Remembering James Mont, ‘Singular Scoundrel-Aesthete’

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Rare is the interior designer/decorator whose fiery temper leads to a prison term for assault, but James Mont (1904-1978) was anything but ordinary. Born in Istanbul as Demetrios Pecintoglu, Mont created dramatic, largely Asian-inspired furniture (dig those circa 1950 ebonized settees, pictured above) for a mix of celebrities (Irving Berlin, Lana Turner) and mob kingpins (“Lucky” Luciano, Frank Costello), and he’s the subject of an illuminating, if not online, article by Gregory Cerio in this month’s issue of The Magazine Antiques. With a series of Manhattan stores bankrolled by the mob, Mont mixed designing furniture flavored with “the delicate touch of Oriental spice” and his passions for gambling, showgirls, and flashy cars. He was above all, a showman.

He cultivated a reptutation as a perfectionist. While escorting a prospective client through his shop, he might suddenly start to slash a chair with a knife, declaring it imprecisely upholstered. Though often such outbursts were an act, he had a genuine vicious streak. He unmercifully beat his nephew John Karfo, when the boy failed to have his uncle’s shoes shined, as ordered.

As for that prison stint, Mont was sentenced to five to ten years for “savagely thrashing” lampshade designer Dorothy Burns in 1940. He served five years in Sing Sing, where, according to Cerio, he spent his time “drafting new designs and experimenting with finishes,” and we’re pretty sure those aren’t euphemisms.