Seth Hart residence exterior, Arts & Decoration vol. 41, 1934, Associated Photographers
In 1947 Richardson Wright, editor-in-chief of House and Garden magazine, published the results of a survey on trends in the decorative arts. As a group American decorators lamented the preference by a burgeoning middle class for materials and technologies made for a specific purpose over the “joyousness and grace” found in traditional period decoration. Wright and his fellow professionals described a typical client as one of two types. The first type was a socially secure client “who have a tradition behind them—who don’t have to explain or make any excuses, who know where they came from and where they are going.” (Trends In Interior Decoration. 1947) The second type was the “less settled” and usually newly successful. The decorators agreed their profession faced a dilemma—how to balance the aesthetics of both groups to create a new American model of good taste. Interior designers across the country acknowledged the necessity of working with architects as they designed. Los Angeles became a laboratory for a new direction in interior design, one that combined the “best of the old with the new so as to restore warmth and grace to the over-simplicity of form … in modern design.”
Paul R. Williams was an early proponent of working with interior designers in the design process. During his career he collaborated with many important American designers on commercial and residential projects. With Williams’ less secure clients, the interior designer was a useful buffer to curb the exuberance of the client who did not understand the value of restraint and dignity. Williams believed it was the role of the interior designers to help him educate and advise clients “when to quit.” (Los Angeles Times. October 11, 1970)
Williams also had clients who understood the value of a tasteful, comfortable home that was not “consciously dramatic” but understated, combining traditional period styles with the contemporary California lifestyle. In 1933 Williams collaborated with Hobe Erwin of Jones and Erwin Inc. to design insurance executive Seth Hart’s Georgian-style residence in Holmby Hills. Though Erwin is best known as the Hollywood art director who created eleven shades of white for Jean Harlow’s bedroom in the MGM film Dinner at Eight (1933), in the Hart residence he and Williams created a new iconic Hollywood look. By carefully and imaginatively selecting inspiration from a variety of historic styles, Williams and Erwin fashioned a new standard for understated Hollywood elegance. (Arts and Decoration. 1934)
Seth and Dorothy Jones Hart were known in Los Angeles society as an independent, free spirited couple. Seth was easy-going, well-read, a successful businessman and a loyal Republican. (image 8) Secure in his own achievements in the business hierarchy of Southern California, he enjoyed observing his wife’s social ambitions. Dorothy was lively, cultured and intensely curious with an “ebullient sense of humor.” Even during the Great Depression the Harts lived in “predictable upper-middle-class comfort” with a maid, two cars and a second home in Hermosa Beach. Their daughter Dorothy, one of the great beauties of the time, would eventually marry three of the most powerful men in America—Jack Hearst, William S. Paley and Walter Hirshorn. (Sally Bedell Smith. In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley, 1990)
Busy with his social clubs and the Flint & Hart insurance company, Hart was amused by Dorothy’s determined efforts to experience life as independently as any man. Acknowledging her intelligence and refined taste, he deferred to her on “nearly every important decision about their life together.” Familiarizing herself with the work of Los Angeles architects, Dorothy was impressed with Paul Williams’ body of work and aesthetic. In 1933 the Harts contracted with Williams to design a twenty-room residence on a site in Holmby Hills adjoining the property of many high-ranking movie studio executives. It was estimated that construction cost would be $30,000 a huge sum during the Depression. (Los Angeles Times. December 3, 1933)
The completed Hart residence was featured in glossy design magazines as an example of a Southern California home that avoided the “ubiquitous Spanish influence.” The English Regency-style architecture, accented with bits of old New Orleans (image 2) and placed in a California setting was described as imaginative. Hobe Erwin’s use of new engineered materials such as Zenitherm, mixed with traditional woods, imported Wedgewood details, 19th century antiques, modern reproductions and deluxe fabrics in subtle monotones was judged a triumph of “restraint and simplicity.” Together Williams and Erwin created a style that would redefine the Hollywood look.