Category Archives: Design Exhibitions

“Mad Men” and Mid-Century Modernity at LACMA

Stereos and Studebakers

The start of Mad Men‘s fifth season this week on cable TV is fortuitous. Though the series spawned a new appreciation for slick Madison Avenue Modernism of the early 1960s — not to mention accompanying cocktails — it wasn’t easy to see

where part of that esthetic came from (photo courtesy shinyshiny.tv). But now you can, thanks to the exhibition running through June at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965 curated by Wendy Kaplan. In fact, the advertising firm that the character Don Draper runs, seen above at his desk with drink in hand, ought to be developing campaigns for many of the products in the exhibition, like the Studebaker Avanti of 1961-2 by Raymond Loewy, below.

California — and especially Los Angeles — became a remarkable incubator of modern design during the middle of the 20th century. The benign climate, burgeoning post World War II economy and population, and movie mystique attracted imaginative designers and take-a-chance clients. I toured the exhibit recently and was impressed with the way it explores connections between popular and high style design, from furniture and clothing to houses and cars while bringing the Left Coast side of the Mad Men era to life.

Time here begins in the 1930s, quite literally, with one of the first digital clocks,

the Zephyr clock by Lawson Time, from around 1938 (photo courtesy LACMA blog). My uncle had one of these and I always admired it — when the numbers turned over they bounced slightly before resting in place (perhaps a metaphor for hanging fire?). Time did appear to be hustling as new tracts developed across

the LA basin. Modern architects were designing houses and filling them with furniture like this 1931 bent plywood chair by Richard Neutra or this squared off

corner grouping by A. Quincy Jones from 1961 and Mondrian-esque glass coffee table of c. 1950 by Milo Baughman for Glenn of California  — which look like they belong in one corner of Don Draper’s office. Living In A Modern Way shows how California designers celebrated the casual indoor-outdoor living that

the California climate made possible, as in this promotional image for a development called Monarch Bay Homes at Laguna Niguel by delineator Carlos Dini, from 1961 (image courtesy LACMA).  My favorite part of the exhibit juxtaposes two elegant designs from 1961 by LA’s most minimalist architect,

Craig Ellwood: a superb elevation of his Rosen house and the Rosen’s custom stereo cabinet. Now this takes Machine Age abstraction to its logical extreme: house and stereo are extensions of each other, if not virtually indistinguishable –  do I live in the stereo or does the stereo live in me? Talk about surround sound! The only real difference, besides scale and some plumbing, is that the stereo has four bays while the house has only three. Clearly the sort of house where you would expect to hear Frank Sinatra, not to mention the architect, crooning My Way — and sotto voce “or the highway.” (Images courtesy LACMA.)

Even Barbie went modern, and her Dream House of 1962, shown below, is fun to

to see. The largest element in the show is a replica of the loft-like living room of  the Charles and Ray Eames house of 1949, the most famous structure in the

Case Study House Program of the late 1940s and early 1950s sponsored by Arts + Architecture magazine (photo courtesy NY Times). It functions both as a frame for nature and an elegant specimen box for the Eames’ collection (1,869 items in this space alone!). Which reminds me: Case Study House #3 shown below, by William Wurster and Theodore Bernardi is not in the exhibit but is in the

Houseplans.com Signature Studio and is Plan 529-1. See how it too blends indoor and outdoor space into a seamless whole: the house is the lot. Our Eichler Plans offer further variations on the modern living theme. They’re all part of the Mid-Century Modern design history you can own.

So, Don Draper — time to put down that highball and get back to work. You have a lot of selling to do!

 

Major Ranch House Exhibition at UCSB

From Corral to Cul de Sac in the Southern California Home

I just saw “Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House” in the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, curated by Jocelyn Gibbs and Nicholas Olsberg. It’s the first scholarly  exhibition on the history of the suburban ranch house at UCSB since the late architectural historian David Gebhard founded the museum’s design archive in the 1970s and collected the Cliff May papers along with those of many other influential Southern California architects and designers (catalog to be published in April). The fence on the intro wall aptly expresses both the ranch house idea

and the intent of the show: to corral the many facets of ranch house history into a coherent narrative while showing off holdings from the museum’s extensive architectural drawings collections. It’s mostly about ranch house designer, developer, and popularizer Cliff May, who began his career in San Diego in the early 1930s with courtyard designs like this one, which cloaked functional planning and space for the automobile in the romance of history.

They were inspired by early California ranchos with their covered “corredors” or porches. In 1934 he moved to Los Angeles and soon began developing Riviera Ranch, an equestrian-oriented subdivision off Sunset Boulevard near Brentwood. With larger lots his plans could “sprawl” across the site.

This house — for his own family — became his best sales tool and a laboratory for trying out new ideas like residential incinerators and walk-in refrigerators. In the 1950s he and his architect partner Chris Choate developed their “low cost ranch house” concept using standardized, pre-cut elements.

(Image courtesy AD&A Museum.) Window walls and shallow gable roofs were signature features, as shown in the brochure plan and the supergraphic of another May design that dominates a section of the exhibit (below).

May’s designs resemble Eichler tract house plans of the same era — the ranch house concept was everywhere at that time and very malleable. The tract ranch house became popular for developers, which is when the word sprawl took on

a less positive meaning; this is an aerial view of Lakewood Rancho Estates, in Long Beach, California (image courtesy AD&A Museum). Meanwhile May was still designing larger and more lavish custom homes for people like the inventor of

the Lear jet and the composer of the theme song for the TV show Bonanza. The typical pool and patio example above — one of many in the exhibit — became synonymous with California living (image courtesy AD&A Museum).

By the early 1960s Cliff May ranch houses had spread across the country as this wonderful pin map — which I remember seeing in Cliff May’s last office — demonstrates. Some of the pins represent subdivisions of more than 25 houses — his designs are in almost every state as well as as Canada and Mexico.

The show includes ranch house designs by other Southern California architects, from John Byers to Rudolph Schindler, proving that Cliff’s wasn’t the only game in town. As Jocelyn Gibbs, who is the curator of the museum’s Architectural Drawings Collection, told me: the intent was “to suggest that the ranch house and modernist ideas are not incompatible.” Indeed, the ranch house idea was stylistically very loose — simply a one story house with a modern open plan and strong outdoor connections. It had little theoretical baggage.

The need to exhibit only work from the museum’s collections is understandable but I wish there had been a way to include the wider architectural context, from William Wurster’s Butler house at Santa Cruz, California of 1935

(image courtesy Modern in Melbourne), to John Yeon’s Watzek house in

Portland, Oregon, of 1937 (photo courtesy Inside Oregon), to Frank Lloyd

Wright’s Herbert Jacobs Usonian House in Madison, Wisconsin of 1936 (image courtesy GreatBuildings.com) to Walter Gropius’s Arnold Wolfers house in

Brooklin, Maine of 1947 (image courtesy The Downeast Dilletante). Most architects took the ranch house in a more strictly modern direction and didn’t acknowledge Cliff May’s contribution. Nor did most of the design critics of the day. But though Cliff May was left out of architectural debates at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere, it’s clear, as this exhibition vividly demonstrates, that Southern California had a richly experimental residential design tradition and that Cliff had the last laugh. The show remains on view through June 17, 2012; museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5; free.