The Secret is Out: American Modernist Silver

Designs by Gio Ponti and Raymond Loewy were once as close as your local jeweler. Now they’re even closer.

One of the most difficult areas in Mid-Century collecting is flatware: the famous patterns like Dansk’s “Fjord” are priced to the heavens, and lesser-known designs like those from the manufacturer Stanley Roberts are often hard to assemble into complete services. There is a way to have top-quality modernism from very famous designers at reasonable prices, and it’s found in a direction most collectors never think of taking: American sterling silver. Once the most expensive and luxurious of all metals commonly used for flatware, silver’s price has dropped so low that sterling can be less than half the price of stainless like “Fjord” or Arne Jacobsen’s “AJ”. It’s also much easier to care for than most people have any idea.

American modernist sterling began with an odd circumstance stemming from the end of World War II. Vast quantities of silver had been stockpiled for the war effort- many electronics of the era depended on it. When hostilities ceased, the stockpile was no longer needed, and was released to the open market at favorable prices. Makers of table silver seized the opportunity gladly, eager to market their product more broadly than ever before to consumers flush with savings; there had been little to spend wartime earnings on, and American bank accounts were bulging. The result was a huge silver industry push to get sterling flatware and holloware into homes that had never aspired to such luxe before. Arbiters of public taste like etiquette expert Emily Post were enlisted to let hoi polloi know that sterling, and only sterling, was the wedding gift of choice. Post’s rival, Amy Vanderbilt, went so far as to warn brides that an insistence on sterling gifts from friends was the only prudent thing to do: “If you don’t get your sterling now,” she warned, “you may never get it.”

 

Most sterling, of course, was in traditional designs, many of which had been in production for decades. But a new sensibility was emerging: the Art Deco designs of French silversmith Jean Puiforcat had influenced American manufacturers in the direction of simplicity. Gorham’s “Hunt Club”, introduced in 1931, was a first step, using a stylized palmette motif in Hollywood Moderne fashion. But true modernism was not to be seen in mass-market silver until 1948, and it arrived with a bang - Towle’s “Contour”. Exactly right for the mood of the late 1940’s, the pattern was fresh, new, like nothing ever seen before, and yet available in all the old familiar formally-oriented pieces, including holloware like coffee pots. Designed by John O. Van Koert, the sleek, biomorphic shapes of “Contour” were an instant hit; a bride could declare her allegiance to the future, yet reassure herself that the values of the past were still important.

“Contour” had little competition for a time, although Gorham tried with a 1954 pattern called “Theme”, which was decently well-designed, and a 1956 design named “Celeste”, which wasn’t. There was also a 1953 International Silver design known as “Silver Rhythm”, but the real turning point for modernist sterling came in 1957, with a pair of near-twins- Gorham’s “Stardust” and Wallace’s “Discovery”. Heavily copied in everything from quality stainless to 10-cent Woolworth’s chrome-plate, “Stardust” featured a motif of scattered starbursts on its handle, where “Discovery’s” pattern was seed-like. While they were roughly similar in appearance, their pedigrees were highly divergent. “Stardust” was done by a design team at Gorham whose members are not known, but “Discovery” was by no less than Raymond Loewy. Consumer acceptance of both was excellent, although “Stardust” seems to have sold more strongly, due to Gorham’s heavier advertising. Modernism was now a mainstream taste in sterling, and the next year, 1958, would be the beginning of palmy days.

THE BEGINNING: Towle’s Contour (1) was the first genuinely modern mass-produced sterling. Gorham’s Theme (2) was another early step in the direction of simplicity, but the company’s Celeste design (3) was a pseudo-modern riff on old floral themes. International Silver’s Silver Rhythm (4) was another early 1950s modern design. (Image Credit: © 1998-2003 Replacements, Ltd. Used by permission.)

THE BEGINNING: Towle’s Contour (1) was the first genuinely modern mass-produced sterling. Gorham’s Theme (2) was another early step in the direction of simplicity, but the company’s Celeste design (3) was a pseudo-modern riff on old floral themes. International Silver’s Silver Rhythm (4) was another early 1950s modern design. (Image Credit: © 1998-2003 Replacements, Ltd. Used by permission.)

MODERNISM GOES MAINSTREAM: Gorham’s Stardust (1) was a favorite of young brides in 1957. The lesser-known Discovery from Wallace (2) was from the design atelier of Raymond Loewy. (Image Credit: © 1998-2003 Replacements, Ltd. Used by permission.)

The most esteemed maker of American sterling, Reed & Barton, was coming late to modernist design, but it entered the market with a pattern of the highest design quality: “The Diamond” - or, as it was popularly referred to, just “Diamond”. Done under the auspices of R&B’s Director of Design, Danish-trained John Prip, “Diamond” began as a series of concept sketches commissioned from Gio Ponti. The Ponti sketches, based on the architect-designer’s favored diamond theme also used in his famous Pirelli Building, were beautiful, but Prip’s intensive training in practical matters of production told him that they were not going to be producible as drawn. Prip assigned R&B staffer Robert Ramp to work on the production aspects of the project, which included both a full line of flatware and holloware. By 1958, sterling holloware was not much in demand, due to high cost, but R&B’s “old money” customer expected to be served across the board. Uncommonly heavy, with an exceedingly luxurious feel and staggeringly perfect finish, “Diamond” was thesterling for those who liked their modernism to be top-of-the-line.

THE PONTI NO ONE KNOWS: Gio Ponti originated Reed & Barton’s highly successful 1958 pattern, The Diamond. R&B staffer Robert Ramp engineered the design for production under the direction of John Prip. (Image Credit: © 1998-2003 Replacements, Ltd. Used by permission.)

SUCCESS FOLLOWS SUCCESS: Kirk Stieff’s Signet (1), Lunt’s Raindrop (2), Gorham’s Firelight (3), Reed & Barton’s Lark and Dimension (4, 5), and Towle’s Vespera (6) were designs that followed the success of The Diamond. Gorham’s Classique (7) was quite similar to The Diamond, offering much the same look in a lighter weight, at a lower price. (Image Credit: © 1998-2003 Replacements, Ltd. Used by permission.)

 

Despite its cost, “Diamond” was a big seller, being the freshest, most distinctive design available, and its success inspired other manufacturers to get with the times, fast. Kirk Stieff weighed in with 1958’s “Signet”, and by 1959, Lunt had entered the market with its timeless, if somewhat lightweight, “Raindrop”. That same year also saw the introduction of Gorham’s “Firelight”, and in the new decade of the Sixties the stream of modernist sterling became a minor torrent. R&B’s John Prip came up with two designs more popularly priced than “Diamond”, his 1960 “Lark” and 1961’s “Dimension”. Towle brought out a pattern called “Vespera” in 1961, and that same year, Gorham designer Donald Colflesh decided to compete with “Diamond” on the most direct terms possible, imitation. His “Classique” was remarkably similar to the Ponti / Ramp design, but in a somewhat lighter, more affordable weight. Gorham also adopted a new marketing strategy for “Classique”- the pieces available were based on actual consumer preference, not outdated lists of what had always been offered. Banished were seldom-ordered pieces like fish knives and forks, and included were new “casual living” pieces like salad servers made of olive wood with sterling handles.

1961 also was the year that one of the most famous of all modernist patterns was put on the market - International Silver’s breathtakingly simple and beautiful “Vision”, still in production today. By 1962, the most famous producer of modernist tabletop, Dansk, was offering its own sterling pattern, designed by the company’s chief designer, Jens H. Quistgaard. Called “Tjorn”, it was a big departure for a company devoted to informal modernism; with the introduction of the pattern, Dansk entered the big time, able to compete with purveyors of traditional designs line-for-line, able to serve the wealthiest bride as well as any manufacturer. All these early 1960s patterns were modernist in the strictest sense, depending on exquisite line and superb surface development, and 1963 was the year of the very handsome Gorham pattern, “Esprit”. But by 1964, ornament reared its ugly head again; that year saw surface work applied to the formerly pristine “Classique”, resulting in a new Gorham pattern called “Damascene”. Suddenly surface work was all the rage; evidently some fans of The Latest Thing wanted their modernism warmed up a little.

YESTERDAY’S VISION - AND TODAY’S: International Silver’s Vision is still in production. Seemingly simple, the design’s shape is so complex that no single photograph can capture it; three views are shown here. (Image Credit: © 1998-2003 Replacements, Ltd. Used by permission.)

SCANDINAVIAN SIMPLICITY: Modernism was nothing new at Dansk Designs, but sterling silver didn’t enter the line until 1962, when Tjorn was introduced. (Image Credit: © 1998-2003 Replacements, Ltd. Used by permission.)

The trend continued; 1965 brought Wallace’s “Royal Satin” and Towle’s “R.S.V.P.”. Gorham’s “Esprit” was offered in two new decorative variations that were not really modernist at all, 1965’s “Gossamer” and 1966’s “White Paisley”. By 1967, John Prip’s latest for R&B, “Cellini”, had a florentine-finish handle (R&B’s “Cellini” is not to be confused with an older, non-modernist Gorham pattern of the same name). That same year, Prip’s “Diadem” was accented with a band of that most traditional silver ornamentation, beading, used in a new way. By 1969, designs had become decadent, with Oneida’s “Rubaiyat” showing just how far off-message modernism had become, and by 1970, it was really all over, with traditional patterns re-gaining lost ground of consumer acceptance. It had been a very interesting two decades, and we will probably never see anything like their burst of creativity again in mass-market silver manufacture.

DRIFTING AWAY: Gorham’s Esprit (1) was simplicity itself, but the company applied a cross-hatched decoration to the formerly pristine Classique to produce Damascene (2). Surface work also figured in Wallace’s Royal Satin (3) and Towle’s R.S.V.P. (4). Esprit was also the basis for two non-modernist variations, the florentined Gossamer (5; lemon fork shown), and White Paisley (6) with a traditional figure. Reed & Barton’s John Prip also began using surface work in his florentined Cellini (7) and his beaded Diadem (8). (Image Credit: © 1998-2003 Replacements, Ltd. Used by permission.)

 

THE END OF AN ERA: A close look at Oneida’s Rubaiyat shows that the overall shape is Scandinavian, but the handle’s heavy relief and piercing show that consumer taste had turned away from genuine modernism. (Image Credit: © 1998-2003 Replacements, Ltd. Used by permission.)

Today, modernist sterling lurks everywhere; those wedding gifts of the Fifties and Sixties turn up for sale all the time. Complete sets are not uncommon, both at online auctions and in estate sales. Expect to pay roughly $100 a place for most patterns in good, unscratched condition; “Diamond” often goes for more, due to the heavy weight that tells even ignorant sellers the pattern is extra-quality. There are ways to save money off even today’s low prices; antique fairs and flea markets often have a booth whose owner sells odd pieces of sterling at $7-10 per piece. Some combing and patience can pay big dividends here; a recent check of such a table piled high with unlovely-looking silver unearthed nine place pieces of Gorham’s “Classique” and a “Diamond” slotted serving spoon. The total was $70 for all ten pieces - much less than the price of one Dansk “Fjord” serving piece. Pieces that are scratched or bent are very often salvageable; almost every jeweler does minor silver repair or can refer you to someone who does it. If bargain-hunting does not yield a complete service of every piece you’d like to have, replacement services like Replacements, Ltd. ™ can fill in what’s missing. While replacement services’ pricing can be higher than that of other sources, the condition of their merchandise is perfect, their selection is very comprehensive, and their prices include the costs of extra services not found elsewhere. Replacement service silver will nearly always be in far better condition than anything you can find on your own - the extra cost is worth it for the choosy owner, or for that hard-to-find piece that just doesn’t turn up very often.

Now you know the best-kept secret in all of modern collectible design- there is modern silverware out there at good prices, with a nearly endless supply of replacement pieces. All you have to remember is one word- silver.

CARING FOR YOUR MODERN STERLING

Sterling has a bad rap - most people believe it has to be polished constantly. It’s simply not true; with proper use and care, you’ll have to polish no oftener than once or twice a year. Here are the basics; some tactics for dealing with damage follow:


Use your silver as often as possible, preferably every day. Constant handling and proper washing remove contaminants from the surface of the silver, making tarnish less likely to occur. If you have more place settings than family members, rotate the settings used, to even out the wear and to extend the benefits of handling to all your pieces. 

Hand-wash, then dry right away. Use the hottest water your hands are comfortable with; never use lemon or citrus-scented detergent, which is acidic. Also don’t use cleaners with chlorides. Wash and rinse in hot water, then dry immediately, to prevent water spotting. Never soak sterling; this can loosen knife handles and can roughen the silver’s surface.

Sorry, no dishwasher! The heat and chemicals used in machine dishwashing are murder on sterling. You’ll get away with it a few times, then you’ll start to notice a whitish haze on your flatware caused by alkali in the detergent. This is very difficult to remove, often requiring professional attention. It’s also possible to get black spots on the silver if any stainless steel comes in contact with it during the wash cycle, due to an electrolytic reaction between the two dissimilar metals. Worst of all, the heat in a dishwasher can loosen the cement that fastens knife blades to their handles, or even make the cement expand, bursting the handle along its soldered seams. Don’t risk it.

Protect between uses. It’s easy to keep air-borne contaminants away from silver; just pop a few 3M ® anti-tarnish strips into your flatware drawer, and change them periodically. If you’d rather, a drawer can be lined in Pacific Silvercloth ™, which will also keep tarnish at bay. Silver chests are lined in this material, too. If you can arrange it, it’s better to store silver in rows, laying each piece on its side, rather than stacking. This minimizes scratching. For long-term storage, Ziploc ™ bags are great, but never use plastic wrap. It can bond itself to silver, requiring professional removal. Never use a rubber band around silver; it will leave black tarnish wherever it touches.

No silver dips. Ever. These products work by a chemical action that is hard on your silver, and can cause damage if left on too long. They’re also capable of soaking into knife handles and hollow parts like teapot feet, creating expensive problems.

Sometimes, damage occurs in spite of everything you do, or perhaps you’ve found some sterling that has been neglected. Here’s how to make blackened, scratched, and damaged silver look great again:


Use a rouge-based polish to remove deep tarnish and light scratches. My preference here is Wenol ™, a German polish available at Williams-Sonoma and many hardware and kitchenware stores. The name is pronounced VEE-knoll. Simichrome ™ is pretty much the same thing. Both these polishes are capable of bringing up a deep luster on silver. They’re too abrasive for regular polishing; use them only once, for restoration purposes. Polish using a soft cotton cloth, and wash the silver after polishing, to remove polish residue. If you don’t want to deal with dark tarnish yourself, professional re-polishing is only $2-3 per piece. 

Re-polish, using a silver polish. I like Wright’s Silver Cream ™, which brings up a bright shine. Follow the directions on the container. There’s nothing toxic in Wright’s, so wiping all the polish off the silver is all that’s needed- no need to re-wash. You may prefer a different product; just follow directions, and you’ll be fine. 

If all else fails, call in the pros. If you’ve never owned silver, you’re in for a pleasant surprise: Unlike stainless, damage to sterling can usually be repaired. Jewelers and silversmiths can re-buff sterling to a like-new luster. They can straighten pieces bent in the disposall. They can even replace a broken knife blade. If you send a piece of sterling in for repair, be sure to send an identical piece in perfect shape to give the craftsman something to match his repair to. Do get an estimate before the repair is done; sometimes it’s cheaper to buy a new piece, especially at today’s prices.

Advanced Ownership

Some people need, or like, pieces that were never produced in their preferred pattern. One of the biggest secrets among sterling collectors is that pieces can be converted and adapted to make nearly anything you want. Teaspoons can be re-shaped to produce orange spoons. Serving spoons can be pierced to make them slotted. Knives can be shorn of their blades, and the sterling handle used for pieces like asparagus servers, fish slices, candle snuffers, and punch ladles. Knives can also have their blades replaced with ones in different shapes, like the special blade seen on fish knives. As long as these conversions are done by a qualified silversmith, they’re legitimate items in their own right.

One Last, Little-Known Tip:

It’s possible to buy pieces of patterns that are officially discontinued, brand-new. Most manufacturers have a special-request program, where they take requests for pieces in patterns no longer in their regular line. If demand is sufficient, the manufacturer will break out the dies for the pattern, and make enough new pieces to fill requests. R&B’s “Diamond” still can be obtained this way, and your silver retailer may be able to advise you on other patterns. Not all patterns are available this way; if there has been no demand for a very long time, the dies may have been destroyed. Also, dies wear out, and most discontinued patterns never achieve enough demand to warrant the expense of making new dies.

 

The author and Jetsetmodern wish to extend special thanks to Liam Sullivan of Replacements, Ltd., for his invaluable assistance with picture permissions, and to Rachael Potts of Replacements, Ltd., for providing the images. Visit the Replacements, Ltd. website at www.replacements.com.

SOURCES

The Website of Replacements, Ltd., www.replacements.com 
Telephone interview with John Prip, June, 1998. 
Emily Post’s Etiquette, by Emily Price Post. Funk and Wagnalls, New York, various editions. 
Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette, by Amy Vanderbilt. Doubleday, New York, 1962.

TRADEMARK / COPYRIGHT NOTICES

All photographs used in this article are © copyright 1998-2003 by Replacements, Ltd., Greensboro, NC. Used by permission of the copyright holder.

Dansk ®, Fjord ®, and Tjorn ® are trademarks of Lenox, Inc., a division of Brown-Forman Industries. 
Reed & Barton ™, Diamond ®, Lark ®, Dimension ®, Cellini ®, and Diadem ® are trademarks of Reed & Barton Silversmiths. 
International Silver ™ , Silver Rhythm ®, and Vision ® are trademarks of The International Silver Company.
Oneida ™, Vivant ®, and Rubaiyat ® are trademarks of Oneida, Inc. 
Wallace ™, Royal Satin ®, and Discovery ® are trademarks of Wallace Silversmiths, Inc. 
Kirk Stieff ™ and Signet ® are trademarks of Kirk Stieff. 
Lunt ™ and Raindrop ® are trademarks of Lunt Silversmiths. 
Gorham ™, Hunt Club ®, Classique ®, Damascene ®, Stardust ®, Esprit ®, Gossamer ®, White Paisley ®, 
Firelight ®, Theme ®, and Celeste ® are trademarks of Gorham Silver, Inc. 
Towle ™ no longer exists as an actual manufacturer; certain classic Towle designs are produced under license by other silver manufacturers. Contour, Vespera, and R.S.V.P. are not among them. 
All other trademarks designated by ™ and ® in this article are the property of their respective trademark owners.

 

The Secret is Out : American Modernist Sterling
Copyright © 2003 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on July 8, 2003.

Eugene Masselink, Assistant to Genius

If you needed to get down to brass tacks with Frank Lloyd Wright, you went through Eugene Masselink. Even if you were Frank Lloyd Wright.

IIn 1933, an eager young man joined the Taliesin Fellowship, and quickly made himself invaluable to its founder, Frank Lloyd Wright. Eugene Masselink, known as Gene to generations of Wright clients and people affiliated with Taliesin, became secretary to Wright, easing the path of a man who was notably casual about life's practicalities. He has been described as "one of the three pillars of Taliesin", with William Wesley Peters and John H. Howe being the others.

Eugene Masselink was born September 5, 1910 in Capetown, South Africa, soon moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he grew up. He showed talent early; his abstract paintings were shown in local art museum exhibits when he was still a teenager. His college years were spent at Ohio State, where he received his degree in 1933, the year he met Frank Lloyd Wright at a lecture Wright gave at the university. His invitation to join the Taliesin Fellowship came immediately after his graduation, and he accepted; he would remain at Taliesin for the rest of his life.

For three decades, Gene Masselink was the person who selflessly devoted himself to imposing order on Wright's affairs. Masselink was the one who attended to Wright's correspondence, writing the letters that accepted students, soothed clients, and answered press questions. He was entrusted with the most private and sensitive of Wright's letter-writing, including Wright's famous exchanges with Lewis Mumford. Not all his duties were on this plane; Masselink was also the man who fetched visitors from bus stations and airports. He was organizer of many of Wright's parties and events at both Taliesins, as well, and he originated the custom of referring to the ever-changing plethora of Taliesin apprentices as "the boys". But there was another side to Gene Masselink's contributions at Taliesin, as well- that of designer.

Masselink had an extraordinary talent for creating decorative elements, and many Wright structures have Masselink's work in them. The Price House in Bartlesville, OK has Masselink-designed mural screens, and the Price Tower has murals in red, copper, turquoise and gold that are his work. Many of the graphics on Taliesin literature were his designs, as well. In 1956, Gene was asked to handle important elements of a commission from one of the best-known arbiters of modernism in America, Elizabeth Gordon. Editor of House Beautiful, Gordon wanted a Wright-designed remodeling of the master bedroom in her Dobbs Ferry, NY estate. Masselink contributed most of the decorative elements to the project, including a mural screen with a stylized leaf motif, and an Edward Fields rug which continued the motif onto the floor. Masselink continued designing for Wright until the end, and beyond.

At the time of Frank Lloyd Wright's death in 1959, Wright had been working on several projects, including the Annunciation Greek Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin; Masselink once again filled in details for a Wright design. The icons in the church are Masselink's, and such was his thoroughness that he studied iconography extensively before beginning to draw. Masselink's final direct act of service to Wright was at Wright's funeral; Masselink was one of several associates who helped load Wright's coffin onto the simple horse-drawn wagon that was used to take it to the chapel where the service was held. Masselink and William Wesley Peters were the drivers. Sadly, Eugene Masselink outlived Frank Lloyd Wright by only a few brief years. In the middle of an ordinary work day at Taliesin, on July 15, 1962, he suffered a heart attack, dying in a local hospital later that day, not having quite reached his fifty-second birthday.

Today, Masselink's work for Wright is gaining recognition of its own, separate from its use in Wright projects. Masselink's talent for subordinating his contributions to the overall concept of a Wright project is becoming recognized as the finely honed skill it actually was. Whether Wright was basing a work on squares, or circles, or leaf shapes, Eugene Masselink was able to come up with exactly the right decorative theme for it, perfectly aligned with Wright's ideas. Masselink pieces are now very much in demand; his mural screens and rug for Elizabeth Gordon's bedroom recently auctioned for $26,000 at wright20.com. Not bad for a gentle talent who rarely shone in his own light during his lifetime.

 

 

The author wishes to thank Mr. Daniel Ruark for his invaluable assistance with key dates and events in the life of Eugene Masselink.

 

 

SOURCES

The Website of www.wright20.com 
The screens and rug for the Elizabeth Gordon commission can be seen at: www.wright20.com 
The Website of The Harvard Square Library, www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/unitarians/wright-FL.html 
Interview with Robert Green, Summer, 2003
Email correspondence with Daniel Ruark, Winter, 2003

 

Copyright © 2003, 2015 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on December 18, 2003. Republished March 19, 2015

The Rubin House: Memories of its Creation and Creator

Jeanne Spielman Rubin is one of a rare breed- she is not only the owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, she is the original client for whom the house was designed and built. Jetsetmodern is grateful to Ms. Rubin for sharing her recollections of Mr. Wright and the design process, and her appreciation for the final result. - Sandy McLendon
If it had not been such a hot summer day in Spring Green, Wisconsin, when we first met Frank Lloyd Wright, we wouldn’t have been so surprised to see him approach us with a wool scarf neatly tucked into his jacket. The man seemed full of surprises. His leonine features, majestic voice (that we had already heard on recordings), and formidable stature as an architect had all projected a much taller person than the one whose eyes were able to look straight into mine as we stood opposite each other, shaking hands. I was short. My husband was not much taller. Mr. Wright was still the giant- but, somehow, one with short legs. 

It was the moment we had long awaited. As a result of our visit to his Weltzheimer house in nearby Oberlin, Ohio- which, incidentally, was prompted by a  Cleveland Plain Dealernewspaper article about that house- we were encouraged by the proud new owners to contact the legendary architect, who turned out to be surprisingly approachable. The Weltzheimers told us, contrary to information given elsewhere, that they were able to build their house with less expense than would have been required for a traditional one largely because Mr. Wright, unlike many traditional architects, tried to stay within their budget. Having already suffered at the hands of one of the many, we decided to plunge ahead with Mr. Wright. As we talked, a little girl- perhaps three years of age at the time- kept polishing the expansive cement floor on her hands and knees, using a single sheet of facial tissue and a good deal of energy. The sun shone warm on the red cement and her golden hair.

Shortly after our initial letter to Mr. Wright, we received a request for a topographical map and a description of our family: size, occupations, hobbies, life style, etc. We answered: a one-acre, triangular-shaped heavily wooded lot, sloping down from front to back and from west to east; family of four: two parents, one a physician, the other a musician; two sons, ages eight and six; all, lovers of nature, casual lifestyle, and so forth. This response was soon followed by the announcement that we were in luck because such requirements had already been met in an unbuilt plan projected almost two decades earlier for Okemos, Michigan. As a result, the plan was submitted for our approval much sooner than it would have been without that good fortune. We also received a rendering (colored drawing of the finished product on its site, this one with the supposed lady of the house walking eastward on the terrace and holding a small bunch of red flowers evidently plucked from the bushes surrounding the terrace). Much as we would have liked to keep the rendering, it was returned within the time stipulated only to find, later, that it had disappeared along with others, possibly coincident with the departure of an apprentice. 

We felt, however, that certain modifications of the plan would be desirable. That was the purpose of our appointment. How Mr. Wright would react to modifications suggested by a client remained to be seen.

We were scheduled for two appointments--one in the morning and one in the afternoon, the latter one shortly after Mr. Wright, then an octogenarian, would be finished with his nap. Not knowing how long the trip to Spring Green would take and not wanting to take the chance of being late, we arrived early. Eugene Masselink, his secretary at the time, then took us on a leisurely tour of the valley. It had been home to two generations of the Master’s maternal ancestors, the Lloyd Joneses, before one of the daughters, Anna (really Hanna), married a William Russell Wright, whose scion would later bring it fame, if not fortune.

As we toured the grounds, we noticed a farm cart being decorated, costumes being carried quickly from some unknown source to some unknown destination, and altogether too much excitement for a normal weekend. Along the way, we were introduced to Mr. Wright’s son-in-law, Wes Peters, and his grandson, Brandock, who were both swaggering along a covered walkway, armed with double-holstered guns slung low over their hips and with fierce scowls on their otherwise fair countenances. Masselink explained that they were simply getting into character for their roles in the theme-party to take place that night. As they walked off, we could see Wes, well over six feet tall, bend his head to the side in order to clear a typically low-ceilinged area; his young son, about ten years of age at the time and considerably shorter, carried his head at the same angle.

Whenever the apprentices had been working too hard and needed a break, Masselink further explained, Mr. Wright would declare time out for a party. Out would come the trunks of costumes and trappings stored for such occasions, a theme for the party would be decided upon (this one was based on the antebellum south), and musicians would begin rehearsing (all apprentices either played some instrument, sang, or were learning to do so). The menu would be planned, servers and cooks assigned, and the party hall would be decked with flowers and greens. We couldn’t help envying those who were to enjoy the results of all that preparation. 

At some point along the tour, a messenger arrived, took our guide aside, and we were subsequently told that Mr. Wright would be ready to meet with us shortly. Oddly enough, in spite of that message, we were again taken to one of the spots we had already been shown. 

Not long after, Mr. Wright came forth, holding out his hand and looking dapper as a dandy. He appeared genuinely pleased to meet us and, while extending an invitation to the party that night, he repeatedly ran his hands back and forth over the tops of our boys’ “beaver” haircuts, one hand for each boy. “I understand that one of you is a musician. Which one?” Because his eye wandered back and forth between us, my husband hastened to clear himself of the charge by saying “not I- I’m physical”; then pointing toward me, “she’s musical.” Mr. Wright seemed much amused by that rapid-fire response. If there had been any remnants of initial trepidation on our part, they dissipated entirely. From then on, conversation flowed easily. Good thing. There was a lot to be discussed.

We wanted a basement, if only a partial one, even though we knew that this would not be characteristic of a Usonian house. Furthermore, we didn’t like the idea of the boiler, hot water tank, water softening tank, and incinerator taking up so much beautiful space on the ground floor. 

The first meeting took place in the schoolhouse of Mr. Wright’s aunts, on the same grounds as his residence, “Taliesin.” The deep balcony loomed large at the end of the spacious room in which we sat on small, three-legged stools. Experiencing some difficulty in distributing my weight on the little stool, I must have amused Mr. Wright. He kept smiling as he waited for me to settle down before saying “you can’t squirm on those, can you?”

Squirm I did soon after, when a battalion of bats flew through the open window under the eaves of the balcony and straight over our heads. I had known that he was not in favor of screens, which was consistent with his well-known philosophy of “letting the outside in.” (I, with an irrational phobia about flying things, decided that I would have to request an exception.) Again he smiled, and with a wave of his hand, as if to dismiss the terror, said "Fledermaus, only fledermaus.” 

While Mr. Wright was explaining some of his more prevalent architectural traits and their corresponding philosophies, such as the principle of “knitting” (overlapping, demonstrated by interlocking outstretched fingers of both hands), the simplicity of a good design, (“simple, but not as simple as a barn door”), etc., he was interrupted by the entrance of someone with arms held high, bearing long, black opera capes suspended from hangers in each hand. “Which one would you like to wear tonight?” After some deliberation, he settled on “The London one.” Then, looking at me, Mr. Wright said “you should have seen me before my hair turned grey.” Many years later, when I repeated the remark to apprentice Ling Po, he laughed and explained “he was flirting with you.” (Via the apprentice grapevine, I later heard that there was once a time when Mr. Wright tried to ward off his greying hair by rubbing it with pencil shavings.)

The conversation then turned to our issues: “Could we make this a little wider?” One question would be answered by another, sounding something like this: “Where do you want me to subtract the inches you want to add over there?” Then came the double concern that we hoped might be considered in tandem: “We would prefer that the main entrance not be through the carport where the boiler, hot water heater, water softener and incinerator were occupying valuable space in the ground floor utility room”; and “we live in tornado territory so might we have a basement?” “I don’t normally design basements but perhaps, if you really want one, we might arrange to have only a partial one, within the core, to which you could gain access through a trap door in the kitchen floor [an eight-inch-thick slab of solid cement].” “No thank you [with much laughter at what we thought was his sense of humor], we’ll take stairs.” “Where do you want me to subtract the inches you’ll need for your stairs?” And so it went, on and on. (Later, we were told that he really meant to design a trap door for the kitchen floor.)

Upon entering Mr. Wright’s residence for the second meeting, we were led to the study. As we passed the hall leading to private quarters, we caught a quick glimpse of a turquoise hoop skirt swooping around a corner and, of more interest, a rear window overlooking the same spot to which we had been brought for the second time in the morning. 

Mr. Wright proved to be a good deal more flexible than we had been led to believe. As a result, we now have one of the few Usonian houses, if not the only one, with a (partial) basement. Also, as a result of moving the utilities down to that basement, we now have a spacious parallelogram room (with large skylight and thick laminated maple counter top), which has served us well as a woodworking shop, breakfast room, studio, laundry room, or whatever our needs may have been at the time (we found that not only was the architect surprisingly flexible but also his architecture had unsuspected flexibility). Without a right angle in the room, we were forced to build a parallelogram corner table for the built-in 120-degree corner bench. “We” consisted of our family of four, who had also filled with bits of redwood dowels the thousands of holes, inside and out, created by countersunk cadmium screws that hold together the “plywood sandwich” walls consisting of redwood boards and battens on both sides of an inner sheet of plywood (no airspace between).

Mr. Wright, visibly pleased with his solution to the problems of what to do with the space opened up by moving utilities to the basement as well as of where to place the main entrance, called attention to the virtues of what he had newly created. Whereupon he sat back in admiration and declared the entrance to be “monumental.”

As he was working out that monumental entrance and other problems, we barely breathed for fear of disturbing the remarkable flow of creativity we were witnessing. In the meantime, our younger son had quietly sidled his way up to the hallowed desk, determined to ask a question: “How much does a horse like that cost?” he asked, pointing to a photograph of Mr. Wright’s grandson with a pony (gift of grandfather). Fortunately, the hallowed hands kept drawing.

L-o-n-g after, when those hands had completed their task, came the reply: “How much money do you have?” 

As evening descended, the dining and entertainment began. Outside, a decorated farm cart offered a variety of hors d’oeuvre and beverages. Inside, apprentices, resplendent in their large, blue-cuffed, canvas furnace gloves and wearing neatly folded towels over one arm awaited. Green boughs, transforming the inside to the outside, reached a climax of profusion in one corner where they formed a highlighted bower under which both the golden harp of turquoise-skirted Iovanna, Wright’s youngest daughter, and a string quartet playing Beethoven were sheltered. 

Mr. and Mrs. Wright led the dancing-- he in his London cape, she in formal raiment--as all watched before gradually joining them on the floor. Vaudeville-like skits were presented by apprentices impersonating Mr. Wright’s rivals, who used very large pointers while describing (with appropriate accents) the various features of their various “boxes” (much to the host’s delight). Choral renditions of songs of the old south rounded out the evening.

Looking back, I never did request permission for the screens I once wanted so badly. We soon added them, however, after having to hunt down the children’s clothing-dutifully cleared from the bathroom floor by our mongrel, Tippy, and found deposited all over our acre. 

The eastern boundary of our property, once exposed when a road was later cut through, has become so heavily shielded that passers-by are no longer aware of the house behind the shield.

Trees planted as saplings have grown to a degree that the house, once assaulted by summer heat burning down on bare roof, skylights, and terrace fully open to the sun, now enjoys cool shade throughout the warm months. Within the house, as before, wall-to-wall shade in the summer and wall-to-wall sunshine in winter miraculously appear, with or without trees, all monitored by depth of overhangs that are calculated in conjunction with the angle of the sun in all seasons. Within the past fifty-three years, both house and occupants have wrought changes in each other. Whereas I had originally changed draperies from wheat to yellow-green in the first decade, the house now changes “draperies” seasonally, from shimmering multi-greens to golden yellows, oranges, and reds, then, to sparkling white. This, plus watching our sun-pierced, “perforated windows” cast their patterns on inner walls--constantly migrating to new places, transforming shapes with every hour and every season, never exactly the same till the cycle returns the following year--cannot help but make any occupant fall more closely in step with the rhythms of Nature. 

That alone would be enough. Yet, from the first lighting of the central fireplace, which simultaneously set the other three (120-degree) living room window-walls ablaze, to our continual discoveries of inner-wall patterns in places never noticed before, the house never ceases to amaze and amuse us. All told, this particular creation by Mr. Wright seems to be as full of surprises as its creator.

Jeanne Spielman Rubin is emeritus professor of music, Kent State University, where she founded its Suzuki program for young children. She has also served as concertmaster of the Canton, OH and Akron, OH symphonies, and is a contributor to many research and professional journals devoted to music, architecture, and child education. In 2001, she published the results of her extensive investigations into the influence of crystalline structures found in Nature on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In Intimate Triangle: Architecture of Crystals, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Froebel Kindergarten, Ms. Rubin traces the immediate influence of the Froebel Gifts, educational aids created by Friedrich Froebel, on the young Wright. Her detective work also reveals that Froebel had been profoundly influenced by German crystallographer Samuel Weiss, and that crystalline structures first defined by Weiss pass through Froebel's teachings to emerge as Wright patterns and structures.

Intimate Triangle: Architecture of Crystals, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Froebel Kindergarten, by Jeanne Spielman Rubin, is published by Polycrystal Book Service, and is reviewed elsewhere in this issue. It is available through Amazon.

 

 

 

The Nature of Materials, Whatever

Stainless steel is everywhere right now. Except where it belongs.

I sn’t is gorgeous? Sleek, cool, luxurious-looking stainless is the latest thing, and it’s everywhere, at every price point. Designers have lavished it on everything. It looks so elegant, so functional. It almost never is.

As a result, there’s a great lesson in design going on, all around us, a class you can attend every time you shop. The nature of a valuable, useful material is being abused, in the name of fashion. How? A look at the material itself will tell you.

Stainless steel, first called Monel metal, was created as an alloy of steel, chromium and nickel, to give the world something it had never had before- a metal that was highly corrosion-resistant, with a natural bright luster that needed less maintenance than anything found in Nature. It’s been around since the 1920’s, making sinks, flatware, car trim, and lots of other things easier and cheaper to own and care for. So far, so good. When you put stainless to work in designs where corrosion-resistance and durability are important, and where easy washing is needed, it’s obviously an unbeatable material.

There have always been drawbacks to it, as everyone who has a stainless sink knows. It doesn’t corrode very readily, but it holds fingerprints, grease, and other household schmutz like a magnet. Every speck of dust that lands on it stands out like a beacon. So, it makes sense to use stainless where you don’t want rusting, and where you do want durability. It also makes sense to avoid its use where fingers and grease would make it unsightly, right? Yeah, right.

Looking at currently fashionable uses for stainless shows just how little appreciation many of today’s designers have for the nature of the material they’ve worked so hard to sneak past their company’s bean-counters. The biggest trend is to put it on the exterior of major appliances, like refrigerators, and hundreds of thousands of homeowners can tell you what’s wrong with that, because they’ve bought a stainless-fronted box and they wish they hadn’t. The reefer that looks so scrumptiously high-tech in the decorating magazines becomes a scabrous-looking mess when it’s in a house full of kids. Stainless shows every finger mark, and kids sure know how to leave ‘em.

I recently bought a toaster oven whose box screamed “Stainless Steel” in its ad copy. I didn’t buy it for that, I bought it because it was continuous-cleaning inside, and a good thing, too. The stainless on the appliance is confined to the top of the appliance’s outer shell; most of it is actually plastic. Inside, where stainless might actually have contributed something to the longevity of the toaster oven, none is used. The floor of the oven, its drip tray, and its racks are the cheapest grade of chrome-plate possible. An opportunity to give me a better appliance was passed up in favor of the chance to give me a more fashionable one.

I’m bemused by another fashion touch seen in kitchen layouts - the stainless-steel dishrack. This would seem to be a terrific use of stainless, because corrosion resistance is important around wet dishes. No argument there. But the material is hard and unforgiving, and care is needed to prevent chipping of dishes put in such a rack. Responding to this concern, some manufacturers have begun putting plastic tubing on some of the prongs that hold the dishes and glassware. The result is that a job done perfectly well by a Rubbermaid plastic drainer is almost adequately done by a stainless one costing ten times as much. 

Microwave ovens have gotten the stainless treatment, with mixed results. Some have it inside and out, and whatever the drawbacks of the exterior treatment, the stainless inside does make for a very durable unit. But many manufacturers of lower-priced machines obviously feel they can afford to put stainless in only one place, and I have yet to see one opt for putting it on the inside, where it would do their customers some good. 

Stainless trash cans with step-on pedals are hot right now. It must be admitted that they’re very good-looking, as slickly designed as a BMW. But the pail inside is the same plastic that cheap trash cans are made of, just as prone to cracking and splitting. When the pail dies, the outer shell is still beautiful, a worthy addition to the Museum of Modern Junk.

I regret that I’m not going to be around in two thousand years, when archaeologists are digging all this stuff up. They’re going to see, very clearly, just how far off-base our society was, as they dig up refrigerator doors, microwave outer shells, and all sorts of other essentially useless, once-fashionable artifacts from an ancient civilization. If mankind has recovered its respect for the products it wrests from the earth - and if there are to be archaeologists in the year 4003, it had better - heads will shake and tongues will cluck:  What were they thinking? Why didn’t they respect this stuff? Why did they apply a nearly indestructible material to their most ephemeral goods?

There’s hope, though. Today’s low prices for stainless mean that it’s being used for lots of housewares and tools where it really does make a difference, and the designers specifying it for those purposes are to be lauded. A trip to Big Lots recently turned up a stainless watering can worthy of the Bauhaus, one that should last practically forever. It has been a long time since a cheap chrome-plated kitchen utensil left a rusty mark on one of my dish towels. Looking for a soap dish last week, I found a stainless one for $3 from Farberware, of all companies, at Wal-Mart, of all places. A timeless Scandinavian design and a material that resists rust mean that it’s going to live with me a long time. Yes, it shows fingermarks, but a trip through the dishwasher cleans them off in a jiffy.

Try that with a refrigerator. Class dismissed.



The Nature of Materials, Whatever 
Copyright © 2003, 2015 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on September 24, 2003. Republished March 19, 2015.

Looking at currently fashionable uses for stainless shows just how little appreciation many of today’s designers have for the nature of the material they’ve worked so hard to sneak past their company’s bean-counters. The biggest trend is to put it on the exterior of major appliances, like refrigerators, and hundreds of thousands of homeowners can tell you what’s wrong with that, because they’ve bought a stainless-fronted box and they wish they hadn’t. The reefer that looks so scrumptiously high-tech in the decorating magazines becomes a scabrous-looking mess when it’s in a house full of kids. Stainless shows every finger mark, and kids sure know how to leave ‘em.

I recently bought a toaster oven whose box screamed “Stainless Steel” in its ad copy. I didn’t buy it for that, I bought it because it was continuous-cleaning inside, and a good thing, too. The stainless on the appliance is confined to the top of the appliance’s outer shell; most of it is actually plastic. Inside, where stainless might actually have contributed something to the longevity of the toaster oven, none is used. The floor of the oven, its drip tray, and its racks are the cheapest grade of chrome-plate possible. An opportunity to give me a better appliance was passed up in favor of the chance to give me a more fashionable one.

I’m bemused by another fashion touch seen in kitchen layouts - the stainless-steel dishrack. This would seem to be a terrific use of stainless, because corrosion resistance is important around wet dishes. No argument there. But the material is hard and unforgiving, and care is needed to prevent chipping of dishes put in such a rack. Responding to this concern, some manufacturers have begun putting plastic tubing on some of the prongs that hold the dishes and glassware. The result is that a job done perfectly well by a Rubbermaid plastic drainer is almost adequately done by a stainless one costing ten times as much. 

Microwave ovens have gotten the stainless treatment, with mixed results. Some have it inside and out, and whatever the drawbacks of the exterior treatment, the stainless inside does make for a very durable unit. But many manufacturers of lower-priced machines obviously feel they can afford to put stainless in only one place, and I have yet to see one opt for putting it on the inside, where it would do their customers some good. 

Stainless trash cans with step-on pedals are hot right now. It must be admitted that they’re very good-looking, as slickly designed as a BMW. But the pail inside is the same plastic that cheap trash cans are made of, just as prone to cracking and splitting. When the pail dies, the outer shell is still beautiful, a worthy addition to the Museum of Modern Junk.

I regret that I’m not going to be around in two thousand years, when archaeologists are digging all this stuff up. They’re going to see, very clearly, just how far off-base our society was, as they dig up refrigerator doors, microwave outer shells, and all sorts of other essentially useless, once-fashionable artifacts from an ancient civilization. If mankind has recovered its respect for the products it wrests from the earth - and if there are to be archaeologists in the year 4003, it had better - heads will shake and tongues will cluck:  What were they thinking? Why didn’t they respect this stuff? Why did they apply a nearly indestructible material to their most ephemeral goods?

There’s hope, though. Today’s low prices for stainless mean that it’s being used for lots of housewares and tools where it really does make a difference, and the designers specifying it for those purposes are to be lauded. A trip to Big Lots recently turned up a stainless watering can worthy of the Bauhaus, one that should last practically forever. It has been a long time since a cheap chrome-plated kitchen utensil left a rusty mark on one of my dish towels. Looking for a soap dish last week, I found a stainless one for $3 from Farberware, of all companies, at Wal-Mart, of all places. A timeless Scandinavian design and a material that resists rust mean that it’s going to live with me a long time. Yes, it shows fingermarks, but a trip through the dishwasher cleans them off in a jiffy.

Try that with a refrigerator. Class dismissed.



The Nature of Materials, Whatever 
Copyright © 2003, 2015 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on September 24, 2003. Republished March 19, 2015.

A Time Capsule, Wide Open: Modernism in Houston's Memorial Bend

The boom of the Fifties peaked in 1955, and if you want to go back and see just how high, wide and handsome things got that year, the place to visit is the Memorial Bend area of Houston, Texas. Built on 200 acres of low-cost land, the neighborhood was developed by a consortium of investors that included architect William Norman Floyd. 

The area exists today as a time capsule of higher-end Mid-Century subdivision architecture. Memorial Bend houses occupy a special niche they share with the fabled Eichlers of California’s Bay Area - architect-designed houses that were produced in large numbers, at affordable prices. Butterfly roofs and clerestory windows grace a rare surviving concentration of modern houses, some of which look as if they could have been built yesterday. Others are in unrestored or altered conditon, but interest and prices are rising.

Exactly as Eichler owners have done, Memorial Bend owners have banded together to preserve the history and unique character of their neighborhood. Resident Michael Brichford has been one of the most vocal and active proponents of preservation, working to educate Houstonians about how special it is to have an nearly intact subdivision of Mid-Century dream houses.

Brichford has created a website to help get the word out to Texans and lovers of modernism everywhere. The history of the area is extensively covered, with stories of original owners that are fascinating. Several architectural firms contributed to the area, and some information is available about them as well. An expansion of the site’s services is planned; blueprints and historical information are being gathered to help new owners learn more about their houses.

Visit the Memorial Bend Architecture site at http://users.ev1.net/~michaelb/bend/bend.htm 
If you’re in Houston, visit the area itself; it’s famous locally for the houses, and for its street names, which are taken from famous operas. See you on Traviata!

A Time Capsule, Wide Open
Copyright © 2003, 2015 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on September 30, 2003.  Republished March 19, 2015.

Modernism at the Movies: North by Northwest

 

How Alfred Hitchcock and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put a Frank Lloyd Wright house on top of Mount Rushmore in spite of common sense, Frank Lloyd Wright and the United States Government. Sort of.

 

I guess it’s only natural. Since I’m known as a modernism buff, Frank Lloyd Wright fan, movie freak, and Hitchcock addict, I hear the questions all the time: Where is the Frank Lloyd Wright house that was used in "North by Northwest"? Was it a real house? Was it based on a real FLLW design? Is it still on top of Mount Rushmore? Can I visit it?

The Vandamm House looks like a Frank Lloyd Wright design to most people; it isn’t.

The simple answers are no place, no, no, no, and no, but there’s much more to it than that. The house in "North by Northwest" has a history just as fascinating as any "real" dwelling ever built, as you’re about to find out.

The simple truth about the Vandamm house is that it was not a real structure, and that it was not designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was designed by MGM set designers for some very specific reasons; some of the reasons had to do with the movie’s plot, some were based in the mechanics of movie-making, and not a few were because Alfred Hitchcock had a point to make.

To understand how the Vandamm house came into "existence", you have to understand the main point of "North by Northwest". The complexities of the famous plot aside, it is about a man who is surrounded by the trappings of wealth, power and prestige- none of which are of any use to him whatever in his incredible adventure. "North by Northwest’s" hero, Roger Thornhill, is a Madison Avenue ad man who is abducted when he is mistaken for a spy. He’s kidnapped from the least likely place on the planet- right out from under the Everett Shinn murals in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel. Having made the point that even the safety of the most famous hotel in New York was useless to his film’s hero, Hitchcock went on to surround Roger Thornhill with example after example of late-1950’s luxury, and kept hammering the point that none of it did Thornhill any good. The assassins take Thornhill to the Phipps Estate on Long Island in a Cadillac limousine. He’s nearly killed later in a Mercedes roadster. He escapes back to the Plaza, then to the new United Nations Building. His adventures take him to Chicago via the Twentieth Century Limited, where he meets a female spy who possesses a Bergdorf Goodman wardrobe, a ruby necklace from Van Cleef & Arpels, and a new 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III convertible. From there, Thornhill’s adventures culminate in a visit to Mount Rushmore, where he finds the mastermind behind the assassins in a luxurious Modernist eyrie built almost on top of the monument.

Hitchcock had two basic reasons for all this luxe. First was the movie’s theme of isolation amidst luxury, of course. But there was another reason: "North by Northwest" was designed from its inception as a very, very commercial movie. Hitchcock knew the mass audience responded very well to being shown things and places they couldn’t really afford, as long as they were presented in a way that paid that audience the compliment of saying, "of course, you know all about this."

This presented a challenge for Hitchcock- one that, by all accounts, he had a great deal of fun meeting. He was faced with having to find places and things that were universally recognized as belonging to the rich and powerful; that mass audience being targeted by MGM could not be relied on to get the point of discreet luxury. For Hitchcock, this meant pleasurable tasks like personally selecting Eva Marie Saint’s wardrobe at Bergdorf’s- and making sure a Bergdorf label showed in one shot. It meant getting the cooperation of the Plaza and the equally famous Ambassador East in Chicago. And it meant coming up with a house for Vandamm.

Almost alone among the trappings chosen for "North by Northwest", the Vandamm house was a problem- or, rather, multiple problems. First was that it had to fulfill the recognition requirement; the house had to reek of sophistication and luxury. Second, it almost had to be a Modernist house; the rocky hills of South Dakota didn’t lend themselves to traditional architecture. And third, it had to be a Modernist house that was obviously in the same class of expensive good taste as the Plaza and the ruby necklace and the Lincoln and the Twentieth Century Limited. Hitchcock knew that there was only one way to fill these requirements- a Frank Lloyd Wright house. He ran into trouble almost immediately.

 


Mass-market magazines like House Beautifulkept Frank Lloyd Wright in the public eye with all-Wright issues; there was one in 1955 and this one done in 1959 as a tribute after Wright’s death.

 

To understand how the Vandamm house came into "existence", you have to understand the main point of "North by Northwest". The complexities of the famous plot aside, it is about a man who is surrounded by the trappings of wealth, power and prestige- none of which are of any use to him whatever in his incredible adventure. "North by Northwest’s" hero, Roger Thornhill, is a Madison Avenue ad man who is abducted when he is mistaken for a spy. He’s kidnapped from the least likely place on the planet- right out from under the Everett Shinn murals in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel. Having made the point that even the safety of the most famous hotel in New York was useless to his film’s hero, Hitchcock went on to surround Roger Thornhill with example after example of late-1950’s luxury, and kept hammering the point that none of it did Thornhill any good. The assassins take Thornhill to the Phipps Estate on Long Island in a Cadillac limousine. He’s nearly killed later in a Mercedes roadster. He escapes back to the Plaza, then to the new United Nations Building. His adventures take him to Chicago via the Twentieth Century Limited, where he meets a female spy who possesses a Bergdorf Goodman wardrobe, a ruby necklace from Van Cleef & Arpels, and a new 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III convertible. From there, Thornhill’s adventures culminate in a visit to Mount Rushmore, where he finds the mastermind behind the assassins in a luxurious Modernist eyrie built almost on top of the monument.

Hitchcock had two basic reasons for all this luxe. First was the movie’s theme of isolation amidst luxury, of course. But there was another reason: "North by Northwest" was designed from its inception as a very, very commercial movie. Hitchcock knew the mass audience responded very well to being shown things and places they couldn’t really afford, as long as they were presented in a way that paid that audience the compliment of saying, "of course, you know all about this."

This presented a challenge for Hitchcock- one that, by all accounts, he had a great deal of fun meeting. He was faced with having to find places and things that were universally recognized as belonging to the rich and powerful; that mass audience being targeted by MGM could not be relied on to get the point of discreet luxury. For Hitchcock, this meant pleasurable tasks like personally selecting Eva Marie Saint’s wardrobe at Bergdorf’s- and making sure a Bergdorf label showed in one shot. It meant getting the cooperation of the Plaza and the equally famous Ambassador East in Chicago. And it meant coming up with a house for Vandamm.

Almost alone among the trappings chosen for "North by Northwest", the Vandamm house was a problem- or, rather, multiple problems. First was that it had to fulfill the recognition requirement; the house had to reek of sophistication and luxury. Second, it almost had to be a Modernist house; the rocky hills of South Dakota didn’t lend themselves to traditional architecture. And third, it had to be a Modernist house that was obviously in the same class of expensive good taste as the Plaza and the ruby necklace and the Lincoln and the Twentieth Century Limited. Hitchcock knew that there was only one way to fill these requirements- a Frank Lloyd Wright house. He ran into trouble almost immediately.

 


Mass-market magazines like House Beautifulkept Frank Lloyd Wright in the public eye with all-Wright issues; there was one in 1955 and this one done in 1959 as a tribute after Wright’s death.

In 1958, when "North by Northwest" was in production, Frank Lloyd Wright was the most famous Modernist architect in the world. His magnum opus, "Fallingwater", was conceivably the most famous house anywhere. His renown in the Fifties was such that mass-market magazines like House Beautiful and House & Garden devoted entire issues to his work. If Hitchcock could put a Wright house in his movie, that mass audience was going to get the point right away. Wright was absolutely the man to fill the bill Hitchcock needed filled, but there were some snags along the way.


The biggest was that Frank Lloyd Wright was expensive, even by Hollywood standards. Wright had been approached by Warner Bros. in 1949, for "The Fountainhead"; the story of a Modernist architect cried out for Wright-designed sets. Wright was perfectly agreeable to doing the job, but talks broke down when he set his fee. He asked for a fee of ten percent- the standard architect’s fee he asked for any design. The Warners' people told him that a fee of ten percent of the set budget was high by their standards, but that they’d meet it- whereupon Wright coolly informed them that he’d meant ten percent of the movie’s budget. End of discussions. "The Fountainhead" ended up with sets by Edwin Carrere, and Wright never designed for any Hollywood movie.

Taking a page from Warners' book, Hitchcock seized upon the idea of having MGM staff design a house in Wright’s manner. It was a sensible idea; Wright used materials and themes in his designs that could be conveniently appropriated. All those magazine articles had already conditioned the audience to know that those materials and themes meant "Frank Lloyd Wright" and nobody else. Hitchcock would get the look and the recognition- without the expense.

Designing the house was one thing; building it would be quite another. Despite the plausibility of "North by Northwest’s" plot, its final sequences atop Mount Rushmore contained a major untruth. Far from being an area where a spy could build a mountaintop mansion, the top of the monument was considered so ecologically fragile that MGM researchers had to have special permits and U.S. Park Service escorts to visit. Building anything up there was absolutely out of the question. The research team photographed and measured, and came back with a plan.

The house would be created entirely in Culver City, where MGM was located. It would consist of a few sections built at full-scale, as movie sets. The exterior shots would depend on special effects. Certain shots would blend the sets together with the special effects, to create the illusion that the house was real.

The set designers on "North by Northwest" were Robert Boyle, William A. Horning, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvey. It has not been possible to sort out exactly which of these men was responsible for the house design, but whoever did it did his homework. The final design was of a hilltop house of limestone dressed and laid in the manner made famous by Wright, along with a concrete cantilever under the living room area. The house was correctly situated just under the top of its hill; Wright was famous for saying, "of the hill, not on top of the hill." The house’s massing- heavy with limestone in the rear where the house met the hillside, light with glass and concrete at the free end of the cantilever- was also correctly Wrightian. To the knowing, the design contained one element that would not have been used by Wright; there were steel beams supporting the cantilever. Wright would almost certainly have come up with an unsupported cantilever, as he did at "Fallingwater", but very few viewers would know that. It is also possible that the mass audience requirements for "North by Northwest" dictated the use of the beams; Hitchcock may have felt that a true Wright cantilever would distract audiences from the plot, making them wonder what on earth was holding the house up, instead of focusing on the action. In the event, the beams also served the plot by giving Cary Grant a way to climb into the house.

The portions of the house that were actually built were the living room, part of the bedroom wing, the carport, and a bit of hillside under the living room where the cantilever beams were. Most of the construction was of interiors only, but certain areas like the outside of the bedroom wing had their exteriors finished, so that they could be shot from inside looking out, or outside looking in. The interiors were masterpieces of deception: nearly nothing was what it appeared. The limestone walls were mostly plaster, real limestone was used in a few places where the camera would be very close. The expanses of window were mostly without glass; glass reflects camera crews and lights. For a few shots where reflections were needed, and could be controlled, glass was used in some places. And in the best tradition of movie-set building, some of the walls were "breakaways"- walls that looked perfectly real and solid, but were capable of being unbolted and taken away to accommodate the bulky VistaVision ® cameras used in 1958. An enormous black velvet cyclorama surrounded the sets, to give the illusion of a deep South Dakota night. All the house sequences were deliberately done as nighttime ones, because the special effects needed to create the house’s exteriors would be best concealed that way.

 


The luxurious Modernism of the house extended to its furnishings.
The living room set was dressed in the best of 1958’s furniture and art, and it makes a very interesting point. The furniture is largely Scandinavian Modern. There is Chinese art, and a Pre-Colombian statue figures prominently in the action. Greek flokati rugs are on the floors. Vandamm’s spying is meant to set the nations of the world at war, but it seems they co-exist peacefully enough under his roof!

 

The exterior sequences were done using a pre-digital technique called ‘matting’. In matte photography, a real location or set is combined with a painting; the real portion is then made to appear part of a larger area that does not actually exist. A very famous example is when Dorothy and her friends run toward the Emerald City in "The Wizard of Oz". The foreground with the actors and the deadly field of poppies is a set; the background is a painting. (See the sidebar article below for pictures and a simplified explanation of matting.)

And there it is- the truth about the Vandamm House. It’s not real, and it never was. It’s imagination and technology and our dreams, all wrapped up together. It’s exactly where we wanted a Hitchcock villain to live. And if it never existed in Rapid City, South Dakota, it is real where it counts- in the minds of the millions who have seen it, and loved it, and coveted it for their own.

And I like to think that Frank Lloyd Wright deserves at least part of the credit for that. 

Reel and Unreal: Matte Photography for the Novice

It’s an old story; a film script contains a scene that cannot possibly be filmed as written. Maybe it’s impossible to get permission to film where the scene is to take place, or maybe the place does not exist. Today, CG (computer-generated) effects can solve the problem, showing us everything from Roman arenas in "Gladiator" to dinosaurs in the "Jurassic Park" movies. In the old days, they did it with a process called matte photography.


 



Fig.1 - First, you film Cary Grant walking along a real road somewhere 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig. 2 - ...then you paint the rest of the scene 

 

 

 

 

Fig. 3 - ...and combine both images in the lab.

 

 

 

To simplify, matte photography, or matting, combines a real scene shot on a real location or a set, with fictional elements. Usually the fictional part of the image is what is known as a matte painting; it’s photo-realistic. The process of matting begins with shooting a scene like Cary Grant walking on a real road. In the lab, part of the image is removed, leaving a blank space (Fig. 1). A matte painting is prepared; it contains the rest of the desired image, such as Vandamm’s house in the background (Fig. 2). The matte painting has a blank area where the "real" image is to go. Film lab techniques combine the two images, and the illusion of Cary Grant walking toward a Frank Lloyd Wright house is complete (Fig. 3). Mattes are difficult to do, because so much depends on the quality of the painting and the precision of the match between real and painted areas. If you’ll look closely, Fig. 2 looks much less "real" by itself than it does on the screen; the reality of the foreground fools the eye into accepting the fake background. 

Author’s Note: The images shown here are not the original matte elements used in "North by Northwest"; those elements may not even exist any more, because MGM broke up and sold off all its physical properties beginning in 1969. These images are digital approximations of what those original elements probably looked like.

 

 

The simple answers are no place, no, no, no, and no, but there’s much more to it than that. The house in "North by Northwest" has a history just as fascinating as any "real" dwelling ever built, as you’re about to find out.

The simple truth about the Vandamm house is that it was not a real structure, and that it was not designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was designed by MGM set designers for some very specific reasons; some of the reasons had to do with the movie’s plot, some were based in the mechanics of movie-making, and not a few were because Alfred Hitchcock had a point to make.

To understand how the Vandamm house came into "existence", you have to understand the main point of "North by Northwest". The complexities of the famous plot aside, it is about a man who is surrounded by the trappings of wealth, power and prestige- none of which are of any use to him whatever in his incredible adventure. "North by Northwest’s" hero, Roger Thornhill, is a Madison Avenue ad man who is abducted when he is mistaken for a spy. He’s kidnapped from the least likely place on the planet- right out from under the Everett Shinn murals in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel. Having made the point that even the safety of the most famous hotel in New York was useless to his film’s hero, Hitchcock went on to surround Roger Thornhill with example after example of late-1950’s luxury, and kept hammering the point that none of it did Thornhill any good. The assassins take Thornhill to the Phipps Estate on Long Island in a Cadillac limousine. He’s nearly killed later in a Mercedes roadster. He escapes back to the Plaza, then to the new United Nations Building. His adventures take him to Chicago via the Twentieth Century Limited, where he meets a female spy who possesses a Bergdorf Goodman wardrobe, a ruby necklace from Van Cleef & Arpels, and a new 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III convertible. From there, Thornhill’s adventures culminate in a visit to Mount Rushmore, where he finds the mastermind behind the assassins in a luxurious Modernist eyrie built almost on top of the monument.

Hitchcock had two basic reasons for all this luxe. First was the movie’s theme of isolation amidst luxury, of course. But there was another reason: "North by Northwest" was designed from its inception as a very, very commercial movie. Hitchcock knew the mass audience responded very well to being shown things and places they couldn’t really afford, as long as they were presented in a way that paid that audience the compliment of saying, "of course, you know all about this."

This presented a challenge for Hitchcock- one that, by all accounts, he had a great deal of fun meeting. He was faced with having to find places and things that were universally recognized as belonging to the rich and powerful; that mass audience being targeted by MGM could not be relied on to get the point of discreet luxury. For Hitchcock, this meant pleasurable tasks like personally selecting Eva Marie Saint’s wardrobe at Bergdorf’s- and making sure a Bergdorf label showed in one shot. It meant getting the cooperation of the Plaza and the equally famous Ambassador East in Chicago. And it meant coming up with a house for Vandamm.

Almost alone among the trappings chosen for "North by Northwest", the Vandamm house was a problem- or, rather, multiple problems. First was that it had to fulfill the recognition requirement; the house had to reek of sophistication and luxury. Second, it almost had to be a Modernist house; the rocky hills of South Dakota didn’t lend themselves to traditional architecture. And third, it had to be a Modernist house that was obviously in the same class of expensive good taste as the Plaza and the ruby necklace and the Lincoln and the Twentieth Century Limited. Hitchcock knew that there was only one way to fill these requirements- a Frank Lloyd Wright house. He ran into trouble almost immediately.

 


Mass-market magazines like House Beautifulkept Frank Lloyd Wright in the public eye with all-Wright issues; there was one in 1955 and this one done in 1959 as a tribute after Wright’s death.

 

In 1958, when "North by Northwest" was in production, Frank Lloyd Wright was the most famous Modernist architect in the world. His magnum opus, "Fallingwater", was conceivably the most famous house anywhere. His renown in the Fifties was such that mass-market magazines like House Beautiful and House & Garden devoted entire issues to his work. If Hitchcock could put a Wright house in his movie, that mass audience was going to get the point right away. Wright was absolutely the man to fill the bill Hitchcock needed filled, but there were some snags along the way.

 

The biggest was that Frank Lloyd Wright was expensive, even by Hollywood standards. Wright had been approached by Warner Bros. in 1949, for "The Fountainhead"; the story of a Modernist architect cried out for Wright-designed sets. Wright was perfectly agreeable to doing the job, but talks broke down when he set his fee. He asked for a fee of ten percent- the standard architect’s fee he asked for any design. The Warners' people told him that a fee of ten percent of the set budget was high by their standards, but that they’d meet it- whereupon Wright coolly informed them that he’d meant ten percent of the movie’s budget. End of discussions. "The Fountainhead" ended up with sets by Edwin Carrere, and Wright never designed for any Hollywood movie.

Taking a page from Warners' book, Hitchcock seized upon the idea of having MGM staff design a house in Wright’s manner. It was a sensible idea; Wright used materials and themes in his designs that could be conveniently appropriated. All those magazine articles had already conditioned the audience to know that those materials and themes meant "Frank Lloyd Wright" and nobody else. Hitchcock would get the look and the recognition- without the expense.

Designing the house was one thing; building it would be quite another. Despite the plausibility of "North by Northwest’s" plot, its final sequences atop Mount Rushmore contained a major untruth. Far from being an area where a spy could build a mountaintop mansion, the top of the monument was considered so ecologically fragile that MGM researchers had to have special permits and U.S. Park Service escorts to visit. Building anything up there was absolutely out of the question. The research team photographed and measured, and came back with a plan.

The house would be created entirely in Culver City, where MGM was located. It would consist of a few sections built at full-scale, as movie sets. The exterior shots would depend on special effects. Certain shots would blend the sets together with the special effects, to create the illusion that the house was real.

The set designers on "North by Northwest" were Robert Boyle, William A. Horning, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvey. It has not been possible to sort out exactly which of these men was responsible for the house design, but whoever did it did his homework. The final design was of a hilltop house of limestone dressed and laid in the manner made famous by Wright, along with a concrete cantilever under the living room area. The house was correctly situated just under the top of its hill; Wright was famous for saying, "of the hill, not on top of the hill." The house’s massing- heavy with limestone in the rear where the house met the hillside, light with glass and concrete at the free end of the cantilever- was also correctly Wrightian. To the knowing, the design contained one element that would not have been used by Wright; there were steel beams supporting the cantilever. Wright would almost certainly have come up with an unsupported cantilever, as he did at "Fallingwater", but very few viewers would know that. It is also possible that the mass audience requirements for "North by Northwest" dictated the use of the beams; Hitchcock may have felt that a true Wright cantilever would distract audiences from the plot, making them wonder what on earth was holding the house up, instead of focusing on the action. In the event, the beams also served the plot by giving Cary Grant a way to climb into the house.

The portions of the house that were actually built were the living room, part of the bedroom wing, the carport, and a bit of hillside under the living room where the cantilever beams were. Most of the construction was of interiors only, but certain areas like the outside of the bedroom wing had their exteriors finished, so that they could be shot from inside looking out, or outside looking in. The interiors were masterpieces of deception: nearly nothing was what it appeared. The limestone walls were mostly plaster, real limestone was used in a few places where the camera would be very close. The expanses of window were mostly without glass; glass reflects camera crews and lights. For a few shots where reflections were needed, and could be controlled, glass was used in some places. And in the best tradition of movie-set building, some of the walls were "breakaways"- walls that looked perfectly real and solid, but were capable of being unbolted and taken away to accommodate the bulky VistaVision ® cameras used in 1958. An enormous black velvet cyclorama surrounded the sets, to give the illusion of a deep South Dakota night. All the house sequences were deliberately done as nighttime ones, because the special effects needed to create the house’s exteriors would be best concealed that way.

 


The luxurious Modernism of the house extended to its furnishings.
The living room set was dressed in the best of 1958’s furniture and art, and it makes a very interesting point. The furniture is largely Scandinavian Modern. There is Chinese art, and a Pre-Colombian statue figures prominently in the action. Greek flokati rugs are on the floors. Vandamm’s spying is meant to set the nations of the world at war, but it seems they co-exist peacefully enough under his roof!

 

The exterior sequences were done using a pre-digital technique called ‘matting’. In matte photography, a real location or set is combined with a painting; the real portion is then made to appear part of a larger area that does not actually exist. A very famous example is when Dorothy and her friends run toward the Emerald City in "The Wizard of Oz". The foreground with the actors and the deadly field of poppies is a set; the background is a painting. (See the sidebar article below for pictures and a simplified explanation of matting.)

And there it is- the truth about the Vandamm House. It’s not real, and it never was. It’s imagination and technology and our dreams, all wrapped up together. It’s exactly where we wanted a Hitchcock villain to live. And if it never existed in Rapid City, South Dakota, it is real where it counts- in the minds of the millions who have seen it, and loved it, and coveted it for their own.

And I like to think that Frank Lloyd Wright deserves at least part of the credit for that. 

 

 

 

Reel and Unreal: Matte Photography for the Novice

 

It’s an old story; a film script contains a scene that cannot possibly be filmed as written. Maybe it’s impossible to get permission to film where the scene is to take place, or maybe the place does not exist. Today, CG (computer-generated) effects can solve the problem, showing us everything from Roman arenas in "Gladiator" to dinosaurs in the "Jurassic Park" movies. In the old days, they did it with a process called matte photography.



Fig.1 - First, you film Cary Grant walking along a real road somewhere 

Fig. 2 - ...then you paint the rest of the scene 

Fig. 3 - ...and combine both images in the lab.

To simplify, matte photography, or matting, combines a real scene shot on a real location or a set, with fictional elements. Usually the fictional part of the image is what is known as a matte painting; it’s photo-realistic. The process of matting begins with shooting a scene like Cary Grant walking on a real road. In the lab, part of the image is removed, leaving a blank space (Fig. 1). A matte painting is prepared; it contains the rest of the desired image, such as Vandamm’s house in the background (Fig. 2). The matte painting has a blank area where the "real" image is to go. Film lab techniques combine the two images, and the illusion of Cary Grant walking toward a Frank Lloyd Wright house is complete (Fig. 3). Mattes are difficult to do, because so much depends on the quality of the painting and the precision of the match between real and painted areas. If you’ll look closely, Fig. 2 looks much less "real" by itself than it does on the screen; the reality of the foreground fools the eye into accepting the fake background. 

Author’s Note: The images shown here are not the original matte elements used in "North by Northwest"; those elements may not even exist any more, because MGM broke up and sold off all its physical properties beginning in 1969. These images are digital approximations of what those original elements probably looked like.

This article was originally posted on June 5th, 2001.   Republished March 19, 2015.   All Rights Reserved. Copyright (c) 2001, 2015, D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All Rights Reserved. 

 

 

New Wing at Corning Museum of Glass Invites the Light

The new Contemporary Art + Design Wing at the Corning Museum of Glass was inspired by Alvar Aalto's sensuous curved glass, according to this wonderful article in the NY Times:

The new Contemporary Art + Design Wing at the Corning Museum of Glass was inspired by Alvar Aalto's sensuous curved glass, according to this wonderful article in the NY Times:

New Wing at Corning Museum of Glass Invites the Light

 

By ALEXANDRA LANGEMARCH 12, 2015

CORNING, N.Y. — The first thing the architect Thomas Phifer did after being awarded the commission for the Corning Museum of Glass’s new 100,000-square-foot Contemporary Art + Design Wing here was to go back to his downtown Manhattan office and take an Alvar Aalto vase out on Varick Street. Aalto’s Savoy vase — the classic wedding gift for an architect — has thick glass walls that bend and curve, and a footprint that looks a little like a splotch. “It was a really sunny day, and as we looked at that vase in the light, it began to really glow,” Mr. Phifer said. “The more light you pushed into it, the more it glowed.”

Seeking Mr. Aalto’s timeless modernism, Mr. Phifer has been exploring the horizons of glass throughout his 18-year-old practice, exploiting its transparency, reflectivity and indeed the glow. He had been on the Corning museum’s radar since 2003 for his Taghkanic House, a visually delicate pavilion of light and white-painted steel fitting into an Arcadian landscape in the Hudson Valley, recalled Robert Cassetti, senior director for creative services and marketing at the museum. He also admired Mr. Phifer’s North Carolina Museum of Art, a series of aluminum-clad rectangles with 360 oval skylights cast in fiberglass. But could the architect conceive as stunning a plan for the world’s largest show house of contemporary glass art?

Mr. Phifer, whose practice also designed buildings for the Glenstoneprivate art collection in Maryland, was used to dealing with curators afraid of natural light, which can damage paintings and works on paper. The Corning museum, founded in 1951, holds 50,000 glass objects made over the past 3,500 years, telling the entire history of art through a single material. Funded by Corning, the new $64 million wing — which opens March 20 — finally allowed the museum to properly display large-scale works by Roni Horn, Liza Lou, Kiki Smith, Josiah McElheny and Fred Wilson, among others.

“We learned that contemporary glass can take an enormous amount of light and not get damaged,” said Mr. Phifer, whose office worked with engineers to make digital models of the lighting conditions for specific works on every day of the year; they also created physical models in-house that he took out to test in the sunshine.

This combination of high-tech and hands-on making would be repeated over and over in the process of designing, curating and fitting out the wing, which builds on Corning Inc.’s history of innovation, embodied by the museum’s superlative collection of modern glass buildings on its campus by architects from three generations: Harrison & Abramovitz (1951), Gunnar Birkerts (1980) and Smith-Miller + Hawkinson (2001, 2012).

From the outside, Mr. Phifer’s new wing looks like a giant white box, but that simplicity is achieved only through great attention to detail. Its three facades are entirely composed of oversize, almost seamless glass sheets, made opaque with a layer of white or gray silicone sandwiched in the middle. A few carefully placed windows are part of that same smooth surface, achieved by replacing the silicone with a scrim of baked-on white ceramic dots. The dots on the clear windows act like an architectural Instagram filter. “The landscape becomes brightened and heightened and has a slight whitewashing to it,” Mr. Phifer said. “It’s like shaking up a snow globe.”

Continue reading the main story

Mr. Phifer is a tall, dark-haired man dressed all in black, in sharp contrast to his office décor, models and architecture, which are primarily white. He is simultaneously mild and intense, friendly and thoroughly wrapped up in the details and processes required to get architecture just right.

Because glass can take the daylight, he devised a 26,000-square-foot ceiling covered in saw-tooth skylights of clear, opaque and translucent glass. The result is an interior filled with a spalike, almost particulate light. Sun streaking through the clear panes falls in bright diamonds on the pale floors and walls, and the effect, particularly after this long, cold, dark winter, is energizing — and that’s before you see any of the art. Within the rectangular building, each of the five new galleries is a different irregular shape with no right angles. As you walk the wraparound perimeter hallways, you see glimpses of the gemlike pieces through cutouts in the concrete walls.

Corning Inc. did not make glass used on the exterior of the building — the company has never manufactured architectural products — but its marquee product, Gorilla Glass, makes an appearance inside: The tough, thin surface of a billion mobile devices will be used for the first time on all of the display cases and barriers — protecting glass with glass — creating astonishingly thin, clear surrounds.

Gunnar Birkerts’s 1980 Corning museum building was in its time a curving essay in new glass technologies for architecture, paneled in glass rolled over stainless steel. “These galleries were built when all the work was small,” said the museum’s executive director, Karol Wight. “As our understanding and our technical control have improved over the last 50 years, the work got bigger.”

The museum also needed more space: In 2014, it received 440,000 visitors, 20,000 more than the previous year. Over 25 percent are from Asia, brought by tour buses stopping between New York and Niagara Falls. The new 500-seat amphitheater Hot Shop, a 1951 Steuben Glass factory renovated by Mr. Phifer, allows more visitors to experience glass in the making. The museum’s average visit time is four hours, and during the busy summer months, the glassblowing shows include simultaneous translation into Mandarin.

Tina Oldknow, senior curator of modern and contemporary glass, showed Mr. Phifer pieces that would be in the new galleries at the outset of the design process, and these drove architectural decisions. New works by Ms. Horn, Mr. Wilson and Klaus Moje were acquired during construction, to be shown in Corning for the first time. “Once we decided these works should sit on the floor, we began to imagine rooms without corners,” Mr. Phifer said. Entering, he said, “should be like walking into a cloud, with no distractions, allowing the works to levitate.”

The shape of wall cases for smaller pieces was inspired by a white vitrine filled with white glass objects made by Mr. McElheny after famous modern vases and goblets by designers like Josef Hoffmann and Tapio Wirkkala.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story

Continue reading the main story

One of the museum’s prized acquisitions is Ms. Horn’s glass monolithic sculpture “Untitled,” subtitled with a quotation from Flannery O’Connor (“The peacock likes to sit on gates or fenceposts and allow his tail to hang down,” it begins). It is part of a pioneering series in which Ms. Horn explored large-scale solid casting. The top surfaces of these tub-shaped pieces are untouched by human hand and look like water just about to brim over. Ms. Oldknow is installing “Untitled” in one of the wing’s wraparound hallways to catch changing reflections from the skylights and a window.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the visually weightless hanging pieces, including the most striking, Lino Tagliapietra’s “Endeavor” (2004), a fleet of 18 boats — or are they a flock of birds? — of different colors and textures skimming the curved wall, made by this native of Murano, an island known for glassblowing, at the age of 70. Javier Perez’s blood red Carroña (2011) looks like it has fallen and smashed on the ground, with taxidermied crows pecking at the remains. Ms. Oldknow describes it as mordant commentary on the declining state of the traditional glass industry in Murano, which makes it “so appropriate for a museum like ours,” which collects the history of glass making.

The Hot Shop, clad in new standing-seam metal paneling, is where Corning’s illustrious collection meets the future: The GlassLab programhas invited contemporary artists and designers to capitalize on the in-house expertise to execute ideas they can’t make themselves. For the opening weekend, the artist brothers Steven and William Ladd are planning a performance, aided by an infestation of glass ants the size of small dogs. In the weeks leading up to the opening, the hot glass staff members were blowing, pinching and assembling ants, working from a sketch the Ladds had sent. “They make little ants out of beads this big,” said Eric Meek, demonstrations supervisor, holding his fingers an inch apart. “Our crew can help them realize their dream. Artists have these crazy ideas, and when we execute it we can see how great it is.”

Correction: March 12, 2015 

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the new wing of the Corning Museum of Glass. It is called the Contemporary Art + Design Wing — not the North Wing. The article also misstated how many glass objects the museum has. It is 50,000, not 40,000.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/arts/design/new-wing-at-corning-museum-of-glass-invites-the-light.html#slideshow/100000003564770/100000003564774

Modernism from the Heartland: Gordon & Jane Martz

 

When two newlyweds in the Hoosier State tackled modern ceramic design, the whole world took notice.

The story of Gordon and Jane Martz's contributions to modern design and ceramics begins very simply: Boy meets girl. Girl marries boy. Boy and girl move to girl's home town. The Museum of Modern Art calls boy and girl. Boy and girl's lives change forever.

The creators of Martz lamps and pottery met at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where they were both students. Gordon and Jane Martz married when they graduated in 1951, and they began their married life by moving to Jane's home, Veedersburg, Indiana. Jane Marshall Martz was from the family that owned Marshall Studios, a lamp company founded in 1922 by Jane's grandmother, known affectionately in the family as "Muz". Jessie "Muz" Marshall had started her career hand-painting lampshades in her Indianapolis home. The shades led to lamp bases, and the bases led to a small Indianapolis factory producing a line of turned wood lamps with hand-painted shades. By 1951, the company had been in Veedersburg for ten years, in a building originally built as a WPA project. Marshall Studios was then in the hands of Jane's parents, Nicholas and Grace Marshall, who wanted the young couple to contribute their talents to the enterprise.

 

 

Pick and Choose: This color and decoration guide from a Marshall Studios catalogue shows how many colors and decors could be combined. Readers with a taste for advanced mathematics are invited to figure out how many variations were possible. [click this image to see a larger view]

Their talents were undeniable; both had had intensive ceramics and design training at the college, and Gordon's interest in engineering principles had been nurtured there, as well. Jane had gone to school for the sole purpose of getting the design and ceramics training she would need to expand and carry on the family business. Meeting Gordon there was lucky; Jane had not only found a husband, but someone she could work with as a team to realize all her dreams, and more. At Alfred, both Gordon and Jane had become first-rate ceramists, so their contributions to Marshall Studios would center around what they knew and loved best.

Veedersburg was a very small Indiana town of perhaps 1500 people, near the Wabash River, about 75 miles northwest of Indianapolis. Fortuitously for the Martzes' plans, it was in an area of clay soils, and had a history of ceramic businesses, although not ones based in fine design. Brick was what they made in Veedersburg; product from several local companies had been combined to build the famed "Brickyard" speedway used for the Indy 500 beginning in 1909. Gordon and Jane Martz began realizing their dreams by setting up a ceramics plant at Marshall Studios to produce lamp bases in the modern style they'd become trained in at Alfred.

Gordon began with some experimentation; the clay around Veedersburg was great for bricks, but yielded uneven results for pottery and ceramics. He eventually settled on a mixture of local and commercial clay, based on a formula he'd evolved at college. Once Gordon had invented the stoneware body he wanted to use, he and Jane began to design.

Coming into the Marshall family and company had shown Gordon that the company's customers appreciated the appearance of hand-made items, and that a hand-made look could be achieved under factory conditions. Although it was trickier to give factory-made ceramics that appearance than it was with painted lamp shades, Gordon and Jane Martz began devising ways to make it possible, and profitable.


The Martz Touch: Martz lamp bases were slip-cast for mass production, but in this shot, Marshall Studios employees can be seen applying incised decoration, designed by the Martzes, by hand.

Their basic tactic was to create different simple shapes in slip-cast ceramic that could be decorated in various ways, with techniques more commonly used by potters than in commercial production. A Martz design was never decorated with the decals and transfers common to most ceramic companies, and representational designs were seldom used. Gordon and Jane Martz broke their decorating techniques down to three simple methods that could be used singly, or in combination. There was incising, or scratching a design into a freshly glazed piece before firing. There was also dipping, which involved immersing a piece in a base color first, then dipping into other glazes to varying depths for a layered effect. And there was brushing, which involved lightly or loosely brushing glaze on to a piece, usually while it was being rotated on a vertical lathe. All three techniques could be learned by almost anyone, but making them look professionally applied was a skill the Martzes had to work hard to impart to others.

Fortunately, Marshall Studios had a work force - mostly family members at first - with a strong Indiana work ethic, and the three basic techniques began to be used on lamp bases the Martzes had designed. The first was the Martz No. 41, a simple columnar shape derived from the Bauhaus principles Gordon and Jane had been exposed to at Alfred. It also established the classic Martz design elements of an American walnut neck coming from the top of the ceramic base, and a walnut finial for the shade. Besides looking good, the walnut pieces utilized the Marshall Studios wood shop that had been set up to make wooden lamps. Beginning with this first design, the Martz tradition of making the product available in a wide variety of colors and decorations was established. Over two dozen glaze colors were eventually available, in both matte and gloss finishes. The No. 41 could be decorated with brushing, like black lightly brushed over dark blue, or incising, where the glaze color had a design scratched into it, so that the tan body showed through the glaze. The final flourish was the "Martz" signature incised on the base, next to the hole for the cord. With its simple, European good looks, so unlike the flashy, kitschy "modern" designs available from other companies, the No. 41 found a following, but there was more to come.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: This shot of the first Martz lamp design, the No. 41 shown on the left, shows the design quality of Martz lamps. In contrast, note the two badly designed painted plaster pseudo-Danish Modern lamps from another manufacturer at right.

The watershed product for Marshall was the Martz No. 101, an exquisitely simple teardrop shape in matte black. The Scandinavian-looking lamp was so pure in design, it came to the attention of a man who would change the fortunes of Marshall Studios for years to come. The man was Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., and he was with the Museum of Modern Art. Son of Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., who had commissioned "Fallingwater" from Frank Lloyd Wright, the younger Kaufmann was planning the 1953 Good Design Exhibition at MoMA. After seeing the No. 101, he made a telephone call to Veedersburg.

Gordon Martz hit it off with Edgar Kaufmann - or was it the other way around? - and the Martzes were invited to show the No. 101 in the exhibition. The two men found that they agreed on so many principles of ceramic design that Kaufmann asked Gordon Martz a favor. He needed an example of really dreadful bad taste for the show, to illustrate to museum-goers the difference between good and poor design. Using any manufacturer's real product for the purpose was out of the question, because of the possibility of a lawsuit. Gordon Martz obliged Kaufmann and MoMA with a howler of a bad lamp design, finished in a lurid metallic glaze. Shown uncredited, the lamp not only made its point, it enhanced the appeal of the No. 101. Stores began ordering the No.101 for customers who had seen it at Good Design, and the Martz line began to sell. And sell. And sell.


The Design MoMA Loved: The No. 101 was selected by Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. for the 1953 Good Design exhibit. The timeless design was produced until Marshall Studios was sold in 1989. The late shade design shown is not the same as the example in MoMA's permanent collection; the original shade was smaller.

The No. 101's success began three and a half decades of amazing commercial and artistic growth for both the Martzes and Marshall Studios. By 1956, the complexity of the business had grown to the point that Jane's brother John Marshall came in to handle the business end that Gordon and Jane didn't have enough time for. John's wife, Carolyn Marshall, also helped when her time allowed. The Martzes were now free to work on new designs and new decorations in the signature Scandinavian-based Martz style, which followed in fast profusion. Big lamps, little ones, tall narrow ones, and short squat ones began pouring out of the little plant on Mill Street, which eventually wasn't so little any more. Marshall Studios evolved into a very complex operation, making everything in-house, even lampshades. In an age before computers were available to keep track of orders, scheduling, and inventory, Marshall offered dozens of lamp styles in dozens of colors and more dozens of decorations, not to mention shade options. There were literally thousands of possible combinations, and Marshall Studios became famous for turning out huge orders of them error-free. Jane Martz was in the thick of all this activity, helping Gordon design, and doing whatever was needed to iron out problems of any kind. After 1960, Jane turned her hand to sales, where she proved to be a powerhouse.

 

Full Tilt: Here's how you provide shades for a thousand lamps every month. Note that different shade designs are running on the line at the same time; the non-computerized Marshall factory was set up to produce thousands of design variations.

By the early 1960's, sales had climbed to a point of around 1,000 lamps a month. Marshall Studios products of all descriptions were carried by department stores coast-to-coast, and Martz lamps enjoyed strong contract sales to hotel chains like Sheraton, due to the high quality and durability of the product. Martz lamps even went overseas. The General Services Administration (GSA) was an excellent Martz customer, purchasing lamps for American government offices and embassies all over the world. The Marshall Studios factory became expert at wiring for European voltage. Gordon Martz tells a funny story on himself about one batch of lamps he knew was destined for the American Embassy in Moscow: Before the felt was glued to the bottom of one lamp, he wrote "Kruschchev is a bum!" on the base. The "secret message" was duly shipped to Russia, where it may still exist, undiscovered. Although it was a fairly gentle rebuke at the Soviet leader, the joke could have been troublesome if it had come to light. At least the GSA would have known Gordon was a true-blue American.

 

Let's Dish: Wisteria (top) and Dot Dash (bottom) were two of the many lines of dinnerware produced by Marshall Studios. The Martzes' affinity for Scandinavian design can be seen in the Wisteria photo; that's Dansk's famed Fjord flatware beside it. Note the dual-purpose goblet/candlestick design.

By the 1970's, Marshall Studios products included the highly popular line of lamps, plus dinnerware, serving pieces, canisters, planters, carafes, cruets, tile-topped tables, bookends with inset tiles, and ashtrays. There was even a line of Martz-designed altarware offered through Cokesbury, a company specializing in church furniture, vestments, and supplies. Marshall employee Leon Lowe, who was a Veedersburg local prized within the company, usually decorated the altarware. Lowe's innate talent for reproducing decoration surpassed that of many trained ceramic artists, and Gordon Martz eventually gave him the accolade of allowing him to "freehand" decoration without using a cartoon.

 

 

Make the Most of It: The same wood shop and ceramic equipment used for Martz lamps were used to produce these tile-topped Marshall Studios tables. The black hen on the table at lower right is an example of Gordon Martz's studio work. The sculpture on the other table is by Marshall Studios employee John Gunther.

 

Nothing went to waste at Marshall Studios; every person, talent, opportunity, and resource was used to the fullest. Cuttings and trimmings from the wood shop were used to make small items like bookends. Gordon and Jane Martz's design and photography skills produced the company catalogues. The family's affiliation with the Methodist Church helped it to realize there was a need for altarware. Even the company watchdog and mascot, a bulldog named Brutus, lent his considerable personality to appearances in Marshall's sales literature.

 

Justifiable Pride: On Martz lamps, the entire lamp was UL-tested and approved, not just the socket. The attention to safety was the key to Marshall's strong hotel and government contract sales. That's the Martz signature beside the cord hole.

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, not even the excellence achieved by the Martzes' talent and the strong work ethic of the Marshall family. By the late 1970's, the demand for Modernism was slackening, and the traditional "family business" model of the Marshall Studios operation was becoming uncompetitive, through no fault of the company. Ceramics were being made more cheaply in Asia, and customers had changed as well; price had become more important than style or quality. By 1989, the sad decision was made to sell the business, which was closed by the new owners shortly thereafter. Gordon and Jane Martz retired, and so did John Marshall and his wife Carolyn.

Today, the Martzes are still very active people, at a time of life when most folks are content to sit and re-live their memories. Gordon and Jane live in Arkansas, in a community where many other artists reside; Gordon has been able to return to the studio pottery that was his first professional interest. His activities include showing his current studio work in galleries and juried shows, and his leisure-time loves, gardening and golf. Jane Martz is working on an autobiography telling about her life and the three generations of artistry in her family. John Marshall died in 1990. His wife Carolyn has remained in Veedersburg; she is highly active in the Methodist Church. In 2000, she was elected to a four-year term as Secretary of the United Methodist General Conference.

As befits their roots in the heartland, Gordon and Jane Martz are kind and generous with their friends and admirers. After all their years running a busy enterprise like Marshall Studios, they're able to handle anything. Even something like a magazine writer calling out of the blue, asking nosey questions, wanting to know all about a pair of young newlyweds who devoted their lives to putting Veedersburg, Indiana on the map of Modernism.

Buying Martz, Old and New

Old Martz:

Martz lamps have become very popular with collectors; single lamps regularly auction at Treadway and LAMA for $200-300. If you are looking for Martz lamps, here are some tips:

- The most popular Martz lamps are the ones with incised decoration; expect to pay a premium for these.
- A matched pair of lamps is worth more than two mismatched singles; count on a premium of at least 25%.
- Marshall Studios made some Gordon Martz-designed floor lamps in walnut, with and without tile-topped tables. These are very rare in good condition.
- Original shades increase value, and an original Martz walnut finial is necessary for a lamp to be considered complete.
- Some Martz lamp designs are a ceramic shape sitting on a walnut base, with a walnut cap on top of the ceramic. The walnut neck comes out of the top cap. These designs do not have the Martz signature; a Martz catalog picture or expert opinion should be relied upon to verify that such a lamp is actually a Martz.
- Missing Martz shades are difficult to replace, since the natural materials and drum shape used are not widely available today in retail stores. Shades can be replaced or refurbished by a company specializing in custom shades.
- Due to the popularity of Martz lamps, other companies made similar-appearing lamps, usually in plaster with a painted finish. A Martz lamp is always ceramic, or wood, or wood inset with tile, never plaster.
- There is a wide variation in the values of other Martz and Marshall Studios items; condition is important, and incised designs are usually the most sought-after. Complete sets of dinnerware are very rare, and buyers should expect to pay accordingly.
- Works marked "Martz Studios" are not Marshall Studios items by Gordon and Jane Martz. The "Martz Studios" mark appears on works by potter Karl Martz, who was not related. Karl Martz's son, Eric Martz, has a website (click here) with excellent information on Martz Studios and Karl Martz.

 

New Martz: Since his retirement from Marshall Studios, Gordon Martz is once again creating studio pieces.

 

Production and Studio pieces of Martz pottery are offered for sale here at www.jetsetmodern.com

 

Call or write for more information.
 

The author and Joe Kunkel wish to express gratitude to Gordon and Jane Martz for sharing their memories of Marshall Studios, Martz pottery and lamps, and their careers and family history. We are also grateful to the Martzes for their invaluable review of this article, and for their suggestions.

All images of Marshall Studios and Martz designs in this article are from the final Marshall Studios Commercial Catalogue Number 35, circa 1988. © 2002 Gordon and Jane Martz. Used by permission of Gordon and Jane Martz.

The Martz Script Signature ® appears by permission of Gordon and Jane Martz.

 

SOURCES

Marshall Studios Commercial Catalogue No. 35, 1988. Privately printed.
Telephone interview by the author with Gordon and Jane Martz, March 12th, 2002.
Correspondence from Jane Martz to the author, various dates between March 12th, 2002, and March 14th, 2002.
Response Daily, Issue 1, Page 4, May 14th, 1998. Response Magazine for United Methodist Women Website, http://gbgm-umc.org/response/
United Methodist News Service press release, dated May 8th, 2000.
A Treasury of Scandinavian Modernism, by Erik Zahle. New York, Golden Press, 1961.
Decorative Art in Modern Interiors, 1968/69 edition. Edited by Ella Moody. New York, Viking, 1968.
Bennett Brothers 1962 "Blue Book" Catalogue, Bennett Brothers, Chicago. Privately printed.
The Legendary Bricks of Indy, by John E. Blazier. The Gavin Historical Brick Company Website, www.historicalbricks.com.

To search this entire site by keyword, click here.

 

© copyright 2015 © copyright 2002 Joe Kunkel and Sandy McLendon and Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. This article was published on March 15, 2002.  Republished March 18, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Pierre Koenig

Anyone who loves Modernism knows Pierre Koenig's houses. They're rational, beautiful, glamorous statements of the free-wheeling California life. Touring a Koenig house, one can be forgiven for thinking that one has somehow walked into a marvelous Sixties movie; it's easy to imagine Matt Helm living in one of these glass-and-steel masterpieces, or maybe Peter Gunn. In such high-style surroundings, images of Cary Grant romancing Audrey Hepburn are not hard to conjure up, either- so it comes as something of a surprise to find that Pierre Koenig's work has just as much substance as style.

Koenig's work is so fresh it is hard to remember that his practice goes back half-a-century, to a time just after World War II. While still a student at USC's School of Architecture, Koenig did something very few students get to do: he built himself a house. Not just any house, either- it was an elegant glass-and-steel pavilion that attracted nationwide attention. At one stroke, Koenig established himself as a force in Modernist architecture; the echoes have not died down yet.


Koenig House (1950)

Pierre Koenig

Following Koenig's graduation in 1952, he began a practice that gained an enormous following. His houses captured the spirit of the post-war boom like no others; their open plans, easy glamour, and ease of maintenance were exactly what Los Angelenos wanted to chase the austerity of the war years. Koenig was in demand, immediately and continuously. He might easily have ended up with a roster of celebrity clients who wanted houses that looked good in Photoplay magazine layouts, as did Cliff May.

He did attract one celebrity commission, in fact: actress Jean Hagen and her husband Tom Seidel were Koenig clients who asked for both a main residence and a beach house. If Jean Hagen's name rings a bell, it should; she played the uproariously funny silent star 'Lina Lamont' in the MGM classic 'Singin' In the Rain'. Actor Seidel was not the star his wife was, but he had another side to his resume; he was also a builder, and so he put up his own Koenig houses, and some others as well. More Hollywood clients like these could have occupied Koenig most profitably, but the architect had other plans, and they began coming to pass in 1957, when 'Arts and Architecture' approached him for two houses to be built as part of the magazine's Case Study House program.

Pierre Koenig at the Movies...
Why Do Fools Fall in Love? Strangers When We Meet Galaxy Quest First Power 13th Floor Playing It By Heart Marrying Man.

Hollywood loves Pierre Koenig! His houses have been used in many films. Maybe you can't buy the house, but you can rent the movie.

Begun in 1945 by 'Arts and Architecture' publisher John Entenza, the Case Study program eventually encompassed thirty-six houses; Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood, and Koenig were just a few of the participating architects. Although a few Case Study designs were never built, the majority were, including two by Koenig; Case Study Houses 21 and 22.

Every Case Study house was innovative, exciting, and seemingly a direct window into the future, but Koenig gave even more to the program than the other architects did. His first five years of practice had given him tremendous experience with Los Angeles' hilly terrain and arid climate; he was already adept at siting houses so they took advantage of breezes and blocked out the worst of the sun. He was about to do much more.

 


CSH 21 (1958) Case Study House 21, designed in 1957, was built to take advantage of what was then considered an unbuildable lot. Koenig's first decision was that the house would dispense completely with the traditional program of driveway, lawn, landscaping, and impressively set-back house. The site plan allowed for a few feet of driveway terminating immediately in a carport that also sheltered the entrance; the street facade was geared toward the privacy of occupants, not the gratification of status-seekers. Only those permitted inside the discreet front door got to see what Koenig had accomplished where no one else wanted to build; a world of shelter, comfort, and style.

 

 

koenig007nm.jpg

Not terribly large, the house offered a sense of freedom, tranquility, and respite not easy to find in L.A.. Koenig's plan floated the house over its lot; expanses of glass made a stunning view part of every room. As handsomely sleek as CSH 21 was, it had much more than style; there were surprises at every turn.

One of the biggest was the house's sympathy with the prevailing climate; it was oriented to trap sun in the winter and shade it out in the summer. Another surprise was that a microclimate had been created around the structure, by the use of shallow reflecting pools; the pools aided the house and its grounds by providing evaporative cooling in the dry Los Angeles climate. The cooling effect was aided further by pumping water from the pools to the roof, where it was allowed to fall back to the pools through roof-level downspouts. Although Koenig, by his own admission, was not as aware of environmental issues in 1957 as he is today, his instincts served him well. Like virtually all Koenig houses, CSH 21 was built without air-conditioning; none of the house's various owners have seen fit to add it, no matter what other changes have been wrought in Koenig's work.

CSH 21 is highly unusual among modernist masterworks in that it has been treated to a comprehensive restoration at the hands of its original architect. For once, a restoration has brought a famous house back to its precise original intent; there has been no guesswork and no improvisation. Koenig's reworking of CSH 21 was so meticulous it took twice as long as the original construction. The kitchen is especially noteworthy; Koenig's original design had been largely replaced with a renovation unsuited to the house, necessitating a gutting of the space. Since today's materials and appliances are very different to those available in 1958, the architect painstakingly re-interpreted his original plan to accommodate them. The result is a crisp, sleek galley that sticks to the original plan without hinting at a re-creation of the 1950's.

CSH 21 embodies many principles that have become paradigmatic in Koenig's work; the sympathy with the climate, the creation of a microclimate, and above all, the reluctance to create a house dependent on mechanical systems. Pierre Koenig's view of mechanical systems is that they will- sooner or later- fail, and that a house should not rely on them for its survival or that of its inhabitants. This by no means indicates that Koenig is uncomfortable with technology; it simply shows that he is a supreme realist. It's interesting to compare CSH 21 with another glass-and-steel house of equal fame, Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. As beautiful as Farnsworth is, Mies cared nothing for the climate; the house is a unshaded glass box in a sunny meadow, and it was sweltering indeed before its present owner fitted an air-conditioning system. CSH 21's glass walls slide largely open for ventilation, and cross-ventilation has not been neglected.


CSH 22 (1960) CSH 21 has known fame and acclaim since it was first built; it was followed by CSH 22, a house on an even more 'unbuildable' lot. Where CSH 21 offers a feeling of connection to the hillside on which it was built, CSH 22 is about exhilaration; it hangs off its crag in a manner that hints of danger, while being perfectly safe- indeed, more stable in earthquakes than many of its neighbors. In recent years, Koenig has become even more adventurous; his recent Schwartz House handles its problem lot with stunning simplicity. In designing this house, Koenig was faced with a lot that was squared with the street, but whose best view was to be seen thirty degrees to the southwest. The lot was too small to permit a house set at an angle on the property; the project had to be built nearly to the lot lines to get the square footage needed by the client. Koenig's solution was to build a steel frame squared with the lot lines, and then to place another steel frame inside the first, twisted thirty degrees toward the desired view. In the 'USC Chronicle', writer Carol Tucker has described Schwartz as looking something like a gigantic Rubik's Cube; she's exactly right.

CSH 22 (1960)

What about now?
Koenig has come full circle; USC's wunderkind of 1952 is still there today, but now he teaches tomorrow's architects how to create architecture that is beautiful, durable, and respectful of the limitations of nature. One of Koenig's mantras is the importance of microclimates; students are told repeatedly to become familiar with climatic conditions on a building site, and to design for what actually exists there. Koenig refuses to allow anyone- students or himself- to repeat stock ideas; every project is a law unto itself. CSH 21 is an excellent example; its reflecting pools work beautifully in the Los Angeles climate to cool the house. The idea would be unusable in Florida or Georgia, where humidity is high; the pools would become stagnant, becoming a danger and discomfort to the house and its occupants. Students are given everything they need to learn how to site a house and to take full advantage of the microclimate surrounding it. One such tool is the heliodon, which simulates the fall of the sun onto a model house in every season, at every latitude and longitude. Students can see very clearly the need for refinements to their projects, based on what they observe the artificial sun doing to their designs. An overhang may need broadening to shield against summer sun; a window may need to be enlarged to get more solar gain in the winter. Shake tables give data on how designs will behave in earthquakes and aftershocks; Koenig's designs are famed for standing serenely during temblors that level other houses nearby. A wind tunnel can suggest ways to improve air flow through a model; cooling breezes are neither incidental nor accidental in Koenig's view.

 

As if Koenig's practice and teaching loads were not enough, he is a tireless lecturer and speaker, working with gusto to spread his views on what he terms 'sustainable architecture'. He tells the crowds he draws at MoMA and Arizona State and Yale that is possible to give man great comfort without dependency on failure-prone, energy-intensive heating and cooling systems. Koenig does not want climate controls; his message is that the climate should be managed.

 

The next time you see one of Koenig's houses- or one of the timeless Julius Schulman photographs- you now know their greatest secret. They have style in abundance, but they are really not about that at all. They're about Earth serving mankind, and mankind respecting Earth. That may be the most stylish notion Pierre Koenig ever had.

(c) 1999, 2000, D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher.
First posted to the Web on September 9, 2000.

Charles Eames and Ray Eames (USA, 1907-1978; 1912-1988)

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Charles Eames (1907–78) and Ray Eames (1912–88) gave shape to America's twentieth century. Their lives and work represented the nation's defining movements: the West Coast's coming-of-age, the economy's shift from making goods to producing information, and the global expansion of American culture. The Eameses embraced the era's visionary concept of modern design as an agent of social change, elevating it to a national agenda. Their evolution from furniture designers to cultural ambassadors demonstrated their boundless talents and the overlap of their interests with those of their country. In a rare era of shared objectives, the Eameses partnered with the federal government and the country's top businesses to lead the charge to modernize postwar America.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Charles Eames grew up in America's industrial heartland. As a young man he worked for engineers and manufacturers, anticipating his lifelong interest in mechanics and the complex working of things. Ray Kaiser, born in Sacramento, California, demonstrated her fascination with the abstract qualities of ordinary objects early on. She spent her formative years in the orbit of New York's modern art movements and participated in the first wave of American-born abstract artists.

 

http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/eames/bio.html