Category Archives: Case Study

“Mad Men” and Mid-Century Modernity at LACMA

Stereos and Studebakers

The start of Mad Men‘s fifth season this week on cable TV is fortuitous. Though the series spawned a new appreciation for slick Madison Avenue Modernism of the early 1960s — not to mention accompanying cocktails — it wasn’t easy to see

where part of that esthetic came from (photo courtesy But now you can, thanks to the exhibition running through June at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965 curated by Wendy Kaplan. In fact, the advertising firm that the character Don Draper runs, seen above at his desk with drink in hand, ought to be developing campaigns for many of the products in the exhibition, like the Studebaker Avanti of 1961-2 by Raymond Loewy, below.

California — and especially Los Angeles — became a remarkable incubator of modern design during the middle of the 20th century. The benign climate, burgeoning post World War II economy and population, and movie mystique attracted imaginative designers and take-a-chance clients. I toured the exhibit recently and was impressed with the way it explores connections between popular and high style design, from furniture and clothing to houses and cars while bringing the Left Coast side of the Mad Men era to life.

Time here begins in the 1930s, quite literally, with one of the first digital clocks,

the Zephyr clock by Lawson Time, from around 1938 (photo courtesy LACMA blog). My uncle had one of these and I always admired it — when the numbers turned over they bounced slightly before resting in place (perhaps a metaphor for hanging fire?). Time did appear to be hustling as new tracts developed across

the LA basin. Modern architects were designing houses and filling them with furniture like this 1931 bent plywood chair by Richard Neutra or this squared off

corner grouping by A. Quincy Jones from 1961 and Mondrian-esque glass coffee table of c. 1950 by Milo Baughman for Glenn of California  — which look like they belong in one corner of Don Draper’s office. Living In A Modern Way shows how California designers celebrated the casual indoor-outdoor living that

the California climate made possible, as in this promotional image for a development called Monarch Bay Homes at Laguna Niguel by delineator Carlos Dini, from 1961 (image courtesy LACMA).  My favorite part of the exhibit juxtaposes two elegant designs from 1961 by LA’s most minimalist architect,

Craig Ellwood: a superb elevation of his Rosen house and the Rosen’s custom stereo cabinet. Now this takes Machine Age abstraction to its logical extreme: house and stereo are extensions of each other, if not virtually indistinguishable —  do I live in the stereo or does the stereo live in me? Talk about surround sound! The only real difference, besides scale and some plumbing, is that the stereo has four bays while the house has only three. Clearly the sort of house where you would expect to hear Frank Sinatra, not to mention the architect, crooning My Way — and sotto voce “or the highway.” (Images courtesy LACMA.)

Even Barbie went modern, and her Dream House of 1962, shown below, is fun to

to see. The largest element in the show is a replica of the loft-like living room of  the Charles and Ray Eames house of 1949, the most famous structure in the

Case Study House Program of the late 1940s and early 1950s sponsored by Arts + Architecture magazine (photo courtesy NY Times). It functions both as a frame for nature and an elegant specimen box for the Eames’ collection (1,869 items in this space alone!). Which reminds me: Case Study House #3 shown below, by William Wurster and Theodore Bernardi is not in the exhibit but is in the Signature Studio and is Plan 529-1. See how it too blends indoor and outdoor space into a seamless whole: the house is the lot. Our Eichler Plans offer further variations on the modern living theme. They’re all part of the Mid-Century Modern design history you can own.

So, Don Draper — time to put down that highball and get back to work. You have a lot of selling to do!


Ice Cube’s Take on the Eames House, etc.

Architectural Raps and Other Design Gifts

It’s not every day that you hear a rapper talk about architecture, let alone a mid-century modern design icon like the Eames house in Pacific Palisades, California of 1949. But that’s what Ice Cube does, deftly and with precision, in a brief new online video (see The Daily Beast and The New York Times) about husband-and-wife industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames (image below, courtesy NYTimes).

A replica of the living room, shown below courtesy F8daily, is in the “Living In A Modern Way” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — part of the huge cultural collaboration across LA called Pacific Standard Time — and prompted the rapper’s review.

In the video, Ice Cube, who studied architectural drafting before becoming a rapper, says that growing up in South Central LA you learned to “use what you’ve got and make the most of it” then walks into Charles’ and Ray’s famous house made of prefabricated parts, sits down in their iconic lounge chair and praises their resourcefulness with everyday materials, how “they were doing mash-up before mash-up even existed,” and the way their house “made structure and nature one.” That’s one of the best descriptions of the Eames approach that I have heard.

A longer but equally interesting discussion of Eamesian design and how they created a studio full of talented designers who worked around the clock in order “to make the best for the most for the least” can be found in the fascinating new documentary film Eames: The Architect and The Painter by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey. Charles was trained as an architect; Ray as a painter. The film makes one realize that with their omniverous curiosity about the world and how to represent it — especially in a film like Powers of Ten explaining the notion of scale — Charles and Ray were much more than chair designers: they were Googlers before Google.

If 20th century modernism is your gift-giving sweet spot, browse the Eames Gallery for a variety of design-oriented stocking stuffers,

from reproductions of the folk art black bird that resided in their living room

to coffee mugs patterned after some of their fabric designs.

The Eames House was part of the Case Study House Program sponsored by Arts + Architecture magazine, which expressed an avant-garde modernist esthetic in its layouts and covers as well as subject matter. The magazine is no longer in print but you can purchase cover prints like these —

the one on the left shows biomorphic paintings by Ray Eames — and other so-called “retro-edge” items like graphic tees from the Arts & Architecture Collection during their holiday sale.

For your holiday bookshelf: a new volume on a glass and steel house by architect Thomas Phifer that has a distinctive Case Study feel, though built recently by former museum director Tom Armstrong (who ran several institutions including the Whitney in New York and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh),

is unusual in that it describes the design and building process in the client’s own words (image courtesy The Quantuck Lane Press). The previous house on the site had burned, which gave Armstrong the opportunity to realize a long-held dream to create a way to live in a garden surrounded by modern art.

(photo courtesy Thomas Phifer and Partners). He wanted landscape, house, furniture, paintings, and sculpture to be part of a single architectural composition — like a latter day reinterpretation of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, shown below.

(The Glass House was built at the same time as the Eames house, but on the other side of the continent; photo by Paul Warchol, courtesy The Glass House).

The program for the Armstrong house seems a little self centered to me — with only one bedroom there is no room for the Armstrong’s children or grandchildren but but lots of space for modern paintings and sculpture — yet the story is fascinating because Armstrong tells how he was able to achieve  his vision. He died earlier this year so this book is a poignant record of an architectural dream: his home was his last museum.

If books aren’t enough, you can browse historic modern layouts like our Plan 529-1, which is Case Study House #3 by Wurster & Bernardi, 

with it’s rear elevation opening to a private outdoor world; or Eames-inspired designs by architect Gregory La Vardera, such as Plan 431-5

with it’s bright, loft-like two-story living room. As Ice Cube says in his Eames video: “You always gotta have a plan.”


Transitions: Dogtrots, Duchamp, & Julius Shulman

Beyond the Breezeway

Having just attended my younger daughter’s graduation from college, transitions and transitional spaces are on my mind (if you follow this blog you will not be surprised…). The breezeway entry to a romantic compound by the architecture firm of Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso, below,

incorporating the tower studio that is our Plan 479-6, celebrates arrival and the view. Here’s another view as photographed:

The tower is a kind of exclamation point but the breezeway is the welcome; an in-between space that adds breathing room with multiple functions: for greeting, sitting, sheltering.

Such transition points are where first impressions are made — remember the famous opening sequence of The Philadelphia Story

(still courtesy when Cary Grant pushes Katherine Hepburn backward through the front door after she breaks and then throws a golf club after him. (Or maybe this is a last impression leading to a new beginning). Transition points are where many great conversations seem to happen — in our house it’s by the front door or on the stoop just before guests leave a party. The great urban sociologist William H. Whyte, author of the influential The Organization Man (University of Pennsylvania, Paper, 2002) and City: Rediscovering the Center (University of Pennsylvania, Paper, 2009), recorded versions of this phenomenon on busy New York street corners where he found that intense conversations often occurred just before people parted ways.

I am a fan of the early 20th century conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, whose work challenged conventional ways of seeing; for example his “Door, 11 Rue Larry” is two door frames set at right angles

(photo courtesy, the online Marcel Duchamp Journal) with one door between them so that when the door closes in one frame it opens  in the other. A clever way to illustrate contradiction and transition at the same time — not to mention graduation!

Inside-Out and Outside-In

We have a new illustration of an especially vivid transitional space: this photograph by famous LA photographer Julius Shulman, of Case Study House #3 (our historic Plan 529-1 by Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons). It captures the very essence of the dogtrot design. It shows the garden room (the dogtrot) between the living and sleeping wings as a hallway that’s also a destination in its own right.

[Copyright J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with Permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)]

Is it inside or outside? The ambiguity is alluring: an indoor room with outdoor features. The far wall opens completely to the terrace and the garden. Sunlight pools around the plant-topped table beside two elegant outdoor chaises and an indoor standing lamp. In the background is a fireplace and an indoor Aaltoesque sofa below a wall-hung staghorn fern. Cocoa matting partially covers the tile floor. It’s emblematic of how to live in a mild climate: call it a lanai, living porch, or furnished breezeway. To my eye it’s a classic image and still looks contemporary today.

One of our latest designs from Braxton Werner & Paul Field, the rustic-modern Plan 491-10, adapts this dogtrot idea to a long narrow vacation house.


See how the Breezeway functions both as entry and outdoor living room. It’s a simple strong design that embodies restorative escape.

What’s Selling Now

I’m delighted to report that several of our most innovative plans have sold recently, including this appealing getaway

Plan 443-6 with its ample double decker porches; and Sarah Susanka’s Home By Design Original Plan 454-7

with its encompassing screen porch. The Tower Studio mentioned above has also sold. These houses celebrate the arrival of summer. Onward and upward!


Who Is Building Our Plans?

It’s a question we’re always asking, so from time to time, as we develop an online community to share ideas, tips, and stories about the building process, I’ll be looking for answers.

Affordable Modern Living

Let’s start with Plan 64-167, below, a popular 2,269 square foot, 3 bedroom, 3 bath contemporary that was purchased last summer by Tim Young, a freelance web designer. The house is nearing completion.

64-167alt1-2269 aerial view over pool

Tim’s story is compelling. He already had the lot and assumed a custom design would be next. “I wanted my new house to have a loft-like feel,” he said, “And I even made a model out of foam core.” (It helped that Tim was a former art school student).) Next he went to an architectural designer friend who told him it would cost about $22,000 to create the plans from scratch, so they started looking online for plans he could buy and adapt with his friend’s help. That’s when Tim found this plan. “My site is on a slope so a few modifications were needed, like forming the rear wall of the first floor out of concrete and digging it into the hill,” he said. (He flipped it so the living room is on the left rather than on the right.) “But the plan is essentially the same.” Tim figures design costs – including the price of the plan, surveys, adjustments to fit the site, and engineering – came to about $8,500, a savings of $13,500.

Here’s an early construction photo:

1st floor

Note how the lower floor digs into into the slope. And here’s one showing the full


two-story design. Below is a detail of the living room wing.


Bravo Tim! He’s now selecting the siding. Stay tuned; we’ll bring you more photos when Tim has moved in. See similar designs in our Modern Plans Collection.