With characteristically caustic wit, the late critic Herbert Muschamp summarized Edward Durell Stone’s career with the epitaph “from bar to grill,” thus linking his ultimately successful battle with alcoholism to the ornament associated with his later work by fans and detractors alike.
For Muschamp, it was a putdown expressed paradoxically, given his evident respect for a career underappreciated and needlessly, even foolishly, unexamined. This sentiment was crystallized in one of Muschamp’s more memorable riffs in The New York Times about Stone’s Gallery of Modern Art for Huntington Hartford as a gay haven vis-à-vis the Landmark Commission’s indefensible refusal to place the Venetian-decorated modern building on its calendar for consideration. Go check your coat on the basement level of the now-residing Museum of Arts and Design for a thrilling glimpse of Stone’s eviscerated design intent, at least for the interior finishes.
Evisceration comes to mind as well in reading this fine, overdue biography that is disguised as a memoir with a misleading subtitle and its hint of a son’s insider tell-all. This history as roman à clef is eccentric in assiduously denying all traces of the younger Mr. Stone—so much so that it’s a sort of guessing game as to where Hicks falls in order of birth. It is never “my mother” but “his second wife” or “my stepbrother” but “his oldest son.”
Edward Durell Stone: A Son’s Untold Story is primarily a chronological narrative of a formerly famous architect who ranked, in the mid-20th century, as one of America’s brightest design lights, as boldly testified by a March 31, 1958, TIME magazine cover citing commissions for the American embassy in New Delhi, the United States pavilion for the Brussels World’s Fair, and the National Cultural Center (soon rechristened the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts). All this achieved in spite of his having no degree but rather a rigorous Beaux Arts training enriched by travel abroad sponsored by the prestigious Rotch fellowship. Not bad for a young man from Arkansas whose family has seen its best days come and go.
Courtesy Edward Stone Archives (left, Center) and Courtesy MoMA (right)
The book examines what is, in the architect author’s view, a great sweep of design history as a divergence between an organic American modernist vocabulary hatched from Art Moderne—as evidenced by Stone’s original building for the Museum of Modern Art—and the European International Style hegemony favored by Alfred Barr, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and the young Philip Johnson that had so rapidly taken over in critical discourse if less in practice. The argument is an old chestnut but duly invigorated here as passed through the prism of Stone’s desultory yet finally fecund career, even as it declined in its last years. The architect’s end is a woeful combination of unmanageable growth on two coasts, a lifelong aversion to professional partners, personal problems crowned by a “toxic” third marriage following an embittering divorce from the second (spoiler alert: Hicks’s mother), and changing tastes. Fueling them all was an ever-shriller elite denunciation of emerging postmodernism (ultimately today’s modernism), expanded by technologies that made ornament and pattern affordable in new materials that are accepted as authentic, even when formally of classical precedent.
Author Stone never shies from the gossip of patron skirmishes (the Henry Luces and the Dallas Grafs), politics, and internecine battles for credit starting from the get-go with Stone’s auspicious debut assignment for the ornamentation—inside and out—of Radio City Music Hall. But the author only goes there when it is germane to his central biographical enterprise.
Absent in this volume is any trace of the Mommie Dearest peekaboos and self-reflection as found in Alan Lapidus’s Everything by Design (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), about a famous but flawed father. Likewise there is nothing of a personal quest as so widely celebrated in the 2003 documentary My Architect: A Son’s Journey, by Nathaniel Kahn, about his search to understand his legendary if scoundrel-behaving dad, Louis.
The swiftly dispatched mention of a contemptuous relationship limited to the foreword and epilogue only serves to reinforce what Hicks Stone sees as an almost urgent need to record and persuasively celebrate a body of work now, when such a record is still possible. He sees it as his duty to be an insightful interpreter to the broader design community rather than to his father, which lends implicit poignancy to what is otherwise a fine, straightforward account. Indeed such urgency impelling Hicks leads to the biggest criticism, which is only one of format. Large, lush illustrations, both archival and new, along with blueprints and ephemera, make the underlying biographical text a bit unwieldy.
But finally it does not matter as there were many jobs to be done in filling this historical void. The author’s apparently suppressed emotions lend narrative force and encourage reconsideration of a recent past that contributed so much to the built environment we still inhabit. In sum, don’t let the grills of prior scholarship block your view. A bravely self-abnegating son bears witness and all gain from it.