Wednesday, January 26, 2011


When I was a kid, the height of furniture fashion was a style called “Danish Modern”.  It wasn’t very comfortable--nor, it turns out, was it even all that Danish.   The chairs were linear, with big slab-like cushions that did a lousy job of conforming to your gluteus maximus.  The tables had a lot of nasty, smack-your-knee-and-see-stars kinds of corners.  But we gladly put up with such discomforts because the stuff was “modern”, and in the 1960s, modern was the only way to be.

Today, of course, we’re much more discriminating.  We admire furniture of the 60s as an appealingly naive emblem of the Jet Age, but by and large we’ve concluded that an older, more storied style is the way to go.  So what do we do?  We adopt a style that’s linear, uncomfortable, and not all that good-looking, and which, even though it’s called Mission, has nothing whatever to do with missions.  But it’s got history, and that’s the thing to have in the Naughties.

Mission furniture has more to do with the late-19th century English Arts and Crafts movement and such proponents as Gustav Stickley and William Morris than it does with the California Missions or Mission Revival architecture.  Early mass marketers of the style, however, preferred to present it as a rough-and-tumble American phenomenon rather than a snooty British one.  
Regardless of Mission’s murky heritage, one thing is crystal clear:  With its sharp corners and church-pew surfaces, it’s certainly among the most uncomfortable furniture styles of the last ten centuries.  It gives Danish Modern and even Frank Lloyd Wright’s chairs a run for the money.  

I know that at this point a lot of designer types will start sputtering in their lattes about what a pioneering concept the Mission style was, what geniuses the Arts and Crafts folks were, and how dare I, a lowly architect and even lowlier writer, criticize such brilliance?  Actually, I agree--the Arts and Crafts folks were indeed geniuses, and if you’ve ever seen the refined artistry of an original Morris or Stickley piece, you’re no doubt as certain as I am.  

Trouble is, the vast majority of Arts and Crafts, er, rather Mission furniture was not made by Morris, Stickley, or any of the other craft studios whose work is rightly coveted these days.  Adhering to the highest standards of craftsmanship naturally made for miniscule production, which in turn ensured that only the wealthy could afford their work.  

At any rate, by the time Mission furniture caught on with the masses, the craft studios had already moved on to other things, leaving the ordinary Joes and Josephines of the early century to settle for knockoffs from Sears and Roebuck.  Now, while using mass production to make products more affordable is a great American tradition, it also brings about an inevitable dilution of quality that eventually saps the artistry from any design.  That’s why a Model T is not a Rolls-Royce.  For the same reason, most of the Mission furniture that’s come down to us is clunky, pedestrian, and literally run-of-the-mill.  

Which brings me back to the current encore of Mission mania.  The style has already become ubiquitous in the media, appearing not only in print but in movies, commercials and sitcoms.  Spindly Mission knockoffs are now standard fare in those giant discount furniture stores.  

You may wonder how long this can last.  For me, the sure sign that a style is on its last legs is when it starts appearing in the lobbies of chain motels.  Well, guess what?
Have a seat in the lobby, folks.  Just mind those sharp corners. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

RED TILE AND ALL THE REST: An Overview of Twentieth Century Architecture


America’s flirtation with traditional architecture grew more serious during the course of the 1980s, when crown moldings, panel doors, and divided-lite windows made their reappearance on the residential scene, encouraged by a revived ornament industry whose products were once again available by the cartonful. The 1990s brought the new traditionalism into full fruition—some might say into decadence—just as the 1890s had brought on the final flowering of Victorianism.  Custom and tract homes alike were almost reflexively designed in a full-on Revivalist mode, as if fresh interpretations of traditional architecture—not to mention Modernism—had never existed at all.  

The widespread appearance of civic design review boards in the 80s and 90s further stymied the evolution of residential architecture by adopting cyclical planning fads as fixed design objectives, and by anointing the reflection of  “context”—the existing look of the surroundings—as the holy grail of design.   Alas, such design by reflex, rote, and regulation remains widely entrenched even today, and that’s a pity, since it merely serves to confound innovation in a world that cries out for change.  
The history we’ve examined in this series can tell us much about what the current century might bring, and just as much about what it probably won’t.  The twentieth century brought a lot of stylistic vacillation, but little substantive progress in the way we build houses. So far this century, it's looking like we can expect more of the same.  My predictions: 

•  Styles will continue their cyclical changes, and the worst nightmare of Modernist architects will come true:  Rather than being a movement that could change the world, Modernism will simply be considered another historical style.  Moreoever, today’s spiky, ultra-chic designs will seem as quaint and naively futuristic as Depression-era Streamline Moderne does today.

•  Building construction will continue its molasses-paced rate of innovation.  We’ll see more modularization of components such as stairs and windows, but total prefabrication will remain anathema for mid- and high-end homes.  However, the lowly mobile home industry—which already prefers its products to be known as manufactured homes—will become the leading innovator in prefabricated and affordable housing.

•  As resources inevitably become depleted, we’ll see less new construction and more adaptive reuse of the existing building stock.  Rather than simply recycling materials, we’ll recycle entire buildings—an even more efficient use of materials and manpower.   

•  Electronic technology will be quietly and invisibly integrated into homes (much as it already is in automobiles).  Computers will be unobtrusively tucked into controls for energy efficiency, entertainment, security, and lighting, rather than being the sort of in-your-face gadgets predicted by propellerheads.   

•  Unless they’re willing to deal with the pressing problems of the next century—diminishing land and natural resources, the need for affordable housing, and the social changes brought about by an emerging Third World—architects will consolidate their current position as lap dogs for the wealthy, and will remain irrelevant to most everyone else.

Monday, January 3, 2011

RED TILE AND ALL THE REST: An Overview of Twentieth Century Architecture


The housing shortage that followed the close of World War II brought a spate of mass-produced, sparsely-detailed but laudably affordable tract developments such as New York’s pioneering Levittown.  By the mid 1950s, however, such modest designs were already being displaced by the rambling, low-slung California Rancher, a home style that better reflected the vast wealth and national pride during of the postwarera.  With its precedent-setting double garage, the Rancher glorified conspicuous consumption, but at the same time was kept literally down-to-earth by a rough simplicity that bespoke traditional Yankee values.

Around this time, more populist brand of Modernism made an appearance with the astoundingly progressive designs of California developer Joseph Eichler.  With their flat roofs, bold facades, and broad sweeps of plate glass, Eichler homes drew heavily on Bauhaus tenets, and found tremendous appeal among architecturally sophisticated tract buyers.  Sadly, there weren’t a whole lot of the latter, and Eichler went broke in 1967. 

The 60s were a turbulent decade, and architectural trends proved no exception.  While most houses continued along the well-worn Rancher rut, architects of custom homes were happy to experiment with grid-paper Rationalism, icebox Minimalism, cast-concrete Brutalism—in fact just about any ism that came down the pike.  

Perhaps the most influential of these Modernist ideas also came from California, though from a far less probably source:  the tiny coastal village of Gualala, where architect Charles Moore was building a unique development known as the Sea Ranch.  Its houses featured artful arrangments of shed-roofed cubes clad in cedar siding, and this completely fresh approach had enormous influence on residential architecture well into the 70s.  Sea-Ranch inspired designs were especially popular in hilly wooded areas, where their craggy outlines looked wonderful peaking out of the treetops. 

The Sea Ranch’s inspiration came none too soon, because by the end of the 60s, the stalwart Rancher had just about run its course.  After two decades of popularity, people were finally tiring of its now-predictable floor plan, with rooms strung methodically along a seemingly endless central hall.  And in any case, the vast, flat-as-a-tabletop building sites that were required to show these sprawling homes to best advantage were growing few and far between.  

A version of the Rancher in which the floor levels were offset by a half-story offered an interim solution to these problems, and the so-called “split-level” became the very embodiment of modernity during 1960s.  Even the most diminutive hillock provided a fine excuse to build a split level, and throughout the decade such houses could be seen marching up sloping sites across America.  

In the suburbs, however, developers began to focus on two-story floor plans as a way to accommodate ever-bigger homes on ever-tighter lots.  This in turn led rather naturally to more traditional styles coming to the fore—Spanish Revival, Half-timber, even some rather scrawny-looking Colonials.  These timid early attempts at traditionalism were almost laughably two-dimensional, yet they were the first harbinger of the tidal wave of traditional architecture that would swamp Modernism by the end of the century.

The Baby Boom generation, having grown up in ornament-challenged Ranchers and been schooled in flat-topped boxes, now hungered for tradition with a vengeance.

Next time:  From fin-de-siecle to the future.