I don’t recall when I first saw the interior design work of Melvin Dwork, it might have been in the 1970’s in Architectural Digest; his work had a big impact on me. I remember it to be current with both minimalist and ‘high-tech’ sensibilities, but it also included select antiques (and even some color) to create spare yet rich environments that were ‘his alone‘. Time and time again I would be drawn to his work…
I had seen images of his own house on Shelter Island in INTERIOR DESIGN magazine – it rocked my world. The rooms were spare but earthy, with a complex mix of periods and sensibilities, that collectively was both ultra chic and comfortable.
One Summer while on Shelter Island I found Melvin Dwork’s address and telephone number the ‘old school’ way – in the phone book!
I introduced myself, and scheduled a time to go meet him, bringing along my friend Sarah Medford (at that time Design Editor for Town & Country magazine). The house was as chic as I had imagined: modest in scale, pragmatic but clever in its execution and filled with a collection of understated treasures he had collected over a lifetime. It was a delightful experience to see and experience this distinctive and very personal home in person — Melvin was a sweet, soft-spoken and unpretentious man.
I made another visit a couple of years later with my long time friends and my ‘go-to’ interior photographers Steve Gross and Sue Daly – to meet up with Melvin.
Charming and forthright, there was a matter-of-factness about his personal history, the items in his home, and their placement. In contrast to the plethora of grandiose self-promoters in the interior design, Melvin showed great humility while he shared the personal histories of his artwork, objects and furnishings. Another long-time summer resident and long-time friend of Melvin’s was the inimitable Tom Fallon who told me that “Melvin has the chicest house in Shelter Island!” (And I would say that Tom’s runs a close second!)
Dwork’s interior design work had been featured in Architectural Digest, House & Garden, Town & Country, the New York Times, and Interior Design. In 1993 he was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame. A former student at the Parson’s School of Design, his papers including student work, slides photographs, news clippings, press releases, personal correspondence and awards were accepted into the Interior Design Collections at the New School Library.
Melvin was leading a quiet unfettered life maintaining the house on Shelter Island, and an apartment in New York City which I had only seen in photos. He was working very little and his increasing fragility was legible.
In her book New York Interior Design 1935-1985 historian Judith Gura said on Dwork:
“Consciously working to avoid any suggestion of trendiness of fashion, he mastered a style that is distinctive, yet resists easy categorization. Dwork’s interiors are cosmopolitan without pretension, and comfortable enough to avoid calling undue attention to the skill with which they were assembled or the superlative quality of their contents.”
I can unequivocally say that Dwork’s approach to interior design most definitely has influenced my own. I feel very fortunate to have known of his design work, and to have met him on a few occasions to experience a couple of his environments in person.
It was only in reading Melvin Dwork’s obituary in the New York Times that I learned that he had been discharged as “undesirable” and “unfit” by the US Navy in 1944 for being deviant (read homosexual), and in a life-long pursuit of justice in 2011 the Board for Correction of Naval Records changed his discharge to honorable.
On June 16 of this year Melvin Dwork died at the age of 94; he had maintained a life of honorable ideals as reflected in his design work, and ultimately in the way by working tirelessly to clear his own name. He helped alter the culture of the US military in their acceptance of gay men and lesbians – an honorable life indeed.
Rest in peace Melvin Dwork.