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Modern then, modern now

DESIGN DISPATCH

September 11, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

The 1950s launched the Jet Age. Everything happened fast. Southern California's population skyrocketed, ranch-style homes popped up in suburbs and people, weary of just getting by, longed for an instant new way to live.

The old notion of a stuffy parlor was tossed out to make room for a living room that let in sunlight. Festooned furniture was pushed aside for sleek geometrical designs made from affordable wood, tile and plastic. Knickknacks, considered too fussy, were knocked off shelves and replaced with simple ceramic vases, martini shakers and the latest electronics.

Two forces merged in 1954 to guide new homeowners on how to decorate their chic spaces: House Beautiful magazine and the Los Angeles County Fair.

An exhibit at the fairground's Fine Arts Building that summer showcased modern rooms as envisioned by progressive architects and designers. More than 1 million people examined the artfully decorated rooms that blended contemporary furniture with pottery, mosaics, rugs and turned wood. Frank Lloyd Wright, who inspired much of the work, arrived in a limo. Postcards of the rooms were collectors' items. "The Arts of Daily Living" exhibit had impact.

Almost 50 years later, that impact still resonates with the re-creation of the living room that wowed Wright and made the cover of House Beautiful. The display opens Friday at the fair and runs through Sept. 28.

The living room on the magazine's cover is dominated by a dramatic aggregate concrete block wall with jutting square tiles that was inspired by Wright's work. The patterns of triangles, chevrons and diamonds are mirrored in the floor plan, sofa pillows, cocktail tables, rug patches, even the log rest in the fireplace.

"Notice how the architecture and decorating harmonize and echo each other," the magazine text reads, as if it were an instruction manual. This "produces unity and character -- the highest qualities design can aspire to.... Study it."

Christy Johnson was only 10 when she saw the original rooms, whose goal was to show how to incorporate art into contemporary living.

"They were overpowering, stunning," says Johnson, who now is the curator of the Fine Arts Building's Millard Sheets Gallery, named after the artist and instructor who organized the original exhibit.

Johnson doesn't remember who accompanied her back then; maybe her parents or her aunt and uncle who were building a home at the time. But she vividly recalls a patio with a mosaic fountain. It survived and is part of the current display.

"The exhibit is a reflection of 49 years ago, but also of today," Johnson says. "The housing market is hot again. The principle of nesting is high because of recent tragedies. People want to be in a safe, comforting place."

Johnson and her staff faced a lot of challenges duplicating the room. Because the space was smaller, the room had to be flipped -- right wall on the left -- to make it fit.

They had no floor plans, just color photographs from a dog-eared copy of the magazine's October 1954 edition. The team had to become design detectives to pull it off. They had a list of some of the materials; others were a mystery. In either case, inexpensive substitutes were used since the budget for the entire exhibit, which includes 11 other rooms, was $12,000. That wouldn't even cover the cost of the alligator sculpture, if it still existed.

Searching for vintage look-alikes at thrift stores didn't pan out; mid-century modern furnishings are in such demand that they don't last long with price tags dangling on them. Retro showrooms, furniture stores and the Internet weren't the answer either. "Too expensive or the wrong look," Johnson says with a sigh.

The team had to improvise. A thin, red leather chair on sale at IKEA was dyed brown and tacks were added. Six small terrazzo tables were duplicated by fixing vintage-looking legs from Home Depot onto painted triangular table tops.

And the 22-foot-long block wall, which was made with an experimental, lightweight aggregate and cement mixture, was reproduced by layering 12-inch pieces of sawed hardboard. Tiles were sponge-painted with two shades of ochre and trompe l'oeil shadows created a sense of depth between the layers. Because it looked porous, the hardboard's textured backside was exposed.

The built-in sofa needed silk fabric with a rusty orange hue, "not an easy color to locate," says the ever-patient Johnson. She settled on one before a staffer objected, calling it "Caltrans orange."

"I hated it too," she says, "so I went out again and found a better one."

Then there was the alligator sculpture. It was sold soon after the exhibit and accidentally destroyed. Johnson hoped she could borrow another piece from artist John Svenson, who said he had a shark fountain he made around that same time.

"I don't know how much truth there is in this," says Johnson, "but I heard Millard Sheets envisioned something more peaceful than an alligator for that room. He wanted doves, but when John put the alligator in, Frank Lloyd Wright picked it to be on the magazine cover and Millard accepted it."

It turned out that the shark was too top-heavy and wouldn't hang correctly, so Svenson lent the exhibit another piece: One with branches and doves.

Sometimes, it just works out.

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The retro living room, as well as a re-creation of Millard Sheets' mid-1950s home in Claremont, a replication of "The Brady Bunch" set of the 1970s and nine other fully furnished new vignettes will be on display at the Fine Arts Building at the Fairplex on Friday through Sept. 28.

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The Fairplex is at 1101 W. McKinley Ave., Pomona; www.lacountyfair.com.

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