John Astin Perkins’ Dallas Design Aesthetic That Still Holds its Own

Perkins seduced Dallas’ wealthiest women with his brilliant sense of color, bold accessories, and dashing audacity.

Every city has a signature style. Maybe that’s a sweeping generalization, but when I think of Los Angeles style, I picture over-scaled stone tables and clean white linen upholstery, compliments of ’70s icon Michael Taylor. New York got its sophisticated look from the great Billy Baldwin whose sleek finishes, dramatic chocolate walls, and clean-lined furniture upholstered in neutral silk remain synonymous with ’60s Manhattan chic.

An early photo of Perkins

Unquestionably, Dallas has its own look. We’re all about bright color and patterns, traditional (but not staid) furniture, and highly accessorized rooms filled with antiques.  Decorator John Astin Perkins helped create this now-classic Dallas look during the ’60s and ’70s, with his fearless use of color and highbrow taste. Everyone wanted it. No wonder—the look screamed “old money” with its fine antiques and tables full of accessories, which hinted at a life of world travel and sophistication. Perkins, whose long career spanned more than five decades, influenced many young decorators along the way, putting an indelible stamp on the city.

Perkins may have been famous for interior design, but he garnered a degree from Yale and an architecture degree from the University of Texas before making his way to Dallas in the mid 1930s. One of his first jobs was to design and build a house on Westway Avenue in Highland Park for oil Tycoon Dad Joiner and his wife, retail doyenne Marie Leavell. Perkins was a perfectionist, but he had little or no control over the decoration of the projects he built. This was unacceptable, since he considered most interior decorators in Dallas at the time to be second-rate dilettantes. Off he went to New York to get a design degree from Parsons. When he returned, Perkins was armed with  a considerable knowledge of European antique styles. He made a name for himself by mixing respectable antiques with irreverent color schemes such as lilac, mustard, and red—and this was long before such bold colors were in vogue. They were almost considered racy, but Perkins had a knack for putting a chic spin on everything. Women couldn’t get enough of him.

Dallas, along with the rest of the country, was just beginning to recover from the Depression, and those with money were eager to spend. Perkins was from a well-to-do family in McKinney, and he was comfortable with both the old insurance and banking heirs and the new-money families emerging from the oil and gas boom. He hopped on Paris-bound planes and shopped for antique furniture and accessories all over the world. French Louis XV chairs, English side tables, and Oriental lamps and screens soon found their way into the homes of big Dallas oil magnates such as Clint Murchison and Elton Hyder of Fort Worth.

Perkins lived with great style and entertained beautifully, if not outrageously. Dwinn Leavell remembers the engagement party that Perkins held for his niece Daisy Creson in 1950: “We drove up Wautaga Lane in Bluffview, which was a gravel road, and John greeted us all in the yard. As far as you could see, there were blooming lilies that John had flown in from Hawaii and planted in containers in the ground so they would be in perfect bloom. The fragrance in the air was intoxicating. On a wooden dance floor, men danced with women in French chiffon and lacquered linen hats to a four-piece orchestra.” In the mid 1960s, Perkins’ company was investigated by the IRS. One of the items being questioned was a $25,000 bill for a party. The undaunted Perkins said, “Well, I’d invite you to my parties, too, if you weren’t so tacky.”

As Perkins’ reputation grew, so did his clientele. His list boasted the likes of James Ling, Perry Bass of Fort Worth, and Ross Perot.  Interior designer Loyd Taylor was a friend of Perkins, who frequently bought Loyd-Paxton’s fine antiques. “The new oil money crowd was very clique-ish, and Perkins controlled them both in Fort Worth and Dallas. He was in the right place at the right time. The wealthy ladies didn’t shop—they played bridge and tennis, and while they were lunching, Perkins made all their selections of fabric and furniture,” he says. Clients didn’t dare venture to the decorative centers as they do now, and Perkins had the corner on the market—in those days, there were very few designers to compete with.

Architectural Digest featured Fort Worth’s Rowan House as done by John Astin Perkins in 1968 (top). Thirteen years later, Mark Hampton’s take on the house (bottom) looks remarkably the same.

Perkins was “Mr. Dallas,” recalls designer Frances Shepherd, who worked for him during the late 1960s. He brought in containers of fine, formal antiques and, rather than using stuffy damasks and brocades to cover them, he incorporated bright colors of yellow, orange, and pink, with a strong focus on parrot green and casual print fabrics.  The combination of these fine antiques and brightly colored fabrics was fresh and elegant. His signature parrot-green-and-white wallpaper and Oriental temple jars -turned-lamps became known and recognized everywhere, including the Dallas Country Club, Brook Hollow Golf Club, and River Crest in Fort Worth.

If Dallas society entertained at the country club, they bought their clothing at Marie Leavell, the stylish Highland Park Village store, which Perkins draped in mauve, dusty pink, and moss green in 1934. When Leavell moved to Lovers Lane in 1949, Perkins designed the store in contemporary gray and gold, as a neutral backdrop for the ladies of Dallas high society to purchase Norman Norell dresses. Perkins designed all of Leavell’s residences, and three for her son, John, who remembers his mother telling him, “When you use John Perkins, all you have to worry about is paying for it—everything is perfect.”

Perkins brought in so many Oriental accessories and porcelains for lamps that he opened his own lamp company, The Lampisterie. His eye for detail was evident in the lampshades that he designed and made to go with the bases. Designer Cathy Kincaid worked at the Lampisterie in 1976. She recalls his use of classic French painted furniture and color. “John was able to capitalize on the knowledge that Southern women love color,” she says. “He gave the decorators permission to use bold color.” He also had a wicked wit. “Mr. Perkins was doing a residence in Mexico for a local client. He told her he would use a treillage. When she saw it, she said, ‘But that’s just an ordinary trellis like I have in my garden. What’s the difference between treillage and trellis?’ Perkins spelled out, ‘M-o-n-e-y.’ ”

Perkins’ sometimes-friend-sometimes-foe was Lou Samuels, owner of John Edward Hughes, where I worked in the early ’80s. According to Samuels, Perkins fostered the need among his clients—especially the insecure ones—to keep up with the Joneses. “He was not trendy, he could finish a job, and it looked like it had been that way forever,” Samuels says. “His brilliant use of accessories ensured that the room looked as if it had been collected for generations.” While working at John Edward Hughes, I saw Perkins often, so I became accustomed to his demanding entrances, always accompanied by his assistant, the gentle Jim Forshay.  Underneath his gruff treatment of most showroom employees, he showed great humor.  When Samuels’ daughter got married, Perkins came into the showroom, tapped his cane, and asked me in a mischievous tone, “I heard Lou’s daughter got married. Why wasn’t I invited?”  Flustered, I hedged: “Well, Mr. Perkins, it was just family.”  He looked at me slyly, “Did you go?”

PEARLS OF THE ORIENT: Perkins was known for his use of Oriental accessories.

Many of Dallas’ great furniture makers did extensive work on Perkins’ projects.  Cabinetmaker W.B. Schieffer Studio began working with Perkins in the ’30s.  His son Paul has continued his father’s business and has a file of more than 2,500 drawings of furniture, doors, and moldings built for different projects. Perkins designed elements to go with an antique or fine reproduction that was going in the room, and Schieffer built them.  He recalls the Rowan house that Perkins did in 1968 that was featured in a big spread in Architectural Digest. Twenty years later, the house was redecorated by Billy Baldwin’s protégé, Mark Hampton, and was again featured in AD.  The photographs show a dining room that is virtually unchanged.  “His designs were timeless: The pieces that Perkins selected for a residence typically stayed in the family for generations,” Schieffer says. “They may be passed from house to house, may be re-finished or re-painted, but  they’re always kept in the family.”

Perkins was generous with his own family.  His niece Judy Gardere remembers coming back from her honeymoon, expecting to find her empty apartment just as she had left  it.  Instead, it  was fully decorated with every chair, table, and lamp in place, custom draperies, and elegant bed linens. Perkins had even filled the refrigerator. Gardere’s Highland Park home remains fresh today, decked out in yellow and blue. “Uncie (the family’s affectionate name for Perkins) could hold colors in his mind; he could see a rug, pick fabrics, paint colors, and match them perfectly. I remember painting a room and disliking the color. He added a touch of yellow, and the color was perfect.”

Although Perkins was best known for his parrot green of the ’60s,  J.C. Martin, of the legendary Martin Brothers specialty painting company, witnessed other avant-garde uses of color. “In the 1940s, he started pickling wood by accident—he kept adding colors and scraping them off of some wood paneling until he had just the right shade,” Martin says. “He mixed a mustard shade that no one had seen before with bright pink, or apple green with lavender,” says J.C.’s son, Barry Martin.

Perkins worked until his death in 1999, but his interiors live on, continuing to inspire. Sure, the colors may be toned down, but if you notice Oriental figures made into lamps, Coromandel screens, and classic antiques, count yourself lucky. Chances are,  you’re in a John Astin Perkins-designed room.

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