The Daring Mr. Daren


One of the greatest joys of working in a Special Collections unit is some of the discoveries you make when opening a box, that has been long tucked, safely away on a shelf, the contents of which have been seen by few—if any—in recent years. Re-discovering our Mr. Daren sketch collection (US.NNFIT.SC.43) last week put a smile on all of our faces and peaked our curiosity about the creator, who had sketched entire collections of womenswear while serving in the Navy during WWII.

Mr.DarenFresh out of the Wolfe School of Costume Designing in Los Angeles in 1941, it was not long before Daren Pierce (1923-1984) was serving at the pleasure of his nation’s armed forces, first in Farragut, Idaho and later at the Naval Training Station on Yerba Buena Island, just off of San Francisco, where he was worked in the Office of Discipline.  In his spare time, Pierce passionately continued on his avowed, yet unfulfilled career path, designing entire seasonal collections of day, college, evening and bridal wear in pencil, watercolor and marker.  His rendering style is bold and refreshing. Part Pin-up Girl, part Surrealist mannequin, Pierce’s women radiate the sort of aggressive swagger that seems to come natural only to film noir vixens.  Liberal references to pop culture, contemporary art and architecture are sprinkled throughout his collections, found in perhaps an amorphous bit of Dali-esque color blocking or a cheekily titled suit such as “His Name Was Frank Lloyd Wright…”

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LEFT: “His Name Was Frank Lloyd Wright…” 1944 CENTER: “Nanki Poo”, 1944 RIGHT: “Picasso’s Blue, Period!”, 1944

Scribbled notations reveal Pierce’s ardent admiration for the work of fashion designer Gilbert Adrian and textile designer Dorothy Liebes, swatches of her hand-woven textiles accompany some sketches. Notable celebrities were also a catalyst for Pierce’s work and a whole slew of designs inspired by the likes of Greer Garson, Lily Pons and Lena Horne have been signed by their muses, most likely after Pierce presented the sketch to the performers following an appearance in San Francisco.  Pierce’s moxie in such matters paid off when after presenting his idol Dorothy Liebes with a sketch inspired by her, she hired him as a textile designer in 1945, after the completion of his wartime duties.

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LEFT: This design inspired by Lena Horne was signed by the chanteuse in appreciation.   RIGHT: “Lakme”, inspired by Lily Pons, was based on one of the soprano’s roles for the MET opera.

The early 1950s found Pierce in New York City in the employ of one of the nation’s leading interior design firms, William Pahlmann and Associates. (The firm’s founder, Pahlmann has been cited as “except for Elsie de Wolfe, no one has influenced American home decoration more than Mr. Pahlmann.”) Pierce’s star was launched with his entrée as decorator to the crème-de-la-crème of New York society. Frequently sought out by the press as an authority on interior design, by the 1960s Pierce had been elected President of the American Institute of Decorators, and in this capacity he led design professionals and enthusiasts on globe-spanning tours to study the aesthetics of  cultures abroad.

Contemporary art movements remained a source of inspiration in Pierce’s work with interiors, a 1968 New York Times article on surface design notes his daring use of Jackson Pollock’s paint-spattered textiles. Only three years previous, Pierce, who by now often went simply as “Mr. Daren,” had caused a minor kerfuffle in the press when he challenged traditional gender roles by opening a high-end needlepoint shop, Woolworks, on Madison Avenue, which was frequented by former clients and society mavens including Babe Paley.

Diverse and intriguing, Mr. Daren’s talents seemed to know few limits as he went on to find success in the realm of publishing with the four books he co-authored on the subjects of needlepoint and the art of mixed cocktails.  By all accounts, Mr. Daren was ambitious, fun-loving and the epitome of a life well-lived.  How we wish we could sit down with you—the self-proclaimed “originator of the long lunch hour,”—today Sir, to share with you one of your beloved martinis and let you spin us some yarns…

A special thank you to Chris Baer and Lucas Clawson of the Hagley Museum and Library for their assistance in confirming that fashion designer, Daren Pierce, and interior designer, Daren Pierce, were indeed one in the same via their William Pahlmann papers.