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  • Writer's pictureThe PJ Team

Design Through the Decades: The 1960s

This series looks at the stories behind iconic designs from each decade, starting in 1900. This installment covers works by such midcentury luminaries as John Lautner, Joe Colombo, Verner Panton, Pierre Paulin, Warren Platner and the Castiglioni brothers.

U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong’s one small step for a man 50 years ago this month was a giant leap for design. As excitement built toward the momentous moon walk on July 20, 1969, architecture took a futuristic turn, and furniture and lighting acquired a sci-fi quality. Since television was in 90 percent of U.S. households by 1960 and baby boomers began coming of age a few years later, pop culture and youth culture also played roles in the decade’s style.

Photo by evdropkick Lautner Architecture

Googie style. Space Age architecture is closely identified with John Lautner, who left Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin school after six years to establish his own practice in Los Angeles in 1939. Ten years later, Lautner designed a West Hollywood coffee shop called Googies, which lent its name to a midcentury genre of commercial architecture whose exaggerated upswept roofs, atomic motifs and liberal use of neon were intended to entice people out of their cars. Many of the Googie diners, gas stations, car washes and motels are gone. But the style endures in Los Angeles International Airport’s Theme Building, Seattle’s Space Needle and reruns of TV’s animated The Jetsons, all of which debuted in the early 1960s.

Chemosphere. Lautner’s residential architecture simultaneously reached for the stars while remaining grounded in the natural landscape. He designed the UFO-esque Chemosphere, pictured, in 1960 for aerospace engineer Leonard Malin, his wife and their four children as a way to cost-effectively address the 45-degree slope of their Hollywood Hills lot. The 2,208-square-foot, single-story octagon has panoramic windows on all sides and hovers like an umbrella above the vegetation on a 30-by-5-foot concrete column and eight diagonal steel braces. Access is via a funicular from below or a path from above.

The column-free interior centers around a skylight and a fireplace. An open living, dining and kitchen area takes up the half of the house that looks out on the San Fernando Valley, while the bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry room face the hillside. A 1998-2000 restoration by Escher GuneWardena Architecture for German publishers Benedikt and Angelika Taschen returned the house to its former glory after decades of neglect.

Sheats-Goldstein House. Chemosphere may look familiar from The Outer Limits, a 1960s science-fiction TV series, or the 1984 movie Body Double. This L.A. house, which Lautner designed for the Paul Sheats family in 1961 and refined with current owner James Goldstein over 15 years, starred on the silver screen too, in The Big Lebowski and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and it also hosts epic celebrity parties.

The poured-in-place concrete structure backs into the hillside and opens its triangular beak to glorious city vistas. The waffle-patterned ceiling contains 750 drinking glasses that scatter points of sunlight across the floor.

Originally, the living room was open to the terrace; then it was separated by glass crisscrossed with view-obstructing steel until Lautner and Goldstein replaced that with frameless glass. The architect also designed the furniture; lighting; rugs; a sink with a hidden, sensor-activated spout; and a radiant heating system that warms the floor and the pool.

Since Lautner’s death in 1994, Nicholson Architects has carried on the vision by designing an entertainment facility beneath an “infinity tennis court,” so called because the glass guardrail on the downhill side was built to the minimum allowable height — sacrificing the occasional tennis ball to preserve the view. The design seems fitting since Lautner is credited with creating the first infinity pool, for the Elrod house in Palm Springs, California. It makes an appearance in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever.

In 2016, Goldstein bequeathed the Sheats-Goldstein House to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Photo by Paul Ciszek Sculptured House (aka Sleeper House)

As a toddler, Charles Deaton lived in a tent for two years while his parents built a one-room house on their Oklahoma farm. After a stint designing aircraft for Lockheed and a series of successful inventions, the self-taught architect indulged his love of curves from 1963 to 1966. He created this house, which he called “a piece of sculpture for its own sake,” west of Denver for himself and his family. “I found a high point of land where I could stand and feel the great reaches of the Earth. I wanted the house to sing an unencumbered song,” he said.

Unfortunately, the Sculptured House got mired in Deaton’s money woes and was never finished. It shot to movie stardom when Woody Allen leased it as a filming location for his 1973 sci-fi spoof, Sleeper. (The cylindrical elevator stood in for the Orgasmatron.) But otherwise it sat empty until 1999, when venture capitalist John Huggins hired interior designer Charlee Deaton to help realize her father’s original vision.

Current owners Larry and Toni Winkler have spent the past nine years trying to bring the house from the year 2173 in Sleeper up to the energy standards of 2019. They replaced single-pane windows, sealed doorways, fixed leaking pipes, added 9,500 pounds of insulation and built a state-of-the-art utility room. Through all the work, they told a local news reporter, they’ve kept their focus on maintaining the home’s historic character.

Futuro House

Futuristic architecture wasn’t all just lavish custom projects. Finnish architect Matti Suuronen’s prefab Futuro House touched down in America the same day that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Made of lightweight fiberglass-reinforced polyester plastic — a fairly new material at the time — it was conceived as a portable ski hut that could shake off snow. But it never really caught on. Fewer than 100 were made, perhaps because of Futuro’s hard-to-decorate shape or the skyrocketing price of plastic during the 1973 oil crisis.

London artist Craig Barnes fell in love with a Futuro House on childhood visits to South Africa. On a return trip years later, he bought the crumbling structure — not your typical travel souvenir — and shipped it in pieces to England. His Futuro has one bedroom, one bathroom and six reclining seats.

Barnes restored the exterior to its original glossy turquoise. He used a mold given to him by another Futuro owner to replace the missing door, and an existing elliptical window and seating section as templates for new pieces. He also reinstated a snug double bed.

Djinn Chair One of the 60 or so surviving Futuros serves as the rooftop VIP room of 2001 Odyssey, a Tampa, Florida, strip club named after Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In that movie, Olivier Mourgue’s low-slung Djinn chairs, part of a line he designed in 1965 for French firm Airborne International, punctuate the stark white lobby of Space Station 5 with bright red. Mourgue is one of the people who led the post-World War II design explosion in France nicknamed the “mobi boom,” after mobilier, the French word for furniture.

Architect-designer Stéphane Chamard re-covered vintage Djinn chairs in an electric-blue wool jersey to set the style and palette for the main level of his Toronto loft in a former candy factory. A TV hides behind the Roy Lichtenstein-inspired pop art print.

DF 2000 Credenza and Componibili Storage Unit

Chamard established the color palette of the loft’s bedroom with a DF 2000 credenza in the original shades of red and orange. Its streamlined door and drawer fronts are molded acrylic, the cases are laminate, and the supports are aluminum. The DF 2000 furniture line was conceived by French-American industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s Compagnie de L’Esthétique Industrielle, manufactured by Doubinsky Frères and sold in the U.S. from 1968 to the early 1970s. (This was also the period during which Loewy and his firm worked as “habitability consultants” to NASA to help ensure that projects such as Skylab, the first U.S. space station, would be human-friendly.)

The white nightstands are components of the Componibili storage system, created in 1967 by pioneering Italian architect-designer Anna Castelli Ferrieri for Kartell, the company she co-founded with her husband, Giulio Castelli. Made of ABS plastic, the modules stack without the need for fasteners. Insert a finger in the round cutout to slide open the curved door.

Spider Lamp

Arching over the credenza is a rare wall model from the minimalist 1965 Spider lamp collection by Italian industrial designer Joe Colombo for Oluce. Behind it is a gallery wall of The Smiths album covers.

Colombo opened his own studio in 1962 and, before his premature death in 1971 at age 41, experimented with new materials in his quest to create an integrated “environment of the future” for an increasingly mobile society. Portability and flexibility were key to his designs, which included his multitasking Carrellone mini kitchen, an 11-cubic-foot stove-fridge-storage marvel on wheels, and his Tube chair, composed of four nesting cylinders that can be held together in various ways by metal clamps. Both have been reissued in this century, by Boffi and Cappellini, respectively.

Panton Chair

In his previous living quarters in a Toronto coach house, Chamard gave Danish designer Verner Panton’s curvaceous, cantilevered chair a prime spot at the head of the dining room table facing the window. Conceived by Panton in 1960 and produced by Vitra beginning in 1967, the chair was the first to be created from a single piece of plastic.

Although Chamard opted for black, Panton was excited by plastic’s potential for color. “Most people spend their lives living in dreary, beige conformity, mortally afraid of using colors,” he said. “The main purpose of my work is to provoke people into using their imagination and make their surroundings more exciting.”

Its age notwithstanding, the Panton chair mixes happily with three 21st-century counterparts: Konstantin Grcic’s Chair One, Philippe Starck and Eugeni Quitllet’s Masters chair and, at the other end of the table, Starck’s Victoria Ghost chair. The collection wasn’t intentional, though. “I couldn’t decide on a black chair, so I brought home several to try and intended to pick just one style,” Chamard says. “But my husband and I decided we loved them all, so we kept them.”

Paulin Chairs

Orange Slice. Another “mobi boom” designer, Pierre Paulin is best known for his sculptural 1960s chairs for Dutch manufacturer Artifort. Their names — Oyster, Orange Slice, Globe, Mushroom, Butterfly, Tulip, Ribbon, Tongue — stem from nature, whose rounded shapes Paulin often liked to render in metal, latex foam and bright jersey fabrics that stretched around the chairs’ contours for a skintight fit.

Cpopp Workshop included a pair of Orange Slice chairs, whose splayed legs recall a lunar landing module, in a modern revamp of this Sacramento, California, multipurpose room, which also contains a game table, wet bar and multimedia equipment. The slim pendant lights are by Vibia.

Ribbon. A quartet of Paulin’s Ribbon chairs compose a seating group in a modern Houston penthouse designed by Lyrd Interiors. Those seeking a groovier vibe can look for it in U.S. textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen’s original psychedelic Momentum print.

Tongue. Paulin’s establishment-defying Tongue chair sprawls out on the floor of a bedroom in a London house remodeled by McLean Quinlan. “I had tried to appeal to the lifestyle of young people. They were into low-level living,” Paulin said in a 2008 interview.

Up Chair With Ottoman

Even more provocative than the Tongue chair is Italian designer Gaetano Pesce’s Up chair with ottoman, pictured in a bedroom of a New York City townhouse with interiors by Cara Woodhouse. In such playful surroundings, the female torso-like chair reads as a cozy mother’s lap and the ottoman as a ball of yarn. But Pesce had something else in mind when he designed it in 1969, six years after Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, a clarion call for women’s liberation. “It’s an image of a prisoner,” he says. “Women suffer because of the prejudice of men. The chair was supposed to talk about this problem.”

The set’s construction was as unconventional as its feminist message. Pesce got the idea while squeezing a sponge in the shower. He fashioned the pieces out of polyurethane foam that was compressed into disks and vacuum sealed. Once opened, they puff up to 10 times their original size, just as Magic Grow novelty toys do when submerged in water.

Pesce marked the Up chair’s 50th anniversary this year with an installation titled Suffering Majesty during Milan Design Week in April. A 26-foot-tall replica, covered in arrows and flanked by busts of wild animals, was displayed in front of the Italian city’s renowned cathedral. Although Pesce says he intended the installation as a condemnation of sexism and misogyny, some protested it as perpetuating the objectification of and violence against women.

Sacco Chair and Bubble Chair

The alternative lifestyles of a new generation called for alternative seating. The slouchy Sacco chair, left, is filled with polystyrene pellets that respond to the body. Introduced in 1968 by Italian friends Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini and Franco Teodoro for Italian furniture manufacturer Zanotta, it was the stylish harbinger of common dorm room beanbags.

Also emblematic of the swinging ’60s are Finnish designer Eero Aarnio’s semispherical acrylic Bubble chair, suspended from the ceiling in the back of this French home’s living space by C-Intérieur, and his career-launching Ball chair, the Bubble’s swiveling, earthbound, opaque fiberglass cousin, pictured below.

Ball Chair

A onetime favorite Playboy cover prop, the Ball chair works as both a communal pod and a private cocoon. Aarnio designed it as a place where he could cuddle with his wife and two young daughters, but he also put a phone in his personal Ball chair because of its impressive sound insulation from the outside world.

Astro Lamp

The lava lamp became lighting’s shape-shifting dorm counterpart to the beanbag. British accountant and naturist Edward Craven Walker put two liquids of different densities — one waxy, one watery — in a rocket-shaped bottle with a lightbulb, whose heat caused the waxy liquid to rise and fall in mesmerizing patterns as it warmed and cooled. He called it the Astro lamp when it came out in 1963. He knew he had a winner when he heard that Beatles drummer Ringo Starr had bought one.

These lava lamps in the computer nook of a colorful Chicago house from Morgante-Wilson Architects are undeniably far-out, but whether they’ll encourage studying or daydreaming is open to question.

Sputnik Chandelier

The lights perhaps most associated with the Space Age, however, are the starbursts known as Sputnik chandeliers. Gino Sarfatti, founder of Italian light manufacturer Arteluce, foreshadowed the look of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 artificial satellite with fixtures that had bulb-tipped rods radiating from a sphere. After the satellite’s launch in 1957, the floodgates opened to all sorts of Sputnik-influenced creations.

Enter Tadeusz Leski and Hans Harald Rath, who collaborated on surely the only Sputnik chandeliers to get a standing ovation — from 3,800 rapt patrons of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City’s Lincoln Center, no less, when the building opened its doors in 1966.

Leski was right-hand man to Met lead architect Wallace Harrison. One day, according to daughter Kyna Leski of 3SIXØ Architecture, he was rushing to finish an interior sketch in time for a meeting when a fat drop of white paint went splat on the paper and, in a fit of inspiration and desperation, he connected the dots until it resembled an exploding firework of a chandelier.

Rath was the fourth generation of his family to helm Austrian glassware manufacturer Lobmeyr. He brought Tadeusz’s spontaneous concept to expert completion with about 350 chandeliers, sconces and other fixtures bedecked with thousands of Swarovskicrystals. The largest in the cluster at the center of the auditorium has 260 bulbs, is 18 feet wide and weighs 1½ tons. In an arc around it, 12 smaller starbursts float up to the gilded ceiling in a breathtaking signal that the performance is about to begin.

Interior designer Melina Copass saw a TV program about the Met just as she was seeking a Sputnik chandelier for Northern California clients who wanted one to replace the Arts and Crafts-style light fixture in their dining room. She was so enthralled by the opera house’s chandeliers that she commissioned this similar one from Venfield. “This version is smaller and slightly more elliptical,” she says. “The ends are blunted, so they are not quite as sharp. The clients were worried about people bumping their heads on it, so we measured their tallest friend to make sure there was clearance.”

Model 5301-2 Chair and Table Monogold

Danish couple Nanna and Jørgen Ditzel made their famous elliptical suspended seat, the rattan Hanging Egg chair, in 1959. After Jørgen passed away in 1961, Nanna explored newer materials like fiberglass and foam. In this Manhattan home by Apsara Interior Design, two white Model 5301-2 chairs from her fiberglass collection for Danish retailer Domus Danica team up with a dazzling Monogold table by Yves Klein.

Klein was a French conceptual artist best known for painting canvases — and naked models who then rolled around on his canvases — in an ultramarine that he had specially formulated to retain its luminosity, intensity, depth and granularity, and registered with the Paris patent office in 1960 as International Klein Blue. He made his first and only foray into furniture design, completing two prototypes of the cocktail table, just before succumbing to a heart attack in 1962 at age 34.

His widow, Rotraut Klein-Moquay, continued his work and produced the steel-legged box of glass, Plexiglas and wood the next year. It is filled with one of Klein’s holy trinity of colors: about 40 pounds of IKB pigment or an equal amount of rose madder pigment or 3,000 sheets of gold leaf. Because the filling is poured or crumbled into the box on-site after delivery, each table is a unique work of art. Not surprisingly, it is offered in limited quantities, requires professional installation and costs the moon.

Platner Table and Chair

This table, part of Warren Platner’s wire furniture collection introduced by Knoll in 1966, is more accessible and very popular. As the American architect-designer considered the aesthetics of the era, he saw an opportunity: “I … felt there was room for the kind of decorative, gentle, graceful design that appeared in a period style like Louis XV.”

The base of the collection’s tables, chairs and stools looks like a standing sheaf of wheat, except that it’s composed of many slender steel rods connected to steel hoops with hundreds of welds for a shimmering moiré effect. The top comes in glass, stone or wood.

Palm Springs interior designer Christopher Kennedy, who anchored this inviting breakfast spot in an art-filled desert home with the table and four chairs, lists “procure a Platner” among his 100 surefire ways to introduce modernist design into a contemporary home in his 2017 book, Making Midcentury Modern.

Castiglioni Lighting

Arco. The floor lamp pointing its modern satellite-like shade toward the Platner dining set in this Manhattan apartment by David Stern Architecture is the Arco. Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, architect brothers from Italy, recognized that chandeliers and ceiling pendants don’t always cast light where it’s needed. So in 1962 they designed the Arco to give the effect of a ceiling light with the portability of a floor lamp, for fledging Italian manufacturer Flos. A hole in the traditional Carrara marble base accommodates a broom handle for easier lifting.

Snoopy. The Castiglionis used the white marble base again for their Snoopy lamp, issued by Flos in 1967. The black enameled reflector was inspired by the profile of the beloved beagle in Charles Schulz’s popular comic strip. It serves as a piano lamp in this home in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Cone Fireplace

The freestanding conical fireplace, often enameled in a vibrant pop art color, is another quintessential style symbol of the ’60s, stoked by the construction of prefab housing. It offers the focal point and gathering spot of a traditional masonry fireplace with the advantage of heating quickly and emanating warmth all around.

Of the three major manufacturers — Preway, Majestic and Malm — only Malm, founded in 1960, remains in business. The California company provided this relatively sedate model for the living room of an experimental California house designed by architects A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons; built by developer Joseph Eichler; and restored by homeowner Marty Arbunich, builder Craig Smollen and interior designer Lucile Glessner.

Marimekko Fabric

The master bedroom features a wood platform bed with bedding from Marimekko, established by Armi Ratia in Finland in 1951 but not really a household name in the U.S. until Jacqueline Kennedy sported the label’s bold A-line dresses during the 1960 presidential campaign.

When Ratia announced that the company wouldn’t come out with any floral prints because “flowers should only bloom in nature,” Marimekko designer Maija Isola rebelled. Isola’s Unikko poppy pattern of 1964, pictured with a pillow in her earlier Kivet stones pattern, is the most popular Marimekko textile, illustrating the power of the flower.

Saratoga Sofa, Propeller Table and Ultima Thule Glassware

A throw pillow in a more recent Marimekko print, Kanteleen Kutsu by Sanna Annukka, rests on a white lacquer sofa from the Saratoga collection by Italian architects (and New York City subway map designers) Lella and Massimo Vignelli for Poltronova. The sofa and the Propeller coffee table, by Knut Hesterberg for German manufacturer Ronald Schmitt, are the same 1964 vintage as the Vancouver, British Columbia, home.

The candlesticks on the mantel and the lustrous bowl on the table are from Tapio Wirkkala’s 1968 Ultima Thule collection for Finnish glassware manufacturer Iittala. A trained sculptor, Wirkkala worked in many media and traveled extensively, even briefly living in New York for a stint in Loewy’s office to learn about mass production and modeling techniques. But he would always retreat to his hand-built log cabin in northern Lapland to drink in the frozen landscape, capturing the beauty of ice in the rifts and melting-icicle rim of his iconic Ultima Thule glass. The collection name comes from the Roman poet Virgil and means “farther than Thule,” the northernmost land referenced by Greek explorer Pytheas on his voyage toward the Arctic Ocean — or, more broadly, “beyond the borders of the known world.”

Victoria Villeneuve July 10, 2019


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