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Within Reach

December 11, 2011
by Jesse Hamlin
an old photograph of chairs by a swimming pool

California architecture brought the inside outside and gave ordinary people style they could afford.

Sam Grawe sat in the light-filled living room of his Eichler home in Lucas Valley, the north San Rafael suburb where developer Joseph Eichler built hundreds of the wood-and-glass tract houses that brought modernism to the middle class. It was a lovely July evening, and Grawe, the former longtime editor-in-chief of San Francisco’s Dwell magazine, was sipping chardonnay and listening to a 1962 Gary McFarland bossa nova record on vinyl. The music’s cool sensibility matched some of the room’s classic mid-century modernist furnishings—a George Nelson bubble lamp, a black Harry Bertoia Bird chair, a set of white Eames wire chairs.

The scene suggested the kind of idyllic California lifestyle—minus the pool— promoted internationally after World War II, and explored in a major exhibition on view through May at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “California Design, 1930–1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way.'” The show includes architectural drawings and photographs from Berkeley’s Environmental Design Archives, and showcases the work of prominent Northern California architects, designers, and landscape architects, including several associated with the University.

“I don’t pretend that I’m living in 1962. That’s not the goal,” said Grawe, a genial, dark-bearded, 34-year-old man who’s written about design for more than a decade. “I just really appreciate this style. There’s a cleverness and conciseness to these pieces, and an optimism embodied in their spirit that I respond to.”

Grawe’s taste for the elegant simplicity of mid-century modern architecture and design is shared by many people of his generation, who have embraced the aesthetic over the last decade or so. It fell out of fashion in the 1970s and ’80s, when big showy houses came into vogue, and older people discarded their dated fiberglass chairs and boomerang sofas. A lot of that stuff ended up in the apartments of young people who couldn’t afford pricier pieces. The cool 1950s furniture they found in thrift shops and Dumpsters stirred their ardor.

“There’s a sense of glamour you get from modernism,” said Waverly Lowell, MLS ’79, the curator of the Environmental Design Archives. “It’s open and full of potential. It doesn’t come with all the baggage of the past. The design of the ’50s was elegant without being ostentatious in a lot of ways.”

The optimism Grawe speaks of pervaded the booming post-war period, particularly in forward-looking California, where visionary designers like Charles and Ray Eames adapted materials and production methods developed by wartime industry—fiberglass, wire mesh, molded plywood—to create quality mass-market goods (“the best, for the most, for the least,” as Charles Eames put it). The Eameses’ work is well represented in the LACMA show, an expansive survey that features everything from furniture and swimsuits to architectural drawings and photographs—including those from Berkeley’s CED—as well as ceramics, textiles, graphics, film, an original 1959 Barbie doll, and a gleaming aluminum 1936 Airstream trailer.

The classic rounded silver vehicle opens the show, which focuses on the modern California home and how people lived in it. “The Airstream is a home on wheels,” said Bobbye Tigerman, LACMA’s assistant curator of decorative arts and design, who organized the show with curator Wendy Kaplan. For the curators, mid-century California modernism is more of an attitude than a visual style, although a taste for clean lines and biomorphic shapes was very much of the period. So was the desire for houses designed for indoor/outdoor living—an old California tradition going back to the eclectic Bernard Maybeck, Berkeley’s first architecture professor, but updated with giant windows and sliding glass doors made possible by new technologies.

“It’s an attitude about openness, freedom, and informality,” Tigerman said. She was sipping tea in LACMA’s café on a hot August morning, sitting on a curving red plywood chair you might call Eamesian. “It’s about casual living and comfort. There was a simultaneous concern that things be technologically sophisticated and attuned to human needs.”

Billed as the first comprehensive study of mid-century modern California design, the exhibition is one of about 70 shows at institutions around Southern California involved in “Pacific Standard Time: Art in Los Angeles, 1945–1980,” a huge Getty Foundation–funded project celebrating the city’s rich post-war art scene. (One other is the Orange County Museum of Art’s “State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970,” co-organized by the Berkeley Museum of Art/Pacific Film Archive.)

The LACMA show looks at the seminal Los Angeles modernist architects Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and John Lautner, but reaches beyond Lotus Land to tell its story. Those associated with Berkeley include Thomas Church, a 1922 Cal grad and landscape architecture teacher who is considered the father of the modern California garden; Garrett Eckbo ’35, the influential landscape architect and writer who studied and taught at Berkeley; and William Wurster ’19, the second-generation Bay Region master who designed low-key, livable houses that related to the landscape and artfully merged modernist ideas with local vernacular traditions. Marc Treib, M.A. ’69, the Berkeley architecture professor emeritus who has written about Wurster, characterized the architect’s woodsy houses as “everyday modernism.”

Wurster was dean of the Berkeley architecture department in the 1950s, then formed the College of Environmental Design in 1959 and served as its first dean. Since 1964, it’s been housed in the Brutalist building that bears his name and that of his wife, Catherine Bauer Wurster, a professor of City and Regional Planning. He also founded what is now called the Environmental Design Archives, a treasure trove of drawings, photographs, letters, project files, and other pieces documenting Northern California’s “built and landscaped environment” from 1890 to 1990.

The Archives, located on the second floor of Wurster Hall, focus on the Bay Area but also hold materials from designers and projects from around the country and abroad. It houses nearly 100 collections, including the papers and records of such important figures as Maybeck, Julia Morgan, Charles Moore, Church, Eckbo, and Joseph Esherick. (Esherick was the Cal prof who designed the Cannery, the demonstration houses at Sea Ranch, and co-designed Wurster Hall.)

The holdings also include the records of San Francisco architect Claude Oakland, one of several noted California architects tapped by the socially conscious Eichler to design modern houses for the many.

Eichler had fallen in love with modern architecture while renting the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Bazett House in Hillsborough. Aspiring to build tract houses with the grace of that modest redwood and brick structure, the developer hired Wright disciple Robert Anshen. Working with his San Francisco firm, Anshen + Allen, he created the first of Eichler’s architect-designed subdivisions in 1950, in Sunnyvale. The houses had post-and-beam structures with redwood siding and open floor plans, and sold for $9,500.

Oakland, who worked for Anshen + Allen before forming his own firm, designed many of the models for the 11,000 or so houses Eichler built in California in the 1950s and ’60s, the vast majority in the Bay Area. So did the prominent Los Angeles architect A. Quincy Jones. One of the architectural drawings the Berkeley archives loaned to LACMA is a 1966 Eichler plan designed by Jones and his partner, Frederick Emmons.

“Eichler thought people should be able to have a Bazett-like house for themselves, an affordable, high-design modern house,” said Lowell, the curator of the Environmental Design Archives.

In addition to the Eichler drawings that Lowell offered LACMA curators when they plumbed the archives last year, she also chose a pencil-on-paper drawing of the 1959 Finnie Residence in Oakland—a period classic with a carport and an atrium designed by Cal graduate Roger Lee ’41.

They also borrowed a famous Man Ray photograph, and another by Wayne Andrews, of the dramatic Weston Havens House on Panoramic Hill, a hidden masterwork of mid-century modern architecture. Built with three inverted triangular trusses that soar out over the Berkeley hills, it was designed by Harwell Hamilton Harris in 1940 for Weston Havens, the great-nephew of one of Berkeley’s founding fathers, Francis Kittredge Shattuck. The house is now owned by the College of Environmental Design. “The hard part was narrowing it down, because there were so many wonderful things,” said Lowell, an energetic woman who established CED’s formal archival program when she arrived on campus 14 years ago. The Archives loaned LACMA a large photographic reprint and a hand-colored lithograph of the 1948 iconic project in Sonoma, designed by Church for the Donnell family, whose famous kidney-shaped pool echoes the curving form of the Petaluma River meandering below. The place still belongs to the family and remains unchanged.

“It’s the definitive indoor/outdoor design,” Lowell said. “There’s a pavilion that George Rockrise designed with a glass wall that slides open, and the banquette continues outside. It’s fabulous. It’s a pretty perfect example of mid-century modernist California design.” The Donnell’s was not the first kidney-shaped pool design, but it popularized the style.

Such biomorphic forms, characteristic of Miró paintings and Noguchi sculptures, were big at the time. So was the early modernist idea of dissolving the rigid boundaries between rooms, creating open, flexible living spaces suited to modern family life.

“Living patterns became more informal after the war,” said Treib, who received master’s degrees in architecture and design at Berkeley, with Esherick as his thesis advisor. “Historically, houses had formal dining and living rooms and perhaps a breakfast nook in the kitchen. After the war, innovative house plans moved toward a single large living space.” In the United States, he added, there was little of the utopian social ideology that motivated modernists in post–World War I Europe. (As fellow architectural historian David Gebhard once put it, most European architectural movements lost their social agenda somewhere over the Atlantic.) Here, modernism tended to be more about style and form.

“But if you read what Neutra and others wrote, they did have social ideas about freedom, the emancipation of the woman from the kitchen. That was one of the reasons that the kitchen wasn’t supposed to be a separate room. It should be more open so that the wife can be available to supervise the kids if they’re playing outside. Or if she is preparing dinner—while the husband mixes drinks, of course—she should still be part of the entertaining group. Those ideas were just in the air.”

Many of those ideas were expressed in the experimental Case Study houses that Wurster, the Eameses, Pierre Koenig, and other top California architects designed under the aegis of Arts & Architecture magazine from 1945 to 1966. They were meant as models for affordable homes, “conceived within the spirit of our times,” as the magazine’s editor John Entenza wrote, “using as far as practicable, many war-born techniques and materials best suited to the expression of man’s life in the modern world.”

The LACMA show features a re-creation of the living room of the Eames landmark Case Study House No. 8 in Pacific Palisades. Built by the couple in 1949 with steel parts ordered from catalogs, the Eames House has a façade of black, white, and primary-colored panels that suggests a Mondrian painting. It’s now in need of some renovation, and the Eames foundation is doing the repairs while everything from the living room—including books, furniture, Hopi kachina dolls, Nepalese textiles, Mexican rugs, and assorted tchotchkes—is on view at the museum in a scale replica of the house.

One morning in August, Lowell and a visitor were joined in the Environmental Design Archives by Andrew Shanken, an associate professor of architecture who is writing a book about the architecture of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. They looked at a sampling of drawings from the files. One was a beautiful pastel of a BART station by Ernest Born ’22, M.A. ’23, a gifted architect who designed all the BART signage. Another shows a plan for an Oakland-designed Eichler with its trademark atrium.

“In his earliest houses, Frank Lloyd Wright makes the pinwheel design, and at the core is the hearth. That’s the warmth,” said Shanken. In a California home, he said, the hearth has been replaced by an atrium. “They replace the hearth with the sun, which I think is one of the pivotal moves of California architecture.”

Walk into the Havens House, which is hidden behind a 7-foot ivy-covered redwood fence, and you have no idea what to expect. Entering from the street, you cross a covered wooden bridge over what you later discover is the sunken courtyard where Havens and his friends played badminton. The front door opens into a low-ceilinged little hallway that ends at a cabinet. Off one side of the hallway is the kitchen, and off the other, a spiral wood staircase leads down to the courtyard and the sequestered bedrooms. As you turn at the cabinet, the world suddenly opens up: The ceiling dramatically rises and slopes skyward, and through a 10-foot-tall wall of glass you get a dazzling panoramic view of the Bay, Berkeley, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Mount Tam. The house, Harris wrote, “does not frame the view; it projects the viewer into it.” The architect drew on the Bay Area’s Arts and Crafts tradition, using unfinished redwood inside and out, and masterfully integrating the house into the landscape. Havens had a passion for modern design, and furnished the house with Finnish Alvar Aalto chairs and other pieces he bought on a 1938 trip to Scandinavia. He died in 2001, at the age of 97, and left the house to the university. Damaged by storms and worn down by the vicissitudes of time, it’s in need of repair and renovation, to the tune of $1.25 million. The College of Environmental Design puts up visiting professors there and arranges private tours, and is looking to raise $500,000 to add to the $750,000 that it and the University have already contributed.

Nobody’s building houses quite like Havens’s these days, but interest in mid-century modern architecture and design has surged over the last decade. Much of the stuff you see in Dwell magazine, whose tag line is “at home in the modern world,” comes out of the lean aesthetic of the 1950s. Vintage Eames chairs abound on eBay. A website called The Midcentury Modernist, started by the 34-year-old Oakland writer and typographer Stephen Coles, is dedicated to the design of the period.

This renewed passion is in part a reaction to the excesses of post-modernism, the McMansions, faux-Tudor facades, and overstuffed furniture. Or maybe there’s some truth to the dictum that we don’t like our parents’ taste but go for the stuff our grandparents had.

“People are rethinking small houses again,” said Lowell. “The whole monster home thing of the ’70s and ’80s—people got tired of that ostentatiousness. You can only eat so much whipped cream. You want to get back to your basic flavors. I think people appreciate a clean line.”

Jesse Hamlin ’75 has written about arts and culture for more than 30 years. A former staff writer and critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, to which he regularly contributes, his work has also appeared in The New York Times, Art & Auction, San Francisco Classical Voice, and Obit magazine.
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