As a native of Southern California, I gravitated toward CLIFF MAY AND THE MODERN RANCH HOUSE ($60). I had never heard of Cliff May, but the ranch house held an appeal as distinct and elusive as the smell of sunshine.
While far from a picture book, the collection of images, from two-page spreads to original renderings, are alone enough to warrant purchase. Following the basic chronology of Cliff May's life as architect, furniture designer and experimenter, readers amble through three mid-century decades in Southern California during which May and his fortuitous union with Sunset magazine present post-war America with a picture of relaxed, modern living connected to the landscape. Enough historic context is given, but details and connections are loose, and commentary on his character seems slightly romanticized. In addition, while the era in which May worked overlapped with that of Frank Lloyd Wright, and May's houses uncannily reflected many principles of the International Style, a scant page discusses these potential contemporary influences. Those criticisms aside, sidebar topics such as the nation's perception of the American West and the role that Sunset magazine played in shaping it add depth to this insightful yet lighthearted biography of an affable California modernist. —Suzanne Tripp
The Critic: Suzanne Tripp is an associate architect with BAM Architects. Her current projects include interior renovations to a Cary Court retail space and the creation of design guidelines for use by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
MODERNIST PARADISE ($45), by Michael Webb with photography by Tim Street Porter, tells the story of two journeys. The first is the design of The Strick House by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer around 1964 — his only residential design in North America, and one that was filled with compromises due to building ordinances and because Niemeyer wasn't granted a visa to visit the site. The other journey is that of the Boyd family, who saved and restored the Santa Monica house and filled it with their collection spanning 70 years of 20th-century art furniture, literature and graphic design — a collection that resonates through our own time as represented in contemporary materials, methods, art and artifacts. The two journeys are intertwined, as one is conducted in an attempt to understand, catalog and, more importantly, live with the artifacts produced in the other.
Throughout the book the Boyds' pieces appear in multiple contexts and Niemeyer's house never completely materializes but wafts in and out of the photographs like a careful ghost, a restored caretaker of this past.
The accompanying essays give insight into the conditions present at the conceptualization and production of so much relevant design, and the Boyds' satisfying essays about life staged with these pieces is a bonus. Consider it a ticket to your own journey. —Todd Dykshorn
The Critic: Todd Dykshorn earned an architecture degree from Harvard and recently started ADO, to focus on projects in sensitive historic and cultural contexts. He has worked on the American Civil War Center and the Scott's Addition Civic Plan.
MODERN AMERICANA: STUDIO FURNITURE FROM HIGH CRAFT TO HIGH GLAM ($75) is a long overdue comprehensive survey of American studio furniture from the '40s to the early '90s.
Todd Merrill, a dealer in 20th-century decorative arts, and Julie V. Iovine, a design and architecture writer, have included many designers who were highly innovative in their use of materials, employing new techniques to create a true American design aesthetic. Among them are design heavyweights such as George Nakashima and Billy Haines, as well as lesser-known and recently rediscovered talents J.B. Blunk and Arthur Elrod.
The authors have categorized the artists/designers into four groups: The Studio Artisans, The Designer Craftsmen, The Custom Designers and The Decorator Designers. This type of organization makes for quick and easy reference of a particular designer's work. With the turn of a few pages, you can review the sculptural stack lamination desk by Wendell Castle to the highly ornate, Chinese-modern-style mirrored screen by the "bad boy" of design, James Mont. This publication is an excellent resource guide and a wonderful addition to any design aficionado's library. -—Maurice Beane
The Critic: Maurice Beane is a furniture and architectural metals designer and 20th-century decorative arts dealer with a shop on Main Street and one in Kilmarnock.
As architectural surveys go, L.A. MODERN ($75) has beautiful photography that documents one of the most fertile periods of modern experimentation in America. The bulk of the book is a photo essay of the optimism, adventurousness and confidence of the post-war years in America as seen through this selection of modern housing. The fact that this optimism is expressed in the modern vernacular is a reflection of the particular spirit of L.A. (and much of the American West to a lesser degree). Writer/photographer Tim Street-Porter bookends this post-war period with Frank Lloyd Wright's block houses and Greene and Greene's Arts-and-Crafts houses of the '20s and '30s, and with contemporary residential design of the late '70s and early '80s, such as Frank Gehry's Schnabel House. The pre-war selections work in connecting America's modern vernacular to the European-inspired modernism of Neutra and Schindler, but the contemporary work feels like an afterthought. You can argue that the contemporary work is a logical extension of that era, but it could have been broader in scope.
For someone interested in that period of modern houses I would also recommend Eichler Homes: Design for Living, a well annotated and photographed book on Joseph Eichler's Northern California developments that grew out of the case study house projects, and City of Quartz by Mike Davis, about the sociopolitical and urban development (both good and bad) of the city that embraced modern architecture. — Spencer Grice
The Critic: Spencer Grice is a design architect with Baskervill. His background is in corporate buildings and interiors. He is currently working on a mixed-use development in Dalian, China. He recently completed the VCU Brandcenter.
At first glance you would think HOUSES OF THE 20TH AND 21ST CENTURIES Revised Edition ($85) was a standard architecture coffee-table book with sexy photos of cool houses. Noted author Kenneth Frampton — Columbia University professor, distinguished architect, historian and critic — would have none of that, opting for a documentary style and short, heavy, relevant passages to set up each of the four sections of the book. Frampton documents his story of an expanded era of modern housemaking in this revised edition, from its roots in Catharine Beecher's 1869 treatise on homemaking, The American Woman's Home, and H. H. Richardson's 1887 Glessner House in Chicago to the 2007 Gefter/Press Residence by Michael Bell.
Frampton makes his bias clear from the outset that he chose works that mix art and architecture, including only those houses that show what he calls "semantic density," poetic depth and complexity, and only from high-caliber architects. This "modern" is not simply a stylistic vocabulary but a way of thinking about materials, building and living that is hopeful at an individual as well as national level. For me, as an architect and aficionado of the modern, this book provides relevance for looking "towards a new architecture" with a genealogy that spans three centuries. —Scott Kyle
The Critic: Scott Kyle , principal at sustainable-design practice Full Scale Architecture, helped found the James River Green Building Council. He designed the VCU Mary & Frances Youth Center which won a 2008 AIA Honor Award.