The universal influence of designer Otto Zenke
By Billy Ingram
Mysterious footsteps in the dark, objects moving inexplicably from room to room, pencils rolling away on their own accord, drained coffeepots, air growing icy cold while someone unseen calls out a name from an empty hallway. If any spirit deserves to be restless and slightly perturbed, it’s Otto Zenke, from whom so much was given . . . and so much taken.
In July of this year, a home on East Lake Drive in Thomasville was placed on the market, one proudly identified as an “Otto Zenke design.” Somewhat astonishing considering the world-renowned architectural and interior decorator has been out of the business, by way of being deceased, for almost 35 years. That’s quite a reputation.
The Piedmont’s 20th-century style guru, Zenke studied at Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design in New York before making his way to Greensboro in 1937. His first studio was an upper floor at Morrison-Neese Furniture on Greene Street, an establishment catering to the area’s wealthiest families.
Zenke specialized in the late 18th-century Regency and Georgian look with a Hollywood-like grandiosity. His impeccable taste and lavish sense of proportion came to define Southern nobility; so popular with the postwar Jet Set, he struck out on his own in 1950. The late socialite Janie Price called him somewhat facetiously, “One of the great minds of the 18th century.”
His residence and nearby workshops took up almost two entire city blocks of downtown Greensboro, the centerpiece being his 19th-century house at Washington and Eugene Street, a “jewel in the jungle” built by Maj. Joseph Morehead, relative of Gov. John Motley Morehead of nearby Blandwood. Cradled in the shadow of the old courthouse, it was an oasis of refinement and beauty with brick and slate accented patios surrounded by lush green lawns cooling under ancient trees and triangular boxwood plots.
Two converted turn-of-the-century dwellings across the street housed his staff that grew to some 30 employees with four designers and a retinue of furniture finishers, upholsterers, draftsmen and drapery stitchers. The firm’s ads in The New Yorker magazine listed studios in Greensboro, London and Palm Beach.
Decorator Dean Farris of Winston- Salem remarks, “When I was a boy I used to study the magazine Antiques and was always intrigued by the full-page, black-and-white Otto Zenke ads. They were high style in that they only showed one piece of English furniture (with price) and a big black-and-white diamond floor
. . . very dramatic!” Farris also admires Zenke’s efficiency, recalling the designer’s ability to “tell the husband a figure, say $40,000, and do the whole house within that budget! Of course, this was way back in the 1960s or ’70s.”
Described as a “private, shy man,” his goal was to create a “smooth” environment, Zenke’s way of expressing how rooms should flow naturally from one into another. He took an architectural approach to interior design: Living rooms were generally situated around Georgian-inspired fireplaces, flanked by built-in bookcases, with sofas and chairs covered tip to toe in brightly colored fabrics, along with walls and windows in more casual rooms accented in dramatic floral wallpapers and matching drapes.
Featured in Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Southern Accents and other prestigious periodicals of that era, his was a somewhat overstuffed look hearking back to the days of Southern plantation houses, but with decidedly modern flourishes. If a desired piece of furniture needed to complete a room couldn’t be acquired, he designed it himself and had it constructed in-house.
He preferred clients “who think big, not necessarily from a cost standpoint, but from one who can envision a grand concept.” In a practice made popular in the 1930s, Zenke created richly detailed scale model miniatures of the rooms he imagined for his clients, several of which were painstakingly restored in the 1980s and remain on display at the Greensboro History Museum.
When Anne Carlson opened her antiquities shop in a log cabin in Summerfield in the early 1970s, she specialized in the type of luxurious furnishings made famous by Otto Zenke. “It was so successful, we had to have two police officers directing traffic,” she was quoted as saying. “We had people come there at 5 a.m. and form a line.”
In the book Adventures with Old Houses, North Carolina native Richard Hampton Jenrette wrote of his experience having Otto Zenke decorate his New York maisonette on East 57th Street. “One day a huge moving van from North Carolina arrived at my door, and by the end of the day, beautifully cut draperies and carpets had been installed, chandeliers hung, antique as well as comfortable furniture installed, old leather-bound books placed in the bookcases, dining room porcelain service in place — everything I could possibly need. It was what we later began to call ‘Instant Otto.’”
He furnished the interior designs for many of the finest homes and businesses in the Piedmont and beyond, including The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, Tanglewood Club near Winston-Salem, Myrtlewood in High Point, the President’s house at UNC-CH, the Barringer Hotel in Charlotte, a farmhouse in Waterloo, Belgium (overlooking the battle site of Napoleon’s legendary defeat) plus a home in County Clare, Ireland.
He remained a stubborn adherent to his singular approach even as it was considered by some to be old-fashioned and dated by the 1970s. No matter, his devotees were just as rooted in that sumptuous Southern tradition he represented and loved him for it.
Zenke’s empire was systematically obliterated beginning in the mid-1960s, his historic Morehead House taken from him by way of eminent domain and razed, replaced by the insultingly Brutalist architecture of the Governmental Plaza. It was said to have been a devastating blow to this courtly gentleman.
He soldiered on, however, designing and constructing a magnificent L-shaped Regency Revival–inspired complex across the street on Eugene in 1966 that served as both home and studio, alongside the other domiciles he utilized for production. Jim Schlosser, in a 2013 profile of Otto Zenke for O.Henry magazine, commented that the 28,000 square feet homestead “looked as if it had been there a hundred years.”
The lobby of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Greensboro, patterned after an English drawing room, was one of Otto Zenke’s last projects before his death in 1984 at the age of 79. A tribute to his life’s work in Connoisseur magazine declared the artist had an ability, “not only to design houses but to do something more: make them.”
Zenke’s maker’s spaces on Eugene Street were long ago bulldozed but today the home he built in 1966 serves as offices for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department, where late-night workers swear the place is haunted. Not for much longer, I suspect. Plans are afoot to demolish this neglected but still magnificent palace to make way for a parking lot.
Zenke’s opulently comfy sensibility reverberates into the present age. Realtor Frank Slate Brooks argues that he remains “very relevant” today. “He had a huge impact on design in the region — and the world — for decades.”
Jason Oliver Nixon of the High Point design firm Madcap Cottage, and regular contributor to this magazine, is also a fan. “Otto Zenke,” he says, “was a master of layering and pulling in pieces from different decades together in his rooms. It was formal but there was a sense of fun, there was a spirit of whimsy.”
The widespread impact of Otto Zenke’s legacy, his dynastic reflections of lives well-lived both here and abroad, is rare in this day and age, unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon — and certainly not forgotten.
A former Hollywood movie poster artist, Billy Ingram was a key member of what the ad world has dubbed “The New York Yankees of motion picture advertising.”