Louis Rorimer’s elegant, original designs defined public and private places: Elegant Cleveland 1/10/2010

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By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 
on January 10, 2010

ELEGANT CLEVELAND / This series looks back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown in its people, architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones.

rorimer.jpgAn Art Deco living room set by Louis Rorimer, from 1929.

The gleaming Art Deco splendor of Higbee’s Silver Grille in Cleveland and the patrician Colonial-revival tradition of the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia both conveyed the height of elegance, circa 1931.

So did the antique chest featured in November’s Martha Stewart Living magazine, a piece of furniture that once belonged to Cleveland native-turned-Washington socialite Kay Halle and is now prominently placed in the New York apartment of media executive Susan Lyne.

All these disparate looks had the artistry of one man behind them — Louis Rorimer, the dean of high style in Cleveland in the first third of the 20th century through his Rorimer-Brooks design studio downtown.

James Irving is the interior designer who, some decades ago, assisted Halle with the decor for her Georgetown home. He spotted what he recalls as a Rorimer-Brooks piece in the recent photo of Lyne’s apartment.

Irving has been a decorator for 50 years and has encountered his share of Rorimer-Brooks pieces in the homes of friends and clients, as well as in the lobby of Moreland Courts in Cleveland, where he lives and which Rorimer decorated when the complex was built.

“I consider Louis Rorimer to be the Louis Comfort Tiffany of furniture,” says Irving.

Certainly people with an eye for good design appreciated Rorimer quite early on. Attorney Homer Johnson was a client and friend for whom Rorimer designed most of his furniture between 1903 and 1930 — so Johnson’s son, Philip, who would go on to become a famous architect, had a childhood bedroom filled with Rorimer’s furniture. Inspired by the Far East, it was made in 1913 of cinnabar and black chinoiserie.

That was unusual, says author and historian Leslie Pina, who lives in Beachwood. “It presaged the craze for Chinese-style lacquer in the 1920s.”

But then, Louis Rorimer was always just a little ahead of the times.

Drawn to art

at a young age Rorimer’s parents, Jacob and Minnie Rohrheimer, arrived in Cleveland from Bavaria in 1849, and Jacob established a tobacco business that supported his family for 40 years.

Louis was the youngest of seven children, and by age 14, his talent led him to the Cleveland School of Art. Four years later, he traveled to Munich, Germany, to study at the Kunstgewerbeschule, considered one of Europe’s finest arts and crafts schools.

Pina, author of the book “Louis Rorimer: A Man of Style,” says that Cleveland’s art scene in the late-19th century was dominated by Germans and the sons of German immigrants, many of whom studied in Munich, Paris and London. After Rorimer left Munich, he went to the L’Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

“The 1890s were one of the most thrilling times to be an artist in Europe,” says Pina. It was the era of the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements, the British Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements, as well as Art Nouveau.

louis-rorimer.jpgLouis Rorimer was an artist and visionary

Rorimer made it his mission to improve public taste by elevating the design of all objects, particularly those used in the home. He and one of his European acquaintances, Oscar Wilde, shared the philosophy of “art for art’s sake.”

Rorimer not only had an eye for artistic innovation but the means and will to travel frequently to Europe — fairly unusual and a more arduous trek then — as well as to Morocco, Egypt and South America. He introduced the work of several contemporary European designers to America: He brought the first Bugatti bronzes here and introduced Lalique glass to this country in 1904.

Making his mark

in design Rorimer opened his design firm in 1893 in Cleveland’s Arcade, though eventually it would take up much of the block at East 22nd Street and the south side of Euclid Avenue.

The firm was then known as Rohrheimer, the original spelling of his family name. Later, conscious of anti-German and anti-Jewish sentiments, he anglicized his, and the company’s, name by legally changing it to Rorimer in 1917. With the purchase of the Brooks Household Arts Co. that same year, Rorimer-Brooks was born, though mainly in title since Brooks had retired.

From the start, the Rorimer firm cultivated a clientele of wealthy Cleveland residents and found a profitable commercial market as well.

Rorimer heartily disliked the cluttered, ornate Victorian look then in vogue and embraced the simpler, more practical lines of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was inspired by such English decorative artists as William Morris.

But Rorimer was a businessman, too, says Dean Zimmerman, chief curator of the Western Reserve Historical Society, so his craftsmen often found themselves creating reproductions. If one of Rorimer’s wealthy clients had an 18th-century Chippendale set that was short one chair, Rorimer’s workmen could create an impeccable fill-in.

For many clients, though, Rorimer would create new designs — such as the Arts and Crafts bed and vanity dresser he made for Virginia Hubbell, complete with family crest, which the historical society displays. Or the complete interior he built in the 1920s for the Shaker Heights home of George G.G. Peckham.

“Louis Rorimer excelled as a businessman, artist and educator — at all of those,” says Zimmerman. Among Rorimer’s students were famed modernist Norman Bel Geddes and designer Viktor Schreckengost.

Rorimer was a designer not just of individual pieces, but, like Frank Lloyd Wright, could create the bigger picture as well.

In 1912, Rorimer was tapped by Ellsworth Statler to create the interior decor for his new luxury Hotel Statler, at Euclid Avenue and East 12th Street. Rorimer’s design for the Pompeiian Restaurant, with its neoclassical columns and geometric symmetry, down to the Greek key motif on the carpet, was just one of the showstoppers.

Soon his firm was doing the decor for the Statler hotels in Detroit, St. Louis, Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., and then for the company’s Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan. Rorimer did not only the public rooms, but all the guest suites as well.

If it had stopped there, with Rorimer and his studio’s creations of furniture, decorative objects, rugs, drapes, plaster work, leather work and upholstery — for residences and hotels — that would have been more than enough for him to leave a potent legacy in Cleveland.

“But he was also a man who always looked to the future,” as Zimmerman says.

Blazing trails

with new look Rorimer’s 1925 visit as a U.S. delegate to the Paris Exposition — which would debut the look that would much later become known as Art Deco — would profoundly change him and his design aesthetic.

A display devoted to Rorimer at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood includes his badge from the expo, an invitation to a soiree thrown by the Baron and Baroness Henri de Rothschild while he was there, and a portion of the extensive notes he took that he would use in later lectures.

A portion of them acknowledged the difficulty “of reconciling all of our ideas and forms inherited from the past with the extreme modern view that all of this is out of step with modern living, and that the past must be scrapped.”

But Rorimer found that most of the old-moneyed Clevelanders who could afford to hire him were more apt to favor the tried, true and traditional in their decor. So while Rorimer was clearly enamored and excited by the best of the modern design he had seen, it would not be easy to incorporate into his work — at least, not in private residences.

There were a few exceptions, though. One was his friend Homer Johnson’s daughter, Jeanette Dempsey, and her husband, John, who were adventurous enough to have Rorimer decorate portions of their Bratenahl home in 1929 in what was called the “Art Moderne” style.

An armchair, a green lamp table and a “skyscraper” bookcase from a casual living-room set are on display at the Western Reserve Historical Society. They convey just how visually compelling and functional this new look was.

silver-grille.jpgThe 1931 creation of Higbee’s Silver Grille showed Louis Rorimer’s fascination with modern design.

It was in public spaces, though, that Rorimer could revel in the future form of decorative art. The Silver Grille restaurant he created for the Higbee’s downtown department store was as Art Deco as any movie set — which is where most people get their ideas of what the 1930s must have looked like, even if they really didn’t.

It’s a testament to Rorimer’s versatility that the same man who created this sleek setting — and whose firm created a suite in that prototypical Deco skyscraper, the Chrysler Building in New York — also was responsible for the utterly traditional interior decoration of the Van Sweringen brothers’ Daisy Hill estate.

Rorimer, who lived with his family for a time at the Wade Park Manor before building a summer home, Rorycrest, near Chagrin Falls, made a point of decorating the bedroom of him and his wife, Edith, in the Art Deco style.

The couple had two children — a daughter, Louise, who grew up to marry the violinist Samuel Dushkin, and a son, James, who would become nationally famous in his own right.

James Rorimer became the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; he was also well-known as the author of “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War,” about his days serving in World War II as one of the U.S. Army’s “Monuments Men” who recovered masterpieces looted by the Nazis.

Louis Rorimer died in 1939 at age 67 from complications of an illness that likely came from his lifelong pipe-smoking habit.

Today, his grandchildren live part of the year at Rorycrest and the adjacent Bigsbluff, the home he helped design for his brother, Maurice.

Rorimer’s presence

remains in Cleveland No doubt, Rorimer-Brooks pieces still abound in Cleveland. Most of them are unsigned, and unless a family knows the provenance of a piece, they might not identify it as such. The firm’s detailed and illustrated records were destroyed in 1957 by Irvin and Co., which bought Rorimer-Brooks.

Still, in homes, attics, auction houses and antique stores, Rorimer-Brooks pieces can be found. And they often aren’t prohibitive in price — Christie’s auction house sold a Rorimer-Brooks chinoiserie bedroom set in June for $1,750.

As interior designer Thomas Randleman explains, Rorimer lived and worked at a time when interior decorators, as they were known then, were almost as involved as architects in the creation of a home or building — as Rorimer had worked with Philip Small during the construction of Moreland Courts, for example.

“You’re only as successful as your patronage,” says Randleman, and Rorimer was certainly that. “He was a man who could translate a kind of lifestyle for people.”

And if people weren’t ready for the way the future would look in their homes, he might help them achieve it with a few pieces of furniture or decorative elements.

To really dazzle them? Well, he’d settle for making his statement in a public space like the Silver Grille.

And lucky Clevelanders — even those who weren’t arts patrons — could appreciate that.


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