking to underscore their power by lazily and arrogantly appropriating the aesthetics of perceived Greek supremacy. Just look to the Federal and Fascist exploits of our last century. This vilification, of course, does not extend to the bizarre and awesome exploits of a few mid-18th-century architects and artists (Claude Nicholas Ledoux, Govanni Piranesi, etc.), and it excludes the entirety of ancient interests during the Italian Renaissance. But for the most part neoclassicism is almost an architectural plague, an endless cycle of "knocking off the knock-offs" (to quote John Chase).
But there is a disconnect here: what of the Greeks themselves? When one turns to the actual texts and art, whether Apollonian or Dionysian, one is struck less by their military heft than by the simple beauty of the metaphysical question. Our subject, Terence Harold (T.H.) Robsjohn-Gibbings, was supremely aware of this anomaly and set out to skip the entirety of two millennia of Greek revival. Instead, he went to the source itself in an attempt to materialize, as he put it, "the first recreation of a fifth-century setting in some twenty-five hundred years." The work turned out to be extraordinarily and profoundly poetic.
The Klismos Chair, circa 1961. Top image: Robsjohn-Gibbings furniture installed at the House of Dolphins on the Island of Delos (left) and his Diphros stool, circa 1961
Left: an alternate version of the Klismos chair. Right: Robsjohn-Gibbings's first offices, circa 1937
It must be said that this revival was not the only exploit of Robsjohn-Gibbings, not hardly. He was initially trained as an architect in England before moving to New York in 1929, to spearhead a branch of the super-pedigreed UK antiques house Charles of London. He opened up his own decorating practice in 1936, of which his first undertaking was the renovation of his office, done in a Grecian manner foreshadowing his work three decades later. For the subsequent two decades he was perhaps the most elite interior decorator and furniture maker in America. The furniture of his middle years is, however, mostly banal, though his intentions were noble. For all his scholarship, ability and artfulness, he involved himself in the quixotic task of yoking the burgeoning postwar tastes into some semblance of reasonable beauty. I cannot help but call out here that this attempt is a pat case of a talented and nuanced designer opening up his vision to encompass "the general tastes" (which, of course, is a false perception), only to have his work demonstrably suffer. There were surely some amazing pieces, but on the whole they had none of the grace of his early and late work. Most of his designs were manufactured for Widdicomb, a post-war, Grand Rapids–based furniture juggernaut. Of the middling middle years, his Mesa table stands out brightly.
Above and below: the Mesa table for Widdicomb, 1947
In 1960, Robsjohn-Gibbings left the "greedy assembly lines and hungry home furnishings floors" of New York City and Grand Rapids for Athens, to return to "private clientele and custom-made furniture." Here he hooked up with Susan and Eleftherios Saridis, "who were deeply interested in Greek archaeology and were the owners of one of the finest cabinet-making plants in Europe." With the Saridises, his own research and the help of a few similarly minded scholars, he designed furniture ripped straight from ancient Greek craters, mosaics and frescoes. The experiment turned out to exceed everyone's expectations—seeming to bypass false memories and thoroughly destroy the common sense of history. More than just a classical folly—the pieces are a wormhole to the past. Of course, by now, his Klismos chair has been reabsorbed as a fancy trope of many contemporary decorators; apparently, the specious and sophomoric misuse of the Greeks is ever-present. However, this enterprise of Robsjohn-Gibbings can still be enjoyed and felt through the photographs of the pieces themselves (in situ on various archeological sites in Greece) and in his own eloquent writing on the arrival of this collection:
The path, a narrow line of orange dust, wound between gray rocks coated with olive green lichen. Like a millefleurs tapestry, fields of wild flowers were laced with bright scarlet poppies as far as the eye could see. The cool wind blowing across the island had the faint aromatic perfume of thyme... Below us the ruined town was a jumble of whiteness framed by a gray-green coastline and an unearthly blue sea. The guards were unlocking an iron gate between two massive pylons. We had arrived at the House of Dolphins... Intruders from another world, we walked across the white mosaic floor of an entrance hall... White monolithic columns, with delicate flutes carved on the upper half, stood proudly like sentinels... in the corners cupids held onto leaping dolphins with harnesses of gold... We brought in the furniture... I had no sense that the chairs and tables in front of me had been designed over two thousand years ago. Time was powerless, nonexistent.
As a side note, below are some suggestions for further investigation. Each is a loving dialogue with the ancient past:
— the artwork of Ian Hamilton Finlay (a start can be had here)
— the essay "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis" by Sigmund Freud (pdf can be viewed here)
— the prints and architecture of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (some good imagery here)
— an excellent essay by William JR Curtis on Le Corbusier and Greek Architecture (article can be viewed here)
— an amazing film, Pink Floyd - Live at Pompeii (full movie can be viewed here)
Left: a drawing from the 5th century B.C. Right: Robsjohn-Gibbings's Diphros stool, circa 1961
The 1759 cocktail table, circa 1954
Left: a 1950s webbed bench. Right: a table for Widdicomb, 1955
A 5th-century B.C. drawing transferred from a drinking cup