modern

The Brief but Notable Career of Gordon Drake

Originally posted October 22, 2009 on interiordesign.net

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When Gordon Drake died while skiing at age 35 in 1952, he accidentally ended an architectural career that was as meteoric as it was brief.  In seven years, he completed a scant dozen or so buildings, but his first two won national recognition in architectural competitions, and his reputation was such that his buildings, sketches, and writings influenced the postwar built environment, and inspired a book, “The California Houses of Gordon Drake,” published in 1956.

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Born in Texas, Drake served in the Marines during WWII and moved to the West Coast when discharged.  More than anything else, Drake was a California designer, working out his ideas with respect to local climate, topography, lifestyle, and mindset.  As he noted at the beginning of his career, “the dominant factor in the development of California’s domestic architecture has been the…lack of a stifling formal tradition. The resulting freedom of thought has given the architect an untrammeled concept that does not exist in other parts of the country.”  Drake’s contribution to this concept was a vision of the small house, artfully sited in nature, well suited to indoor-outdoor living, and affordable.

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Like many mid-century designers, Drake’s first project was done for himself, and at low cost.  Completed in 1946, the Drake house in Los Angeles won first Prize from Progressive Architecture in a competition aimed at raising contemporary standards for residential living.  An editor noted, “Seldom does one see work in which structure, site, and clients’ needs merge so completely in the process of design.” Recognition was also given to Drake’s next project, the Spillman House (also in LA), which won second prize in House and Garden’s 1947 Award in Architecture.

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Drake’s first houses served as a template for his subsequent work in terms of the liberal use of timber and plywood, in the centrality of light as a design element, in the integration of natural beauty with structure, and in the simple, modular construction methods. Wood was prevalent in California, and inexpensive.  Drake favored rough-hewn boards on the outside for form and texture, set off against the “magnificent sophistication of waxed plywood on the interior.”  Natural light was brought into the house through clerestories, glass gable ends, translucent screens, and glass walls.  Both natural and artificial light were modulated to create moods and meet use requirements.

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All of Drake’s efforts were intended to bring a decent quality of living to the general public, to make good design in architecture affordable.  As Walter Doty noted of Drake, “He felt that architecture was without meaning until it was used.  The publication of a prize-wining house meant very little unless it brought about the designing of thousands of houses…”  Drake himself sought an attitude of humility in himself and his building, stating “Buildings are judged by whether or not the people who live in them are happy or unhappy.”

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Looking at Drake’s work, one is struck by its restrained elegance, by its almost Asian sparseness and simplicity, by the beauty of its site, and by the seamless integration of indoor and outdoor spaces.  Indeed, his work is its most impressive and exceptional at the liminal—the boundary—between indoor and outdoor, the precise point at which California architects embraced their zeitgeist.  Most of the photos in the book stress this—doors or screens are shown open, so that outside space flows in, and vice versa.  And strictly interior shots are pedestrian compared to the beauty and originality of shots involving outdoor areas—shots of houses set in their surroundings, of adjacent terraces, patios, and gardens, of outdoor areas looking inside, or inside spaces looking out. 

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Drake’s work illustrates the new way of living developing in California after WWII. His career helped demonstrate the feasibility and even practicality of low-cost, high-quality design in domestic architecture, and expanded the sense of visual possibility in regard to indoor-outdoor living.

Modern Spanish Furniture

Originally posted September 17, 2009 on interiordesign.net

When you think of Spain, mid-century design is not the first thing that comes to mind…or the second…or third. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to name a single Spanish designer or architect working after Gaudi, except for Jose Luis Sert, who left Spain for America in 1938. I’m not sure why this is, but two possibilities suggest themselves.

First, Spanish modernism simply languished after WWII. Second, post-war Spanish modernism is out there to be rediscovered. Given the virtual absence of Spanish sources in the major design yearbooks of the mid-century—Arredimento Moderno, Studio Yearbook, New Furniture—and the presence of Latin American architects and designers such as Niemeyer, Tenreiro, and Rodrigues—it is tempting to conclude that less modernist work was produced in the mid-century in Spain than elsewhere, and what there was flew under the radar to begin with an exhibition held at The Met a few years ago, “Barcelona and Modernity: from Gaudi to Dali,” tracked Spanish art, architecture, and design in the first three decades of the twentieth century, from the glory of Gaudi to the reaction against the perceived excesses of Art Nouveau. 

By the 1920’s this reaction took two forms:  a revival of interest in tradition in architecture and handicraft, and the emergence of a school of minimalist rationalism that became the Spanish arm of CIAM and that culminated in the Barcelona Exhibition of 1929, with the famous Mies Pavilion and the Barcelona chair. After 1930, it seems that much of the story simply remains to be told. The strong impulses in Spain toward tradition and minimalism, coupled with Catholicism and fascism, may not have been conducive to the exuberant brand of mid-century modernism of Eames, Molina, and Finn Juhl, but they were not necessarily inimical either. Too, the Spanish mission style, transplanted to California, was one of the progenitors of 20th-century design. Sooner or later, we would expect to find Spanish modern design, whether pan-European or regional and idiomatic. The question is, where?

One answer is in the pages of “Arquitectura Interior,” a yearbook of design published in Madrid and edited by the architect Carlos Flores. I have four volumes in my library, 1959 and 1962-4. The 1959 volume provides something of a survey of the European and American modernism of the moment, and while it includes some indigenous Spanish design, the gist is that of spade work—a primer on the New Look for a constituency just being exposed to it.
By 1962, however, the task of defining and promoting Spanish modern design has begun in earnest. The introduction, roughly translated, predicts that contemporary Spanish living environments can soon be furnished with Spanish design exclusively.

While this confirms the supposition that there was little in the way of Spanish modern design through much of the 1950’s, the 1962 issue introduces us to a host of Spanish designers now plying the modern idiom, and doing so with confidence, inventiveness, and verve. I’ve singled out a cantilevered steel chair by Fernando Ramon, referencing Mies, as a point of departure; a table by Antonio de Moragas that channels mission in its solid simplicity, with a nod to the mid century in its flexibility—the top slides to any position—and demountability; an auditorium chair by Miguel Fisac with a nice posture and sculptural presence; a rakish three-legged plywood chair by Jose Dodero recalling Wegner, Prestini, and Tenreiro; a nice constructivist chair by Julio Bravo, et al; and a fluid lounge chair by Equipo 50 revealing its skeleton of wooden slats.

As for interior design, I was drawn to the clean, Spartan spaces that recalled Spanish monasticism, particularly the dorm room by Obra Sindical del Hogar y Arquitectura, and the foyer by Federico Correa and Alfonso Mil, with its bull’s horns. I also liked the varied textures and patterns in the interior by Oriol Bohigas and Jose Maria Martorelli. The names of these designers and architects may all be unfamiliar, but the work speaks across the decades, and there is no reason I can see why they should not be part of the current dialogue.

From top: steel and leather chair by Fernando Ramon; flexible coffee table by Antonio de Moragas; Constructivist chair by Brava, Lozano, and Pintado; chair by Miguel Fisac Spain; plywood chair by Jose Dodero; ribbed chair by Equipo 57; Cabinet by Salvador and Tomas Diaz Magro; interior by Obra Sindical del Hogar y Arquitectura; interior by Federico Correa and Alfonso Mila; interior by Oriol Bohigas and Jose Maria Martorelli.

Edward Wormley: Pictures from an Exhibition

Originally posted Septermber 3, 2009 on interiordesign.net

I’m finding it hard to believe it’s been 12 years since Lin-Weinberg presented its groundbreaking Wormley exhibition, and published the accompanying catalog, “Edward Wormley: The Other Face of Modernism.” While we could not take credit for discovering Wormley—he had remained on the radar, though his fortunes had slipped—we did help nudge him back toward the center of the modern design map.

Four years later, in the aftermath of 9/11, we revisited Wormley with an installation at Sanford Smith’s Modernism + Art20 show. Here, we attempted to create an interior that would merit Wormley’s approval. The work helped us put one foot in front of another through a very difficult period, and the results seemed to be appreciated by a shell-shocked design community. Here is what I wrote at the time:

“It has been four years since Lin-Weinberg presented [its] retrospective exhibition [on Wormley]. In this period, there has been a resurgence of interest in Wormley’s furniture designs, from icons such as the ‘Listen-to-Me’ chaise to unassuming side tables and benches. And this is justly so. Wormley possessed a keen eye for style and proportion, an ability to work both with fine materials and industrial techniques, and a commitment to comfort and flexibility. His best designs rank with the best designs of the period, either for usefulness and economic value, or for sheer exuberance and imagination.

Yet, Wormley’s rediscovered stature as a furniture designer should not obscure his talent and significance as an interior designer. From 1944 on, Wormley kept an office in New York City from which he took on residential commission work. He also designed the interiors for Dunbar showrooms, installations, and catalog layouts. Critics praised Dunbar showrooms for their aplomb and virtuosity, for adaptability, unerring taste, and sound, unpretentious good sense. A Wormley interior incorporated a broad range of influences, ranging freely across geography and time, drawing inspiration from East and West, past and present. Finishing touches included Moroccan rugs,  modern paintings, and African sculpture.  Wormley once called himself a middle ground designer, and indeed his work occupies an interior middle landscape, mediating between the agenda of the International Style and the often competing claims of tradition and craftsmanship. Wormley’s brand of modernism allowed for familiarity, memory, and personality. His interiors were templates for self-expression, balancing accent pieces for drama and excitement with an underlying architectural sensibility that favored clean lines and simple elegance.

More than as a designer of individual pieces of furniture, Wormley should be remembered for the living spaces he created. As an interior designer, Wormley anticipated a multitude of needs and built interiors “for the comfort, dignity, and sense of security of human beings.” (John Anderson, Playboy, 1961) Wormley’s aesthetic vision reached its fullest expression in his interiors. His was an art of assemblage, of juxtaposition and composition, whether of elements within a piece or of pieces within a setting. Our installation seeks to showcase Wormley’s ability to blend old and new, luxurious and simple, into a practical, harmonious, and dynamic modernist interior.”

Today, Wormley is recognized as the modern American master he was. His pieces sell at top galleries and auction houses, and are placed into projects by leading interior designers. Dunbar has even been revived, and is reproducing some of Wormley’s designs. Last year, Todd Merrill included a chapter on Wormley in his survey of American studio furniture, “Modern Americana: Studio Furniture from High Craft to High Glam.” And few people are asking, as they were at the exhibition opening in 1997, “Who is Wormley?”

‘Mon Oncle’

Originally posted October 23, 2008 on interiordesign.net

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I saw Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle” (1958) the other night at the behest of my [then] girlfriend/design partner Joan Michaels, who had seen it on cable a few nights before, and immediately rented it so she could show me the architecture, interiors, and furnishings.

I had not seen the movie in years, and we watched it closely, oogling (and eventually Googling) the interiors and trying to guess who designed the furniture, lighting, and decorations. Focusing on the furniture, I came to realize a few things about the film: Yes, it is a satiric send-up of modern technology and culture, a parable that opposes a modern world at once sleek, antiseptically clean, automated, superficial, and inhospitable with a traditional milieu that is spontaneous and convivial, if messy. And yes, Tati is a  latter day Chaplin (or present-day Lucille Ball?), a French everyman whose bumblings expose the sterility, fatuousness, and pretension of modern machine civilization. But people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and at least part of Tati occupies the modernist and strikingly beautiful Villa Arpel. And this is what Joan wanted me to see, and to write about.

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Tati was born in 1907 and came of age during the 1920’s, the heyday of avant-garde modernism, the era in France of Mallet-Stevens and a young Le Corbusier. If you plainly see in “Mon Oncle” Tati’s nostalgia for a traditional, older world (which, incidentally, was not about to disappear soon in 1950’s France), you also see the formative artistic pull of modernism. The Villa Arpel reflects a sensibility weened on Le Corbusier—it is an iteration of the “machine for living in,” with its technical gadgets, its decorative asperity, and its conspicuous lack of comfort.

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But even in the 1920’s, the machine for living in was more a polemical construct than an actuality. By 1956, no one near the mainstream was seriously advocating living in a machine, nor was minimalism apropos to a decade of rampant consumerism. The Villa Arpel was hence an easy target for satire—a clay pigeon, really—and an idiosyncratic vehicle for a parable.

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It was also an expression of Tati’s own artistic temperament. Tati was a mime with a mime’s economy of motion, gesture, and obviously, words. Minimalism is integral to this art form, and naturally extends to set design. It is not surprising, then, that the Villa Arpel is minimalist (“this is the vase”). What is surprising is how far beyond caricature Tati ventures. The Villa Arpel sets are brilliantly edited and meticulously executed, from the selection of furnishings, which include works by designers such as Baltensweiler, Chambost, Mategot, and Motte, to the spare and elegant arrangements of the pieces, to the vivid accents of color visible in the furniture and clothing, to the outdoor landscaping. The vistas are visually exciting and photographically beautiful. Tati needed only to construct a target for his arrows; instead, he created a tour-de-force of mid-century modernism that looks as fresh today as it did fifty years ago, and still resonates as an abstract work of art.  In its day, the Villa Arpel was copied by a fan as a residence; more recently, it has been the subject of museum exhibitions tracking Tati’s influence on modern design. In the end, the Villa Arpel was rendered with such aplomb and virtuosity, it was so clearly inspired, that it documents the undeniable joy, delight, and creative exuberance unleashed by avant-garde modernism, and this complicates the message of the film, or perhaps makes it a greater work of art.

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Nowhere is Tati’s ambivalence toward modernism more apparent than with the furniture he designed (along with Jacques Lagrange, his longtime set designer) for the Villa Arpel.  The three key pieces—the “Haricot” sofa (shaped like a bean), the rocking chair with the yellow seat, and the “Harper” sofa (think two tootsie rolls connected by a folded paper clip)—are designed to convey discomfort. At this they succeed, but again Tati goes further than needed.  The rocking chair has a long seat and short back, forcing M.  Arpel to slouch when seated, but this element creates an asymmetry that is visually exciting.  The Haricot sofa looks impossible to lounge upon, and Hulot is forced to turn it on its side to sleep on it.  Try this, though, and you will understand how much effort went into the design, which referenced both Perriand and Kiesler (the 1942 Peggy Guggenheim installation).The Harper sofa is shown with a woman perched rigidly on it, but it is the most beautiful of Tati’s designs—and one of the most striking sofas of the fifties—bridging the precision of the machine age and the sculptural presence of the mid-century (Lescaze meets Noguchi).  One could even argue that these pieces rate highly as good design; they are visually excellent and suited to purpose, given that their purpose is to look uncomfortable.  As a testament to their enduring appeal, all three designs were recently issued by Domeau & Peres in an edition of eight. Ironically, Tati anticipated not only the minimalism of the 1960’s but the limited-edition, not-for-comfort design/art of the present decade.

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The last word here goes to Joan, who noted both the timeless beauty of the Villa Arpel and the aesthetic appeal of the Plastac factory, with its abstract signage, its frosted glass doors, its chrome furniture, and its “beautiful hues of gray.” Joan caught the essence of Tati here: he sees modernism not in terms of black and white, but rather as a beautiful shade of gray.