Why This Modernist American Architect’s Fireplaces Are So Influential

A look back at Samuel Marx.

January 7, 2022

Chimney pieces by American architect and interior designer Samuel Marx were always at one with their soigné settings: bold, broad-shouldered and extruding from the architectural envelope rather than being separate from it. “They’re not just stuck on a wall,” says Manhattan dealer Liz O’Brien, author of Ultramodern (Pointed Leaf Press, 2012), the seminal study of the work of the Natchez, Mississippi–born, Chicago-based master, who died in 1964, aged 78.

“Three-dimensional and sculptural, the mantels are an integrated part of the room’s design that catch the eye as strongly as the works of art displayed there.” Though Marx was as ardent a modernist as his friend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, his approach to architecture and interiors was earthier, imbued with a swagger that seems all-American in its directness, a suavity that bears witness to his youthful training at Paris’s École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and a gravitas born of his appreciation for classical Greece.

The architect’s mantel materials were as diverting as their physicality, from brilliant green marble, as used at the Chicago residence of steel tycoon Joseph L. Block in 1948, to the fossil stone specified for actor Edward G. Robinson’s at-home Beverly Hills art gallery seven years earlier. Imprinted with long-ago creatures, the pockmarked rock—a Marx hallmark—was hewn into brooding chimney pieces that often spread across the flanking walls, incorporating shelves for books or serving as backdrops for shimmering metal andirons, popularly longhorn steers’ heads composed of brushed steel. Says O’Brien, “For Marx, when it came to fireplaces, it was all about drama.”

In the billiards room of a grand Italianate house on Lake Michigan, Marx lifted the mood by liming the heavy oak paneling. He replaced the traditional redbrick fireplace surround with a sharper black-and-white marble design.Björn Wallander

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Produced by Hudson Moore