An architect and furniture designer, Terrance Harold Robsjohn Gibbings was renowned as a classicist who challenged international modernism and sought inspiration from the classical styles while engaging in a key dialogue with the present, thereby bringing a radical change in the design and furnishing industry. Fascinated by ancient Greek design, he recreated Greek furniture in a unique contemporary aesthetic that was meaningful and spare.
“On Greek vases, I saw furniture that was young, untouched by time… Vitality, surging through the human figures on the vases, surged through this furniture,” he said.
Early life and career
Born in Britain in 1905, Gibbings pursued architecture from the University of London. After college, he worked on several design-centric jobs from designing interior spaces for ocean-liners to serving as an art director for a motion picture studio, before working for Charles J. Duveen– a well-known London-based tastemaker, in 1926. Intrigued by the sheer elegance of Greco-Roman art, he would often spend time wandering in the galleries of the British Museum. He later moved to New York in 1929, to work in Duveen’s New York office, where he established strong professional connections with clients such as Elizabeth Arden and Nieman Marcus.
He finally opened his showroom at 515 Madison Avenue where he commissioned a young cabinetmaker to construct furniture pieces based on his renderings from the British Museum. He named this collection the ‘Sans Epoque’ representing his thoughts on the timelessness of true design. Set against a backdrop of bare white waxed walls and a floor mosaic showing an ancient Greek painting, the set-up emphasized the limber quality of the furniture pieces thus making his place amongst America’s elite.
By 1938, Gibbings completed his most substantial and well-known project, an estate called ‘Casa Encantada’ in Bel Air, California owned by Hilda Boldt Weber. The 43-room mansion was filled with over 200 pieces of refined blonde-wood furniture designs, where he explored his love for classical styles.
Soon he was designing houses for famous patrons such as tobacco heiress Doris Duke, fashion icons Elizabeth Arden and Lily Dache, Alfred A Knopf and New York’s exclusive River Club.
A tastemaker for the American mass culture
In 1944, Gibbings issued his first book, ‘Good-bye, Mr Chippendale’, which marked a turning point in his career as a voice of the American domestic culture. A mockery of America’s passion for collecting bleak antiques, the book intended to put an end to the long reign of European snobbery and instead create an identity that was unique and personal to the societies that produced them.
However, Gibbings did not just limit his work to the elite. In the 1940s his new emerging role in shaping popular taste, made him shift his line of work from upscale commissions to more economical and efficient home furnishings that would reach the ordinary American house as well.
Apart from his collection for the Grand Rapid firm of Widdicomb furniture, he also created other affordable mass-produced products such as floor lamps, television cabinets, louvred drawers, etc.
Inspired by the organic and natural forms of the Art and Crafts movement and works of Frank Lloyd Wright he developed his version of biomorphic designs which were robust and distinctive. The most popular example of his use of organic forms is the ‘Mesa Coffee Table’ of 1952, a walnut-veneered table with stepped irregular layers, thus merging sculpture, art and function.
In his final years, he moved to the country which had always captured his attention and inspired his line of thought- Greece. He settled in an apartment in Athens, overlooking the Parthenon, concluding his journey set in the classical beauty of Greece. Even there, he worked on the revised versions of his research of 1933, British Museum and created manufacture pieces alongside an Athens furniture firm called Saridis, including a Klismos sofa to match the previous designs of his most famous chair.
He worked on several other commissions in Greece like designing for prominent Athenians, working as a tastemaker with a series of columns written for the Architectural Digest, which he continued writing until his death in the year 1976.
Recognition after death
Robsjohn-Gibbings challenged the ideas of mainstream American home design and redefined it with an expression of authentic identity. His designs reflected pure elegance, simplicity and order thus framing his trademark of modern historicism. He has left behind an endowment of classically ensued styles and forms that are still admired to this date.
A few of his commissions for the Casa Encantada were featured in 1986, in the Whitney Museum of American art and one of his treasured works, the Klismos chair, is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; thus, portraying the timelessness of his work.