Clear & Present Design

Mary E. Nichols Photo

IT IS ON THE EDGE OF POSSIBILITIES that designer Charles Hollis Jones finds his greatest inspirations, where he cuts through the clutter, dials down the cacophony, and finds the clarity that guides his thinking. At first, Jones was attracted to the optical properties of glass but found the material too limiting because of its fragility. Then he discovered plastics and decided that acrylic would be his material of choice—a decision that has spawned more than twenty-five lines of furniture, accessories, and architectural elements over the course of some fifty years. Focusing on this underutilized material for furnishings, Jones developed a signature style in acrylic and metal that is recognized for its elegant arrangements of the boldest, most elemental geometric shapes—circles, squares, and triangles—in precise and refined combinations.

Through years of research, experimentation, and innovation that resulted in proprietary manufacturing processes, Jones mastered the art of bending, stretching, twisting, joining, and casting acrylic into illusionistic furniture and accessories that function beautifully in both domestic and public spaces. He achieves this by exploiting the optical properties of clear acrylic and by outlining the fluid contours of his transparent constructions in reflective polished nickel, chrome, or brass frames.

The effect is magical: as one moves around Jones’s furniture one sees through to the sides and edges, each view representing the contour of the completed design. Examples of this phenomenon are the Waterfall line’s Sling chair and Veronica boudoir chair, in which the thinly stretched acrylic forming the back and seat seems to disappear into the air. The continuous bent acrylic fools the eye into thinking that the chairs are weightless and without substance, subverting the reality of their solidity, tensile strength, and tactility. In fact, it is only through their supporting metal frames that the chairs are “exposed.” Jones amplified this idea in the V line’s W chair and the Waterfall line’s Harlow chair, where the metal support structures are eliminated, making the chairs entirely see-through. In a room setting their physical structure seems to dissolve and they become points of light.

View of the living room in Jones’s residence, c. 2004. The sofa with lighted platform base, c. 1968, was designed for TV game show host Monty Hall. On the flanking tables are “Let’s Make a Deal” lamps, c. 1963, and in front of the sofa is a coffee table from Jones’s Post line, 1965, in acrylic and polished nickel over steel. At left are a pair of Tumbling Block lounge chairs, 2000, acrylic and polished nickel; a Ziggurat table, 1984, in acrylic and polished nickel (from a series originally designed for Le Mondrian hotel in Hollywood); and a Ziggurat floor lamp, 1965, in acrylic and polished nickel. Starburst, an oil painting by Elizabeth Keck, 1985, hangs above the sofa. MARY E. NICHOLS PHOTO

There is always a sense of enchantment in the interplay of reflection and transparency: one imagines that the designer, like the storybook character in Harold and the Purple Crayon, has drawn the outline of a chair, table, or lamp in space and coaxed it into becoming a thing of weight and volume through pure trickery. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Jones’s designs as mere parlor tricks. The underlying principles on which they are based run deep.

At their root, his designs are planted firmly in his youth on the family farm on Popcorn Road in a small town near Bloomington, Indiana, where he was born in 1945. Surrounded by farm equipment and assigned the task of tending the dairy cows, Jones experienced firsthand how form follows function in farm machinery; and he also learned the value of a hard day’s work. His talent for design was revealed at an early age in his Erector Set creations and his precocious pencil sketches of cars (for Jones, automobile design has been a lifelong passion). He recollects that he designed and built his first piece of furniture at the age of fourteen: a plywood cabinet for his father’s office. By the age of sixteen he was designing furniture and domestic goods for Roide Enterprises, a Los Angeles acrylic business that retailed its designs at high-end department stores such as Bullock’s Wilshire in Los Angeles.