When banker John de Menil and heiress Dominique Schlumberger married in 1931, they could not have foreseen a move to Houston, Texas, from war-torn France. Yet the then-provincial, segregated city was their destiny, as John would become a leading executive of Schlumberger Limited, an oil services company based in Houston. Their story is legend for myriad reasons, including the astounding art collection they amassed beginning in the 1940s. They had an interest in everything from Modern, Cubist, and Surreal art to Oceanic and African art; some of which are exhibited in the 17,000 plus collection in the Menil Collection in Houston, which opened in 1987 in a Renzo Piano–designed building. They were also fierce civil-rights advocates: When the city of Houston declined their gift of Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, in 1969, dedicated to the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., they placed the sculpture in front of the Rothko Chapel, which the de Menils commissioned in 1964.
But one of their most fascinating and important commissions was personal: the design of their bluntly Modernist home in the neighborhood of River Oaks where genteel mansions line the streets. Philip Johnson planted a one-story brick, steel, and glass structure that confounded the surroundings, and then to stagger the imagination even more, John hired the brilliant, eccentric fashion designer Charles James, to do the interior décor, resulting in one of the most intriguing and original houses in the country. But as William Middleton writes and illustrates in his new biography of the couple, , their taste and inclination to the modern took root when they spied the work of French designer Pierre Barbe early on in their marriage.
One of the idiosyncratic aspects of the de Menil’s take on Modernism is perfectly expressed in the décor and design of the River Oaks home. The living room, seen above, has polished modern architecture, glossy dark tiled floor, plate-glass doors and walls, and the simplicity of the structural right angles, but then the décor is diametrically opposed to Johnson’s strictness with James’s curvy Lips sofa, and a sprinkling of historic furniture pieces and art.