Joan Crawford or Richard Neutra

Richard Neutra, Kaufmann House, Julius Shulman photographer

We recently decided to find a second house in Palm Springs. My mother would like to move there and escape the northern Nevada mountain weather. So it seemed like a good idea to find a place she could live in and the entire family could use. Years ago, I remember the Kaufmann House for sale. I seem to recall Barry Manilow owned it and it had been transformed from a gem of elegant forms to a dark Mediterranean monstrosity. At the time it was incredibly inexpensive. It's been beautifully restored by Marmol Radziner and Associates, but I don't have an extra $20 million in a shoe box.

I'd forgotten how depressing and, at the same time, exciting looking for a house could be. One house will look amazing outside, but the inside is terrifying. There are houses that have been horribly treated; flipped and filled with cheap fixtures and materials. Others that have the type of decor you can't believe exists. After one such house, after we left, I kept repeating, "I didn't know people like that really existed." I'm just not one for red velvet wall-coverings and oversized paintings of Joan Crawford.

But, on the other end of the spectrum, we found some well maintained and thoughtfully restored houses with beautiful views. I had hopes of finding an early California Cliff May ranch house, but the few we found were on the small side. I don't want to be that cliché and do the whole mid-century modern thing, but there's a whole lotta that in Palm Springs. And I have a rumpus room in LA filled with extra Saarinen chairs and tables. We're still looking, but I couldn't resist sharing some of the options. You can be the judge. There's something for everyone.

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/ He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Give Me The Simple Life

Several years ago I was at a photo shoot at a large estate in Santa Barbara. When I asked to use the restroom, I was directed to a tiny bathroom in the garage, the staff bathroom. Of course, I was shocked, dismayed, and indignant. Then I realized that this was probably karmic and I should be glad I wasn’t told to go down the hill to the gas station.

The thing that really bothered me, though, was how expensive this multi-million dollar house was (in the upper-teens) yet it looked exactly like a Macaroni Grill. It was designed in a Tuscan style with not an item out of place. Everything was brand spanking new. Each brick and stone was perfectly clean fresh from a box. There were no books, family portraits, or odd nick-knacks.

If you’ve ever watched Beautiful Homes on HGTV you know what I am describing. Each luxurious “beautiful home” is more overdone than the next. Yes, a closet probably cost more than my house, but all that marble, gilding, and brocade wallpaper. Why? I understand that most people don’t want to live in Philip Johnson’s Glass House, or deal with a waterfall in the house at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. But does anyone require a bedroom that looks like it belongs to a Disney Princess, or a kitchen that was designed to fit in at Versailles?

I look at Paul R. Williams’ houses and know this is the right way to do it. They’re beautiful, tasteful, elegant, and functional. They’re never overwrought or heavy handed. Williams took classical and simple forms and created warm spaces. If I were going to spend 18 million dollars on a house I’d buy the original family estate in Virginia, Castle Hill. Or, I’d buy a Paul Williams house, not a Macaroni Grill or Olive Garden disguised as a house.

For more: Williams/ grand-daughter, Karen Hudson monograph, Paul R. Williams, Classic Hollywood Style (source of many of these images). 

Paul R. Williams, Beverly Hills Hotel Suite, 1949

Goodbye Robert Venturi

I went to college at the height of the anti-modernist, semantic, deconstruction period. While this encouraged great debate and analysis, it made for lousy cocktail party conversation. The modernists had ruined the world with their evil black box buildings. They created banal and boring buildings. The graphic design was fine in its time, but didn’t work in a multi-cultural world of complex messaging. If something didn’t have at least five historical typographic references and a nod to rococo, it was a failure. More was more. Five varnishes and 12 colors, no problem. A plethora of meaningless forms, sounds pretty. And while you're at it, can you add some Greek columns and floral wallpaper?

I recall seeing The Fountainhead in Film History. In this scene (above) Howard Roark, our modernist hero, is asked to add columns and decorative bits to his pure building. He won't, of course. After the film many students disagreed with his position. They were insistent that the hideous post-modern applications brought his building to life.

In my Junior year, my comfortable post-modern world was turned upside down. I visited one of my professors who lived in a Richard Neutra house in Silverlake. I expected her house to be cold, impersonal, clinical, and boring. But, it was a revelation. The structure had harmony, grace, and elegance. It was surrounded by eucalyptus trees and was warm and inviting. Every space, from a doorway to a hall, was beautifully proportioned. How could I have been so wrong? How much time had I wasted deriding the true one God? I was converted. Today, this scene from The Fountainhead is painful to watch as the pure and simple beauty of the structure is vulgarized and abused like putting Grace Kelly in hooker heels, hot pink overalls, and a tie-dye t-shirt.


The Pleasure of Leaving

I spend too much time at LAX. But I have a system that works fairly well. I arrive 90 minutes before my flight. I go through security, head to the Admirals Club, and set up my computer and get to work. It all works very nicely. What I like best about LAX, however, isn’t the body revealing scanners, or the Crispy Chicken Crispers at Chilis. Down on the bottom level, in the long corridors connecting the gates to the exit and baggage claim is the most wonderful tile in Los Angeles. Why nobody has determined it to be “old” and torn it out is a miracle. It’s been there as long as I remember. I’ve tried taking photos of the tile in sequence to make one long photo, but TSA has stopped me. I don’t know why they think it’s dangerous to photograph tile. The next time you pass through LAX, go downstairs and check out the tile. It’s worth visiting Los Angeles just to see that, then turn around and fly home.

Paradise Lost

When I was 12, I thought the coolest building in the world was the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. It was futuristic and a monorail drove through it. When you are a 12 year-old boy, these are the criteria points used for architectural criticism. Today, I still think the Contemporary Resort is cool, but now for the Mary Blair mural in the Grand Canyon Concourse. The Contemporary has a sleek boutique W Hotel feel. That’s great if you like that, but I spend enough time in W Hotel rooms, so I’ve moved on to the Yacht Club. My clothing choices fit in better there also.

When I see images of the Contemporary when it first opened in 1971 it looks like the most magnificent vacation spot ever. It’s so groovy and chic. The color palette of avocado, burnt orange, brown, and butter yellow is magnificent. There was a happening supper club, the Top of the World, with live entertainment in the style of Lawrence Welk. The disco had a nifty Logan’s Run vibe. I imagine happy men dressed in their finest maroon suits and women in their floor length chiffon dresses dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band, but a more mellow version. I want to go to a conference where the dining room is all orange. But most importantly, there are giant acrylic trees in the lobby. I say to all the tasteful boutique hotels out there, “dump the beige ultra-suede. Put in autumn toned acrylic trees and psychedelic colored Navajo patterned carpet.”

The Sweetest Things in Life

Alvin Lustig made some purty nifty design. Often when a print designer turns to environmental work, the result is flat designs on a wall. Lustig’s collaboration with Victor Gruen for Barton’s Barton's Bonbonniere is a great example of his talent in spatial thinking. His solution is energetic, playful and takes advantage of the 3 dimensions from the ceiling to the floor. I can’t say I’d like to live there; it might drive me to drink. But what doesn’t?

I have friends from Brooklyn who remember Barton's Bonbonniere as a place to visit on special occasions. Viennese immigrant Stephen Klein established Barton’s in 1938. In the 1950s, Barton's had three kosher candy production plants in Brooklyn. Barton's was particularly known in the Jewish community for being "the" Passover chocolate of choice. In the 1960s, the Klein family sold the business.  Barton’s name was used by several parent companies until it was discontinued in 2009. I don't like candy, or chocolate, but I don't like that I can't visit Barton's Bonbonniere

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Cliff May ranch house

When we bought our first house, I told the realtor that we wanted a nice 1950s ranch style house. “Are you sure,” she asked several times. I was shown a great house with a knotty pine den, and kitchen that had won an award in 1955. But, we were also shown several 1930s Spanish Mission style houses. “Everyone loves these,” I was told. Nevertheless, we bought the ranch house. Now, ranch houses seem to be a sought after style. Today, it’s called mid-century modern. When I was 12, I spent hours drawing floor plans of ranch houses. Yes, it’s odd, and I’m sure points to a strange neurosis. They were all based on a book of Cliff May floor plans.

Cliff May was one of the most influential residential architects of the 20th century. He pioneered the ranch style house based on early California Spanish houses. These houses took advantage of the climate with an emphasis on the relationship between the indoors and outdoors. May described it clearly, “The early Californians had the right idea. They built for the seclusion and comfort of their families, for the enjoyment of relaxation in their homes. We want to perpetuate these ideas of home building.” Volume in San Francisco designed an incredible book on May. The book itself is worth having even if you despise ranch style houses.

In the hands of someone like May, these houses are remarkable, warm, and inviting. In other hands, you can end up with E.T. or Poltergeist -ville.

Delight and Disgust

Everyone loves a story about the misunderstood artist, reviled in his time, and then lauded in his old age. Morris Lapidus is that story. When the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau Hotels were built, Lapidus was called vulgar, pretentious, artificial, and tasteless. Both hotels, however, were incredibly successful. The design challenge was to build a hotel where “the guy who can afford to pay fifty bucks a day will look around and think that a fortune had been spent to create the hotel.” The result did this. Lapidus used a cinematic approach to architecture. His buildings look the way America in the 1950s thought luxury looked like, via Hollywood. Granted, some of the design, such as the Lapidus Residence bathroom, escapes me. But, if you like fancy, it sure is “fancified”.

I find it endlessly fascinating that populist work is typically deemed, “unworthy,” while something created for a small minority of elite intellectuals is “worthy.” If a basic tenet of Modernism is to create good design for the masses, this is contradictory. Lapidus weathered the decades of criticism and kept working. In 1970, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s critique of Lapidus was typical: “Lapidus is a sleazy, self-promoting careerist, an architect on the prestige-make. Lapidus is a well-known phenomenon in the profession. He made his pile and excuses his aberrations with the nauseating clichés of ‘what people want’ (as if taste pollution did not go the other way from designer to public).”

We can dissect the virulent antagonism in multiple ways. Since the work was designed to appeal to the masses in Florida, and was not in New York or Chicago, there is a distinct sense of regional and class elitism. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times that his work was “uninspired superschlock.” This was a criticism of Lapidus’s ornate decor, but Huxtable’s use of Yiddish words subtly raises the question of the hotel’s Jewish architect and clientele, suggesting anti-Semitism.

Fortunately, by the time Lapidus had retired, and was 97, the architecture community began to acknowledge his work. The book, Morris Lapidus: The Architecture of Joy, is a wonderful collection of exuberant and interesting work that challenges our ideas of taste and modernism.

Images below are from this book

The Wonderful World of Plastics

09 House of the Future

I love plastic. I know it’s bad, and I should demand fine china or beautiful crystal, but plastic works so well and doesn’t break. In 1957, Monsanto’s House of the Future opened at Disneyland. This house is made entirely of plastic. What a wonderful idea. No natural materials, everything can be hosed down, and children can throw things or throw up and there is no damage. The architecture has a “googie” vibe, and resembles 4 mobile homes connected in the middle, but it works for me. The House of the Future thrilled guests for a decade, then it was replaced in 1967. Rumor has it that the wrecking ball bounced off the side of the building, and it was taken apart in pieces. As the narration explains, “The floors on which you are walking, the gently sloping walls around you, and even the ceilings are made of plastics.” Could anything be more wonderful?

Where Hearts Were Entertaining June

I love when modernism goes horribly awry. This usually happens when a bad architect decides to emulate The Lever House and the result is a mirrored black ugly rectangle in the Valley. From what I can see, and I may go there someday and reverse my thinking, Brasilia is another example. Brasilia is the capital of Brazil. It was planned and constructed from 1956 to 1960 with Lúcio Costa, urban planner and Oscar Niemeyer, architect. From above, it is clear that the city was laid out in the shape of an airplane. In photographs it is unbelievably beautiful. The buildings are otherworldly, in a Jetsons kind of way. This seems to be the apex of mid-century modernism merged with fluid organic forms.

The missing component, though, is people. There aren’t many images of these buildings with large crowds. The structures look best isolated and lit by the harsh Brazilian sun. Actual human beings mess this up. If they all had matching haircuts and black jumpsuits it could work. I’d like to see some colorful umbrellas and picnic tables, or those wonderful open-air markets in Brazil on these broad white expanses. I imagine that once the photography stops, everyone runs out with ugly mismatched towels and little chairs to sunbathe. Or perhaps there are guards turning everyone away, “No, stop, no people allowed. Move back.”

Museu Oscar Niemeyer

Warts and All

Noreen's and my office

I love visiting other designers when I travel. Michael Vanderbyl’s office is, as expected, immaculate and classic. Pentagram in New York is a hotbed of activity and energy. VSA in Chicago is deeply impressive. Each office is consistent with the designer’s personality. When I’ve asked designers for photos of their office for a book or magazine I don’t get them. It’s like pulling teeth. You’d think I asked for personal sex videos. Typically, it’s because everyone feels like they need to clean up and have a professional shoot done. Bit that’s not real, and everyone seeing the final images thinks, “I’m a pig.” So here is a visit to AdamsMorioka with all the mess exposed. I came in early today before everyone was in and things were flying all over. I didn’t clean up anything. This is the reality.

We’re in the Flynt Building in Beverly Hills. William L. Pereira & Associates designed the building in 1972. It started life as the Great Western Bank Building, hence the 21 foot John Wayne sculpture at the entrance. AdamsMorioka is on the 6th floor. We face west; we have a great view all the way to the beach. But we get afternoon sun directly for half the day, so when people ask me why I’m tan, it’s my office. I’d love to say we demand a clean desk and spotless tables, but I can’t hold to that, so I can’t make everyone else do it. The one aspect we couldn’t control was our sign; it matches the signs throughout the building. We even offered to design a news signage program for free to fix it, but someone in building management loves brass and Tiffany. My biggest concern is that it’s a fairly open space and everyone is forced to hear my music. It ranges from Rosemary Clooney to 100 Strings. Today, I’m playing American music like America the Beautiful. It’s a hardship for those who decide to work here. But it could be worse, well maybe not.

8484 Wilshire Blvd

The beautiful Tiffany typography

lobby wall of posters, we running out of space, so we hide the ugly ones

The lobby wall

Conference Room

The library wall

Some books

These are the good designers who come to work early

The Shah of Iran poster that looks over the crew

Noreen's side of the room, bitmapped so she won't hurt me

My desk this morning

Today's donuts Noreen brought to make us fat

The tiny kitchen

The Devil's Net is Made with Onion Rings

Jack in the Box restaurant, 1964, courtesy of Charles Phoenix

I like to tell my crew, family, and friends, “We prove our resolve and courage by resisting temptation.” Oscar Wilde said, “Do you really think it is weakness that yields to temptation?  I tell you that there are terrible temptations which it requires strength, strength and courage to yield to.” And President Reagan said, “Middle age is when you're faced with two temptations and you choose the one that will get you home by nine o'clock.”

The Tacos at Jack in the Box, and Original Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken are two temptations that, like a narcotic to a junkie, sound so good as an idea, but end badly. They smell so nice and call to each person passing like Odysseus’ sirens. And then when you have finished your meal, you immediately feel deep regret and shame. “Why did I eat that?” I berate myself. Fortunately, this temptation only rears its head on long road trips, at the most once every two years.

The version designed in the early 1960s uses the entire building as a sign and a symbol. It’s clean, simple, and efficient—a masterpiece of modernism. Russell Forester designed the “big box” restaurant and said, “It’s not really a building. It’s an envelope to enclose machines to dispense food.” Meets the big tenets of modernism if you ask me. Plus the talking drive thru Jack (in the box) is so much more fun than a big board with illuminated photos of food. When I yield to temptation I want the whole cheesy enchilada with clowns, bright colors and wacky type, not a tasteful urban yet sophisticated attitude.

The Jack in the Box drive thru contraption

Jack in the Box, late 1950s

Let's Make a Pit

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957

One of the stories in David Sedaris’ Naked is about his Greek grandmother. At one point, she is moved into a high-rise complex for the elderly. Sedaris describes his visits:

I enjoyed pretending that this was my apartment and that Ya Ya was just visiting. “This is where I’ll be putting the wet bar,” I’d say pointing to her shabby dinette set. “The movie projector will go in the corner beside the shrine, and we’ll knock down the dividing wall to build a conversation pit.” “Okay,” Ya Ya would say, staring at her folded hands. “You make a pit.”

When I read this, my first thought was of the conversation pit at the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. Eero Saarinen designed the house in 1957, Dan Kiley designed the ground-breaking (no pun intended) modern landscape, and Alexander Girard designed the interiors. Of course, the house is a masterpiece of modern architecture and design. The interplay between the sleek and hand made folk art is remarkable, and the breakdown of the interior versus exterior space is elegant. But, I can’t stop thinking about that pit. When you are in there do you see everyone’s shoes when the move out of the pit? Does it promote licentious voyeurism from the ground level up? Do you set your drink on the floor/edge of the sofa? I ponder these questions. And there is something about conversation pits that screams “Key Party.” Maybe I won’t dig that hole in my living room.

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957, from exterior

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957, the pit

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957, dining room

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957, hall

Miller House exterior