The Godfather of Lucite

The modern design only exists because of modern materials

The Godfather of Lucite

For a material so heavy with history, it is unfortunate that Lucite has become associated with the most offensively-titled (barring the “wife-beater”), pejoratively-described piece of clothing in the world: the stripper heel. The unfair tie between the profession and poor taste is only nastier than Lucite’s equally unjustified connection with all things tacky. Imagine the slick quality of Lucite costume jewelry: a choker, a chunky ring, a bangle. Like anything precious, it is its application that determines its aesthetic (an aside: the aforementioned choker fits nicely into Health Goth territory).

Lucite is just one name for the thermoplastic, whose chemical name is poly methyl methacrylate. (Its typical name is acrylic glass—Lucite was trademarked by E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company.) Developed in 1928, its inception spanned multiple laboratories and even multiple chemists—among them Walter Bauer, William Chalmers, and Otto Röhm, who introduced it to the market five years later through the Rohm and Haas Company. Its use as an alternative to glass is best distilled into one anecdote: during World War II, it made for excellent aircraft windshields and gun turrets; pilots with poly methyl methacrylate injuries could retain their eyesight far better than those hurt by glass.

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But used in jewelry and furniture, it looks pretty great: kitschy or classic, depending on whom you ask, and always sturdy. Recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, furniture designer Charles Hollis Jones created enough furniture utilizing acrylic, Lucite, and metal for The Los Angeles Times to deem him “a pioneer in acrylic design” in a 2001 article entitled “The Incredible Lightness of Being Plastic.” Born in 1945 in Bloomington, Indiana, Jones relocated to Los Angeles at sixteen and began designing furniture for a slew of companies. It was back in Bloomington, however, where Jones developed his signature acrylic-and-metal furniture, while working as the head designer for Hudson-Rissman. He eventually went on to found CHJ Designs, opening his own studio in the early 1970s and designing pieces purchased by numerous celebrities—among them Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Dean Martin, Johnny Carson, and Tennessee Williams, of whom Jones was a dear friend. (“If you want people to know that you know me,” he told Jones, “refer to my plays by one name: Streetcar. Cat.”)

My path crossed with Jones’ unexpectedly, through a shared love of pie. Mutual friends—artists Kenton Parker and Jacqueline Falcone—were visiting Jones at his Burbank home last summer; upon Falcone’s admission that she’s obsessed with the stuff, Jones opened his refrigerator to reveal pie crust dough, prepared by his sister, and solicited Falcone to put it to use. She presented her creations (peach and cherry) at Parker’s home for us, where Jones shared plans for a future table for them both. The next time we met, Jones took me along to the manufacturers who craft the metal and Lucite he uses for his pieces—Steve’s Plating Corporation and a space that shall remain secret, respectively. Steve Knez, the owner of the former, along with his son, Terry, have been working with Jones for the past fifteen years—their company never outsources and works on relatively small-scale projects, enabling them to produce each item with care.

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Teamwork and a sense of community are important to Jones: “I’m more interested in community than my own work,” he explains. “What makes my work happen is community.” It’s this sense that enables Jones to finally, after many years, consider himself an artist: “I never called myself an artist. Just a designer. But other people told me I was an artist, and I’ve started to think so, too. I think a lot of American artists create from paranoia. It keeps them sane.” Does he identify with the idea of creatively working through paranoia or other issues? “I used to a little, I think. I noticed it in others. How could I identify it in others if I didn’t have it in myself? I worked from fear, because I always felt I didn’t belong.”

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In heavy traffic on the 110, we spoke more in-depth about his personal history, his craft, and the magic of Lucite.

When did you start creating anything at all?

I was eight years old, designing automobiles. Later, I studied art in high school, and my art teacher threw me out of class. She corrected my painting; she told me things were wrong with it and that I had to change it. The next day, I took it back and showed her the same painting, and all the kids knew I’d done nothing to it. She said it was perfect. So I called her a schizophrenic, paranoid person, and she threw me and a couple of other kids out, because they took my side. We had to go to a different school for about four months, then come back the next year and graduate.

Wow. Did you go to university?

No, but I got a scholarship from Indiana State to stay there and study.

What’d you do instead?

Came to California. [I first came] when I was sixteen and got a job for the summer, designing. They paid me royalties all through high school and I came back to do the job. I was designing lamps, tables, magazine racks, mirrors, folding tables, TV tables. Those were before your time.

I know what those are! When did you open your own design showroom?

I went to work for a company, Hudson-Rissman, that sent me to Europe for seven years, and I designed things there. I opened my own company in California after that. I was fired from that job, though, because I was making more money than the owner. I was doing things locally. I didn’t like to import, because it was always in the wrong color or the wrong size, and I had no control, even though I went twice a year. I went to Italy, Switzerland, twice every year for seven years. I went in as a truck-driver and salesperson, and I’d become the head designer in six months.

What drew you to Lucite?

I worked a lot with Lucite when I first started. When I worked with the company that wanted me to go to Europe, they had me work with glass, ceramic, enamel. I went over there and the glass was always in the wrong color and it always broke. When the earthquakes came, I got visual proof of that. I like to work with acrylic because it does two wonderful things that glass doesn’t. It’s shatter-proof, first of all. I can also change the microstructure and make it one-tenth the strength of steel. And the most important thing it does: it carries light. Glass reflects light. Lucite holds it and carries it. If you play with it, you can make a lens to look at something in space. It’s that good. It’s purer than crystal.

I was curious about Lucite as a material in general, too.

The word “acrylic” became important during the Second World War. Before that, it was always very champagne-colored, and the canopies on the airplanes and the bombers were very thick, kind of yellow. It was not a desirable color for furniture. But we developed acrylic in this country for the war. When the war was over, we sent our formulas to Germany and places like that; people started making it to rebuild Europe. Then we brought it back over to make furniture. Really, I was born the month before the war was over. I’m a product of the time that material came about. That’s why they call me the godfather or pioneer or Lucite.

Is it an economical material to work with?

I would call it more of a luxury material. It’s not meant to be in sixteenth-inch and eighth-inch material, because they never coat it. It got a bad name called “plastic,” and that’s just a term. Acrylic helped us win the war. We couldn’t really make furniture with it then, because they needed it all for airplanes.

Is it economical?

It is, when you think of an object like an airplane. You couldn’t use glass. You have to realize it is in everything that we do today, in some form.

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Sweet Chair

So it can become luxurious in particular contexts.

Exactly, if you’re talking about clear, thick, acrylic, thicker than glass. Glass, when it comes to tabletops or household furniture—you usually don’t see anything thicker than three-quarter inch. But you see acrylic that’s an inch and a quarter, an inch and a half. That becomes a luxury thing, because there’s nothing else like it around.

This material is so connected to U.S. history. Do you connect to that when you work with it?

Here’s what I do know: nobody I’ve met who worked with acrylic ever stayed with it. Some of the people that I liked, whose work I admired—they were not prolific with it. They only dabbled in it because they could make money. The first time I saw something out of this world and made of acrylic, was at the American Embassy in London. They had four-inch-thick Lucite tops for tables, designed by William Haines. The company still exists, but the only things they’re still making in acrylic are a wall sconce and a cigarette vase.

Despite its association with a specific time, it still looks and feels new today.

I think that women have always accepted it. They’re more open-minded than men. My dad was always into wood; I didn’t think I had to do wood, because he did it. My brother built racecars and I used to design the logos. I was around metal a lot. My first really big impression with making things was when my dad and I, once a week, went to the welding shop, where I met Don Chambers, the owner. When I went back to school, I signed up for farm shop and insisted that I would be the best welder. I, of course, was. I made a B—everyone else got a lower mark than that. Don Chambers impressed me. And my dad impressed me, because he always fixed things. I learned how to make things from seeing them being made and repaired. I didn’t even know I was getting that.

You mentioned your mother’s quilts a few days ago, too. Can you talk about the role of your family in your work? You didn’t realize how much you were learning from your dad, and you also didn’t initially realize that you were inspired by your mom’s crafts, too.

That came to me in retrospect. When I’d go to sleep at night, when I’d close my eyes, I’d see the geometric patterns of the quilts. I would see all these colors, these geometric patterns. I couldn’t believe that all these things were moving. I didn’t think anybody else had that going on, and I was afraid to tell somebody that I had that going on. I found out, in retrospect, that those were the geometric patterns I use in all my work.

So you were channeling a little bit.

Yes. I think that’s what artists do. And I never thought I was an artist, until I met people who were famous who said, “Charles, you’re an artist.”

What is it like to balance identifying as an artist and as a designer?

I think of all the poor people I’ve met who said they were artists and they’ve never made a nickel and they’ve never had any fun and they were always struggling to use cheap materials. I don’t know if it’s good to say you’re an artist. I never felt my work was good enough to be called “art.” The way I distinguish “artist” is that it has to be done out there, not by me. My distinction of an artist is somebody who’s told they’re an artist; not one who goes around saying, “I’m an artist.”

There is a lot of weight attached to that word.

Yes. There are a lot of craftsmen who are definitely not designers or artists. Their craft is art, but they don’t have that touch, and they never become an artist. They’re just great at what they’re doing. Those are the types of people that I like to work with. I can make their work look better because I can twist it and make it something it wouldn’t ever be if I hadn’t shown up.

Because you’re an artist.

It takes that other person, though. There are people I work with who are really committed to the material. My best craftspeople, who support me and have done things the best for me all these years, are the people committed to wood, but they make Lucite just because I want it. They’re great craftspeople. They’re just as good at doing it in acrylic as they are doing it with wood. And then, there is no conflict, you see. They don’t want to be me, and I don’t want to be them.

There’s no competition and you can just communicate.

Isn’t that wonderful? That’s like a gift from whatever.

Lucite really lends itself to kitsch, so it’s interesting to see you elevate it to this level.

I’ve always done that, and I’ll tell you why. My bosses said to me one day, “Do you know the guys next door, who share our parking lot? How many times do you think they walk out to the lot with something for a customer, every day, to put it in their car?” And I said, “More than I do. Maybe three, four, five times more than I do.” They said, “Who do you think makes the most money when the day is over?” And I said, “Well, I probably do.” They said, “Do you want to go to the parking lot five times more every day to make the same amount of money that they do?” And I said, “No. I like going to the parking lot just the few times I go.” They said, “Then you’d better make this stuff esoteric and special so nobody can copy it. And you will always walk to the parking lot once a day. The other guy will have been out there five times and have made the same amount of money.” What you do is create. You don’t compete. If somebody tries to compete with me, I just remember what Steve’s grandfather [from Steve’s Plating Corporation] used to say: Don’t compete. Create.

You knew Tennessee Williams and hung out with his crowd back then. Was there an element of celebrity to your life?

Not until I looked back on it. Everybody said I should be an actor, and I said, “Are you kidding? I am acting all day long. Why would I want to do that?” All of this is an act.

In what way did it feel like an act?

I’m physically doing stuff here. If I was an actor, I’d be doing somebody else’s work, putting my energy into it. It was not a compliment. I knew all those actors. I liked them, I respected their work, but, to me, they were bigger phonies than I was. That’s a joke, but we all think that someday, somebody’s going to find out that we’re not really who we are. Underneath it all, we all think that, whether we admit it or not. I didn’t want to be a big phony—like I’d be nobody until I had a script. I wrote my own script, I acted in my own play, I made my own stuff. It sounds very competitive, but it wasn’t. The first play I ever saw was Tennessee’s. How could you top what he’s done? But what I want to do is study this material, make a difference with it because I stuck with it. This material has been my life. It is my life.

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