One of the most dazzling and notorious figures in twentieth century American design, James Mont burst onto the modern furnishing scene in the most unusual of ways. Beginning humbly at a Brooklyn electrical supply shop, Mont was able to transform himself into the go-to interior designer of both the New York underworld and of Hollywood royalty. Drawing on eastern influences and his own unpredictable personality, Mont’s designs and life make him one of the most intriguing figures of the American midcentury.
Mont was born Demetrios Pecintoglu in Istanbul (then Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire) in 1904. The early life of the man who became Mont is shrouded in mystery. It is believed, however, that he came from a family of artists and immigrated to the United States in the 1920s by way of Western Europe. While pushing his own lamp designs while working at a Brooklyn electrical retailer, Mont was noticed by a Mafioso named Frankie Yale. This opened the door for Mont to become decorator for the mob, so to speak. It also inspired in him a criminal-type pretension which he would attempt to keep up for the remainder of his career.
Mont’s designs set him apart as a singular figure of the American midcentury. Straddling the overlapping worlds of Art Deco, Hollywood Regency, and Midcentury Modern, he conformed to and defied all of them. His work displays a heavy reliance on the chinoiserie style so popular in European design of the previous century. Feeling himself to be representative of “the Orient,” Mont was always trying to incorporate its aura into his furniture.
Today, the painstaking skill in the executions of his lacquers makes his work more desirable than ever. From sandblasting to cerusing to lacquering, Mont was known to be an obsessive perfectionist in his executions. Oftentimes painting over his woods up to fourteen times before applying lacquer to them, Mont would then instruct his workers to rub the varnishes with chalk until they almost came off, allowing the painted colors to come through. Mont’s designs were also notable for their unique use of metal leaf, especially silver.
Unlike his Modernist contemporaries, Mont was not driven by any thesis in his designs. They came from an emotional place—to create beautiful furnishings with an aesthetic he felt was natural to him. Mont’s emotional nature would eventually catch up with him, however. After a prison stint for assault and his abandonment by a formerly loyal clientele, Mont found himself indebted and fled to Greece to escape his creditors. He died impoverished in 1978.
Mont’s designs found new life in the 1990s, as auction houses and dealers rediscovered their potential. Adventurous interior designers have used his daring, dramatic creations to juxtapose the geometric, linear shapes of the modern style, thus creating exceptional counterbalances. Mont’s luscious colors, monumental scale, and bespoke shape and quality have intrigued these modern designers almost as much as the fiery, dangerous aspects of the life he lived.