Influenced by the International Style, Samuel Abraham Marx was an American architect, designer and interior decorator. Born in 1885 to a Jewish family in Natchez, MS, Marx graduated from MIT’s Department of Architecture in 1907, and has been a major influence in furniture design, most notably, industrial. House Beautiful said about his work in 1948 that “Marx’s rooms have so satisfying a feeling that its frequently hard to say where the architecture ends and the furniture begins”.
Silver Leaf Coffee Table by Marx, circa 1946
After graduating, studying at the Ãcole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and before opening his own practice, Marx worked for Kilham & Hopkins (Boston) and Rutan & Coolidge (Chicago). Originally known for designing interiors of hotels and department stores, he later moved on to residential architecture, designing buildings with a spare aesthetic with integrated decorative elements and furniture, bringing to mind Mies van der Rohe’s works. Marx wrote in 1951 “Frank Lloyd Wright once told me, impressively, that it was of paramount importance to the creative urge never to become a slave of routine or habit”, a credo to which he faithfully adhered when he pulled out his palette of eclectic motifs and materials.
One of Marx’s most iconic designs was for the 1939 Streamlined Moderne May Company Department store on Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile. His third wife, Florene, notably, was the well-connected daughter of the May department store clan. Other important commissions were the New Orleans Museum of Art (which followed the winning of a design competition), the Alexander Hamilton Memorial in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, Tom May’s home, Edward G. Robinson’s Tudor-revival home (for which he did an extensive remodel) both in Los Angeles, and Morton D. May’s house in St. Louis, now razed. Examples of his work are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA (New York), and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Avid art collectors, Sam and Florene epitomized the architect’s own delight in crossing temporal and cultural boundaries in a collection of sculptures and paintings by Picasso, Brancusi and Braque, their acquisitions characterized as “wild and radical,” but with “the rapt concentration of diamond cutters”, as recalled by James Thrall Soby of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Although Marx faded into relative obscurity following his death in 1964, he had been a master of the understated, whimsical and lyrical, manifesting such diverse projects as a Byzantine-domed synogogue, a futuristic aluminum railroad car for Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition, the Pierre Hotel in New York (owned by loyal client J. Paul Getty), a Mansard-roofed chateau, a chic black patent-leather side chair and an International-style villa of concrete and glass. He often sprang surprises on clients and friends. In an example of Marx’s wit, a department store’s maternity department featured a mural of birds and bees; in another, he placed marble balls atop stately columns in a billiard equipment tycoon’s library. While he personified old-school southern manners and Beaux-Arts training, he stayed true to Arts and Crafts ideals, and although a purist but never a puritan, his designs never seemed overbearing or cold due in great part to the voluptuous finishes and decorative flourishes that Marx reveled in. He was not above altering the proportions of a classic settee to better fit a contemporary man or woman, while at the same time keeping the original’s pleasing lines intact. He was able to maintain a vision of modernity united with the connoisseur’s passion for the best of the old, maintaining unity through a sense of appropriateness and a confident ease, which kept him above he fray of competing architectural ideologies.
House designed by Marx for his brother-in-law, Tom May (image courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA)