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Good Vibrations

With a Painstaking Restoration and Groovy Furnishings, Artist Jim Isermann Brings a Mid-Century Classic Back to Life

September 24, 2000|ADELE CYGELMAN | Adele Cygelman last wrote for the magazine about a Palm Springs house designed by the Jersey Devil architecture group

TROLLING THE THRIFT STORES OF PALM SPRINGS for furniture and lamps to add to his collection of 1950s and '60s furnishings had long been a pastime of Santa Monica-based artist Jim Isermann. He and partner David Blomster, also an artist, were soon captivated by the city's perfectly preserved examples of mid-century architecture, deciding three years ago to buy a steel house from the period even though, aesthetically, it was in anything but good condition.

"When I brought back the 'before' pictures, friends thought I was insane," Isermann says with a laugh. But he and Blomster were inspired by the transformation of a neighboring house. "I realized what the house could be," says Isermann, who bonded instantly with the symmetrical, clean and economically designed architecture.

Their house, tucked into a quiet corner in the north end of town, was one of seven prototypes built in 1962 for a proposed subdivision that never happened. By the early 1960s, steel had become the construction material of choice for postwar desert architects--it is earthquake-resistant, termite-proof, doesn't warp in the heat and is long-lasting. Architect Donald Wexler, who had worked with Richard Neutra in Los Angeles before heading out to the desert in 1952, collaborated with U.S. Steel and Bernie Perlin, president of Calcor, a company in Huntington Park that specialized in steel construction. They designed a low-cost steel house that was simple but thoroughly modern. The core of the house--the kitchen and bathrooms--remained fixed, but the rest of the layout was completely flexible. A family could opt to convert a formal dining room into a den or add an extra bedroom. The 1,400-square-foot house cost $13,000 to $17,000 and it could be assembled on-site in three to four weeks.

But the intervening years were not kind. Its original concept as a low-maintenance open-plan home had been obscured by dense shrubbery, three layers of drapes, green shag carpeting, mustard yellow wallpaper and dark brown furniture. Every effort had been made to block out the sun. It was easy to understand why Wexler, depressed by what had been done to the houses, refused to revisit the site until recently.

Isermann and Blomster spent nine months stripping away peeling paint to reveal the galvanized steel. They ripped out the shag carpeting and covered the concrete floors with white linoleum tile. Walls became white. The ceiling's acoustic layer was removed. On the grounds, the new owners' major task was installing a pool, which Blomster designed to match the exact length of the house and width of the living room, creating a seamless transition from inside to outside.

Now the house once again shimmers with light and, naturally, art. Isermann grew up in Wisconsin, heading west in the late 1970s. A 15-year survey of his work, titled "Fifteen," was shown first at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and traveled to the Santa Monica Museum of Art last year. His vibrant pop art flower decal paintings, hand-braided geometric rugs, room tableaux complete with vinyl-covered sofas and sunburst clocks and op art stained-glass installations at a Metro Blue Line station in Long Beach occupy the increasingly busy intersection of art and design, "the place where pop culture influences art, and vice versa," he says.

Isermann's own pieces may look like a marriage between groovy arts and suburban crafts, but his taste in furniture is closer to the classically severe works of Verner Panton, "a design hero of mine," and those of Raymond Loewy, Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen. "The house is all right angles, there are no curves, so angular furniture looks best," he notes. "Wood also looked too warm and wrong for the desert, so the house has nothing with exposed wood, just laminates, steel and upholstery." He has, he says, learned to keep some of his own paintings for himself, and their strong reds and oranges practically vibrate in the cool white space.

Apart from the arrival of a polished-steel bed frame and the completion of additional landscaping, Isermann and Blomster say their desert getaway is just about perfect. The two spend about a third of the year in Palm Springs but say the city's newfound popularity is a mixed blessing. "I'm happy to see more '50s stuff being saved in the world, but I'm glad I bought the house when I could afford it," Isermann says, adding, "Now they are selling for three times the price, which excludes people like me from buying and fixing them up.

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What Inspires Jim Isermann

Monsanto's House of the Future at Tomorrowland in Disneyland, opened in 1957 and dismantled in 1967.

Verner Panton's Visiona II design installation in 1970.

Room 6 at the Vasarely Foundation in Aix-en-Provence. Six tapestries created at Aubusson from 1968 to 1972.

The rigid logic of late Modernist architect Paul Rudolph.

Target's plastic knock-offs of George Nelson's seminal asterisk, ball and sunburst clocks.

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