Tag Archives: MODERNISM WEEK

#167: MID-CENTURY MODERNISM: POINT OF DEPARTURE

March 24, 2023

Linea Residence G, Palm Springs, California (w/ Andrew Adler, photo by Hunter Kerhart)

100,000 attendees descended on Palm Springs last month for Modernism Week 2023, the 10-day design festival celebrating Mid-Century Modernism (“MCM”). As a feature lecturer, I presented The Myth of Mid-Century Modernism—positing that we honor the design style of the 1950s and 1960s, but should not embalm it. For the thousands of MCM fans and fanatics, my position was blasphemous of sorts.

Speaking at the Annenberg Theater, Palm Springs (photo by Olive Stays)

There are a dozen ideas from MCM that serve well as design themes—to be adapted not regurgitated. Acknowledge past legacies, but look forward not backward.

Case Study House #9 / Entenza House, 1950, Pacific Palisades, California, by Eames and Saarinen (photo by Julius Shulman)
Herget Middle School, Aurora, Illinois (w/ A4E and Cordogan Clark, photo by Mark Ballogg)

The MCM concept of the open floor plan countered the traditional compartmentalization of homes. At Poon Design, we applied the open floor plan to the design of a middle school. Rather than the conventional 12-foot wide by 10-foot tall, congested hallway lined with lockers, we created a 60-foot wide by 30-foot tall corridor—more a central atrium. Within sits the community functions open and accessible—library, math amphitheater, woodshop, and social areas.

Mirman Residence, 1959, Arcadia, California, by Buff, Straub and Hensman (photo by Julius Shulman)
Linea Residence L, Palm Springs, California (w/ Andrew Adler, photos by James Butchart)

In California, we are blessed with moderate climate—not too hot, not too cold—that allows us to bring the outside in, blurring the division between interior and exterior. With today’s advanced engineering, the span of openings are wider. Technology even allows for sliding doors to disappear into walls.

Case Study House #22 / Stahl House, 1960, Los Angeles, California, by Pierre Koenig (photo by Julius Shulman / J. Paul Getty Trust
14th Shamarpa Reliquary Building, Natural Bridge, Virginia (photos by Mark Ballogg)

Expansive walls of glass are prevalent in MCM homes. Here, we apply the ideas of lightness and transparency to a Buddhist temple. In the day, the walls of glass mirror the surrounding landscape, and at night, the glass disappears.

top: Alexander Home, Twin Palms, 1955, by William Krisel; bottom: Park Imperial South, 1960, by Barry A. Berkus, Palm Springs, California (photos from palmspringslife.com)
Feather River Academy, Yuba City, California (w/ A4E, photo by Gregory Blore)

Often called the “butterfly” and “accordion” roof, we used such shapes not as an MCM gesture on a house, but as a unifying theme throughout a high school campus. Our roof lines recall the local mountains and serves as a metaphor for the institution’s mission statement, “Learning in Action.”

Frey House II, 1964, Palm Springs, California, by Albert Frey (photo from psmuseum.org)
top and bottom left: Mendocino Farms 3rd and Fairfax; bottom right: Mendocino Farms Fig at 7th, Los Angeles, California (photos by Poon Design)

A restaurant can capture the imagination through wit and charm by applying 400 wood clothespins on chicken wire making a chandelier, faux grass expressing a new concept of the American picnic, and a mural-like chalkboard continuous from wall to ceiling.

top: Century Modern Pattern 01 (from happywall.com); bottom: color palette (from kathykuohome.com)
top left: Vosges Haut-Chocolat Factory and Headquarters, Chicago, Illinois (photo by Anthony Poon); top middle: Joss Cuisine, Beverly Hills, California (photo by Poon Design); top right and second row left: S/B Residence, Encino, California (photo by Poon Design); second row middle: Greenman Elementary School, West Aurora, Illinois (w/ A4E and Cordogan Clark, photo by Mark Ballogg); bottom left: Coral Mountain Residence C, La Quinta, California (w/ Andrew Adler, photo by Lance Gerber); Villa Sunset, Beverly Hills, California (photo by Martin/Poon)

We enjoy the application of color and patterns, but not just as decoration—rather, to add personality to a space, to capture the spirit and character of the owner—whether a purple chocolate factory, red powder room, of multi-colored gymnasium.

left: Eichler Home, 1950s, California, by Joseph Eichler (photo from sunset.com); right: Sputnik chandelier, 1939, by Hans Harald Rath of J&L Lobmeyr (photo from etsy.com)
top: Aura Cycle, West Hollywood, California (photo by Aura Cycle); bottom left: Doheny Plaza, West Hollywood, California (photo by Hunter Kerhart); bottom right: S/B House, Encino, California (photo by Poon Design)

Light can be more than simply a source of illumination. Consider light to be similar to stone, wood, or metal. Meaning, light can also be a building material. Light can be an element to be shaped, harnessed, and applied like a painter applies oils to a canvas.

Round House, 1968, Wilton, Connecticut, by Richard Foster (photo by Iwan Baan)
bottom: Heritage Fine Wines, Beverly Hills, California (photo by Poon Design)

Having dominated architectural outcomes for centuries, the classical principles of architecture were open to MCM reinterpretation. At this wine store, the cabinetry possesses a traditional look with its cornice, trim and paneling. Yet, we applied such a traditional look to an elliptically-shaped showroom. Upon entering, the bottles of Bordeaux embrace the visitor.

Eichler Homes, Burlingame, California, by Joseph Eichler (photos by Anthony Poon)
top: Alta Verde Escena, Palm Springs, California (photo from earth.google.com); bottom: Residence I-3, Palm Springs, California (w/ Andrew Adler, photo by Chris Miller)

As the Case Study Housing program attempted, Poon Design also sought to provide attainable, budget-driven, mass produced homes. Building and selling 230 contemporary homes in four new Palm Springs communities has earned us the highest national honor from the American Institute of Architects, the 2018 Best in Housing, alongside dozens of other regional and national awards.

left: MCM Hilltop Community, 1950, Seattle, Washington, by Paul Kirk; right: Roberts House, 1955, West Covina, California, by Richard Neutra (photo by Cameron Carothers)
Din Tai Fung, Costa Mesa, California (photos by Poon Design)??? Glendale, California (photos by Poon Design and Gregg Segal)

New tools and technology allowed us to exploit MCM’s drive for a high sense of craft. Giant lampshades at the famed Din Tai Fung restaurant reinterpret historic Chinese screens. Through computer scripted patterns alongside milling techniques of oak plywood, we created lampshades and skylights that are works of sculpture, expressing a devotion to detail and innovation.

Case Study House #8 / Eames House, 1949, Pacific Palisades, California, by Charles and Ray Eames (photo by Julius Shulman, J. Paul Getty Trust)
top: Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, California (photo by Gregg Segal); graphic design for Chaya (by Poon Design)

MCM architects sought to provide design services combining three prominent strains: architecture, interiors and landscape. For our Chaya Downtown restaurant, we went further to deliver a cohesively designed environment. We created the branding, website, and graphics. We also designed furniture and lighting, as well as curated the art. We continued our pursuits to include the employee uniforms and even the selection of music. Music too is an element of architecture. What is heard during the morning hours of coffee is different than the business lunches—different than festive happy hour, different than an elegant dinner, and different than late night cocktails.

Case Study House #22 / Stahl House, 1960, Los Angeles, California, by Pierre Koenig (photo by Julius Shulman / J. Paul Getty Trust)
The Point Lifestyle Center, Irvine, California

We continue the optimism of MCM at larger scales and more ambitious programs than housing. For this lifestyle center serving the Asian community, the first floor comprises an Asian fish market, the second is a Korean spa, the third a Japanese karaoke bar, and the fourth a Chinese rooftop garden restaurant.

Kaufmann House, 1946, Palm Springs, California, by Richard Neutra (photo by Slim Aarons)

The design concepts of Mid-Century Modernism endure, because they are timeless and universal. The challenge is to look to MCM concepts as a platform to launch into the future—as inspiration not as nostalgia, for interpretation not replication.

#150: EGO AND ARROGANCE

April 1, 2022

(photos left to right: Pyramid at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France, by Michael Fousert; Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, by Anthony Delanoix; Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York, by Dennis; Burg Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by Nick Fewings; all from Unsplash)

(This essay comprises excerpts from my presentation, The Creative Process and The Ego, on February 18th at Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California.)

Architects design homes, schools, skyscrapers, entire cities. Who has given architects this role and influence in society, and what have we done with it? From the Pyramid at the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower , from the Guggenheim to the Burg Khalifa in Dubai—architect’s egos are stamped all over cities, all over the world. Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels, even has drawings to literally redesign Earth.

Me presenting, The Creative Process and The Ego, Modernism Week 2022, Palm Springs, California (photo by Olive Stays)

Master builder, master designer, master creator—architects have been granted the responsibility to impact communities and cultural progress, through the flexing of creative muscles. The offering of world icons and or definitive works stems from both talent and skill, as well as confidence and ego. Consider Philip Johnson’s pithy quote.

But ego can lead to influence, influence to power, and power to arrogance. And arrogance can either drive a project into successful territory or regrettable disaster. For the latter, two projects come to mind.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, a hotly debated project known as Munger Hall has every architect, student, parent, and community member up in arms. For this proposed $1 billion, 1.7 million square foot, 11-story dormitory for 4,500 students, there has been a very little support. For the amateur architect and developer, Charlie Munger (billionaire and partner to Warren Buffet) and Southern California architect-of-record, VTBS (yes, B-S), the wrath bestowed on this project approved is universal. To sum it up, there has not been so much loathing in recent history. There are many reasons for the abhorrence, but the main objection is that 95% of the dorm rooms will have NO WINDOWS. No natural light. No fresh air. No view to the outside.

Munger Hall (drawings and rendering from VTBS), Charles Munger (photo by Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters)

The arrogance of Munger comes from believing that: 1) Fronting the construction cost gives him the unconditional ticket to design whatever he wants, and 2) he and VTBS are convinced that windowless dormitory rooms are not just acceptable, but a creative success, even a bragging right. And everything from science to history, and real life to design guidelines, have proven this idea to be horrific.

Consider the residential estate in Bel Air, California, simply called “The One.” The conceit within that title alone reeks of egotism. Here, this spec house, with an asking price of $500 million, includes 105,000-square-foot, 20 bedrooms with a 5000-square-foot master bedroom suite, 42 bathrooms, a 10,000-bottle wine cellar, 50-car garage, and four swimming pools—to name a few details.

“The One,” Bel Air, Los Angeles, California (photo by Michael Leonard, The Society Group)

Bel Air is a community of wealth, where some of the largest mansions have been built over the years. As seen above, the two circled homes are such mansions of prestige and wealth. And between them is the out-of-scale, gargantuan vanity of developer Nile Niami and architect Paul McClean. The cautionary tale? No one wants such a home. The property recently sold for only $141 million, which is a mere one-third of the asking price.

Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy (photo by Guy Dugas, Pixabay); Medici family (image from historyhit.com)

Historically, architects were given such power by an omnipotent clients such as the Medici’s, but in today’s culture of individualism and self-promotion, such projects as Munger Hall and The One are fueled by confidence and salesmanship, perhaps even narcissism.

Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices (photo from drtuesdaygjohnson.tumblr.com

Author Meryle Secrest wrote of Frank Lloyd Wright, “If he had intended to live out his life in the columns of newspapers, he could not have acted any more effectively. . . again and again, courting the press . . . Wright’s appetite for whatever might further his career was gargantuan.”

Accusations of megalomania have been projected onto Bjarke Ingels and his company, BIG, with 550 employees in offices in Copenhagen, New York, London, and Barcelona. Ingels himself counters the Miesian platitude, “Less is more,” and instead proclaims, “Yes is more.”

Bjarke Ingels (photo by Thomas Loff); Ingels sketching (photo from youtube.com); W57, New York, New York (photo from claudejobin.com)

Check yourself. When does confidence become righteousness, talent become ego, and prowess become arrogance? How does self-assurance and pride become condescension and smugness? Who shall “inherit the earth”?

#79: MID-CENTURY MODERNISM: STOP THE INSANITY!

March 2, 2018

The Refill, by Shag

I am exhausted watching Mid-Century Modern (“MCM”) seep into every crevice of design. As popular as this design movement is, I find MCM outdated and old fashion, like the styles of 19th century Victorian or 17th century Baroque.

Why are people obsessed with living in this particular MCM past? Are these fanatics doing away with their computers, going to drive-in movie theaters, wearing saddle shoes, and twisting to Doris Day? No, these MCM zealots are only interested in the superficial look of a vintage era, roughly the 50’s and 60’s.

An ’embalmed’ MCM interior in Palm Springs, California (photo from soosxer.com)

Returning recently from my lecture at Modernism Week, where 100,000 attendees descended on Palm Springs to celebrate the MCM movement, the crowds were more interested in embalming the style vs. understanding it. Some of the attendees arrived in full 50’s theme attire, similar to how Trekkies and Fanboys proudly share their geekdom, dressing as Kirk, Spock and Klingons at Comic-Con.

The current MCM mania is an unfortunate approach that is merely design paint-by-numbers. For example, the enthusiasts create homes for themselves that are nothing more than architectural historical replicas. Call it curating or antique-ing, but all I see are devotees trying so hard to obtain that mint condition, original issue, Saarinen table within a Neutra house, where the Zeisel pottery sits perfectly in the room of avocado green paint.

Nice MCM yes, but only as a piece of history, Palm Springs, California. (photo from birdcourage.com)

Stylish, yes—but has anyone ever sat in an Eames rocking chair? The majority of MCM pieces have been panned as not just uncomfortable, but not all that functional.

So predictable and so uncomfortable; every piece is a cliché, Palos Verdes, California. (photo by Nate Cole)

My view: MCM should stand for Mid-Century Mausoleum. The owners of these fetishized environments have not created a pleasant home, but rather, forced their families and visitors to live in an ironic display from a history museum. Nostalgia is fine, but not when it is only a kit-of-parts, or worse, a collection of stale clichés.

To my 1957 MCM Bird Streets house, I added Brazilian Cherry and Maple flooring, along with a hand-troweled, sculptural fireplace, by Poon Design. The predictable Eames chair is not in the usual black but in putty leather, and the chair’s wood is not the usual Walnut, but Cherry. In Hollywood Hills, California (photo by Elon Schoenholz)

There is nothing wrong with collecting, like when a child buys, sells and trades baseball cards. But ask any kid the stats of a particular player, and you will get a wealth of data. Ask a MCM collector about the design movement’s origins, and it is unlikely that you will receive a grasp of post-war housing crisis, the drive for affordability and production, middle class views of wilderness, high rag content paper, and offset lithography. No, you will probably just hear some MCM buff bragging about his Satellite 23 clock.

I have learned from MCM ideas, i.e., the open plan, indoor/outdoor connections, and walls of glass. But I choose to view MCM as inspiration, not an ancient source for replication. As a point of departure, I view MCM as a place to stand and look to the future.

Do something different with MCM, like bright white, laser-cut, Italian cabinets, blue Brazilian marble, and a pair of Parallam ridge beams, by Poon Design. Renovation of my 1964 house, Bel Air, California. (photo by Anthony Poon)
A distinctive addition adds new life to a 1957 MCM house, in New Canaan, Connecticut. (photo by Peter Aaron / Esto)

To my clients who are fans of MCM architecture, I suggest this: Your homes can have MCM ideas, but let’s add your own ideas. Let’s add your personality, and it doesn’t have to come from one catalog. You are not living in a period film, but rather, you are breathing a modern existence, full of current ideas about lifestyle, technology, media, sustainability, and invention.

Here is a good example of adding personality to a 1962 MCM house, Palos Verdes, California. (photo from redfin.com)
© Poon Design Inc.