A New Biography Spotlights the de Menil Family’s Art-Filled Life

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When banker John de Menil and heiress Dominique Schlumberger married in 1931, they could not have foreseen a move to Houston, Texas, from war-torn France. Yet the then-provincial, segregated city was their destiny, as John would become a leading executive of Schlumberger Limited, an oil services company based in Houston. Their story is legend for myriad reasons, including the astounding art collection they amassed beginning in the 1940s. They had an interest in everything from Modern, Cubist, and Surreal art to Oceanic and African art; some of which are exhibited in the 17,000 plus collection in the Menil Collection in Houston, which opened in 1987 in a Renzo Piano–designed building. They were also fierce civil-rights advocates: When the city of Houston declined their gift of Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, in 1969, dedicated to the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., they placed the sculpture in front of the Rothko Chapel, which the de Menils commissioned in 1964.

But one of their most fascinating and important commissions was personal: the design of their bluntly Modernist home in the neighborhood of River Oaks where genteel mansions line the streets. Philip Johnson planted a one-story brick, steel, and glass structure that confounded the surroundings, and then to stagger the imagination even more, John hired the brilliant, eccentric fashion designer Charles James, to do the interior décor, resulting in one of the most intriguing and original houses in the country. But as William Middleton writes and illustrates in his new biography of the couple, Double Vision, their taste and inclination to the modern took root when they spied the work of French designer Pierre Barbe early on in their marriage.

One of the idiosyncratic aspects of the de Menil’s take on Modernism is perfectly expressed in the décor and design of the River Oaks home. The living room, seen above, has polished modern architecture, glossy dark tiled floor, plate-glass doors and walls, and the simplicity of the structural right angles, but then the décor is diametrically opposed to Johnson’s strictness with James’s curvy Lips sofa, and a sprinkling of historic furniture pieces and art.

The Château Val-Richer in Normandy where Dominique grew up was filled with art. The estate’s grand architecture was designed to illustrate family standing and celebrate art collections within its gallery walls. Photo: The Val-Richer 1912/courtesy of Anne Schlumberger
The Val-Richer was comfy in its grand manner, and Dominique was surrounded by artifacts of wealth, as seen here in the dining room with its crystal chandelier and towering portraits lining the walls. Photo: Courtesy of Anne Schlumberger
It was another family seat, the pale pink, 18th-century Château de Kolbsheim, in Alsace, owned by one of Dominique’s cousins, that made a deep impression on Dominique and John when they saw how it had been renovated by the Parisian architect Pierre Barbe. Barbe had worked with Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles on their house on Place des États-Unis. Here in the Château de Kolbsheim, Barbe created a modern entrance with gray stone and matching walls. Photo: Courtesy @Fonds Barbe, SIAF/Cit é de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Archives d’architecture du XXe siècle
A bedroom in Château de Kolbsheim decorated by Pierre Barbe: a Modernist interior replacing what had been originally 18th-century décor. Seeing Barbe’s work here inspired the de Menils to hire him for the renovation of their Paris apartment. Photo: Courtesy @Fonds Barbe, SIAF /Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Archives d’architecture du XXe siècle
A portrait of Dominique in their Paris apartment in 1933 after Barbe’s renovation. The apartment, a wedding gift from her parents, was part of the upper floors of her parent’s three-floor apartment on rue Las Cases. Photo: Courtesy of De Menil Family Papers/Menil Archives/The Menil Collection, Houston
Pontpoint, John and Dominique’s country house outside of Paris, was also renovated by Barbe whose discretion and mastery was aimed at refreshing historical elements such as the ancient stones featured here in the staircase. Photo: Courtesy of Menil Archives/The Menil Collection, Houston
The sitting room at Pontpoint was comfortable and serene and naturally hung with great art. The painting on the wall is by Victor Brauner. “Beautiful architecture gives me a lift,” Dominique is quoted saying in Middleton’s book. “I feel exhilarated, optimistic, ready to work.” Photo: Courtesy of Menil Archives/The Menil Collection, Houston
When the de Menils were thinking about an architect to do their new Houston home, they consulted with a group of artists in New York associated with the Museum of Modern Art including artist and sculptor Mary Callery. She told them: “If you want a $100,000 house, ask Mies van der Rohe. If you want a $75,000 house, ask Philip Johnson.” The rest is history as seen here in Philip Johnson’s discreet, barely there façade of the house facing the street. Photo: Courtesy of Menil Archives/The Menil Collection, Houston
The glass walls of the living room gave visual access to the outdoors at all times. Here, Dominique on a chaise designed by Charles James wearing a suit of his design. Photo: Courtesy of Menil Archives/The Menil Collection, Houston
At the River Oaks home, Dominique’s dressing room with its pale sherbet-colored closet doors, two distinctive seats that look like different species meeting each other for the first time, and a fur rug that looks like a doppelgänger to the wild grass outside. Photo: Balthazar Korab/Courtesy of Menil Archives/The Menil Collection, Houston
The de Menil’s New York City townhouse had the same spartan comfort featuring disparate furnishings that made sense in the context of the de Menil aesthetic. The renovation was by Howard Barnstone. Photo: Courtesy of Paul Hester
Simplicity with a twist, as this breakfast table setting in the New York townhouse illustrates: The white porcelain table top paired with silver Baroque candlesticks, all watched over by a Rothko painting and an Oceanic painted fernwood sculpture from the New Hebrides. Photo: Paul Hester
The Couple Who Built One of America’s Most Original Houses