Monday, March 29, 2010

Exterior Decoration with John Leighton Chase

Exterior Decoration: Hollywood's Inside Out Houses, by John Leighton Chase, is an integrated investigation of a place, West Hollywood, a style, post World War II Hollywood Regency, a profession, interior design and decoration, and of a sensibility, some of it is the relationship between male homosexuality and aesthetic taste and understanding. The book is an examination of the intersection of all of those subjects by using a relatively small and well-defined case study group of buildings, people and places. The popular language of status-conscious architecture is explored in this account of the notorious do-it-yourself remodels clustered on the fringe of Beverly Hills in West Hollywood. These former stucco bungalows have been transformed by their owners into distinctive visual statements. As if they were stage sets, the exteriors of these houses have been treated as interiors, with urns and finials placed on rooftops like bibelots on a mantel, and windows and panels of trellis arranged as though they were pictures on a wall. The result is a lively architectural vernacular, well documented with "before and after" photos, interviews, and construction details.

This book is not only insightful, but it's also eerily relevant today as when it was first published in 1982. There are slews of books that explore the history of design in L.A., and a number of reads that take a sociological angle for the L.A. landscape. Far less do we find a thourough investigation of West Hollywood as a microcosm of design that exists within the larger context of Los Angeles. None have so successfully explored the essence of the city's inhabitants as John Leighton Chase. The author, who also doubles as the urban designer for the city of West Hollywood, is an interviewers dream... informative, honest and funny. I enjoyed our Q&A as much as I enjoyed reading John's book. With no further delay:

SY: The title of your book, Exterior Decoration, intrigued me from the get-go. Can you elaborate on the meaning behind the title, as well as what inspired you to write on this topic?

JLC: "Everyone is familiar with the words interior decoration. They describe, among other things, the design, selection, placement and treatment of objects, furnishings, colors, and materials of interior space, of rooms. Many of the components that are assembled have strong identities in their own right. A painting, an armchair, a vase, exists as complete finished designs in themselves, and as objects. They are then combined and reworked into a larger complete identity of the room or interior. Furnishings in an interior are worlds within worlds. Architects put together buildings in a different way, often called architectonic. The parts and the whole must always have an organic relationship of oneness. For example, [...] a windowsill without a window is not yet finished, and not a complete object in itself. Every interior decorator and designer understands an important fact about what their clients want that sometimes seems to escape many architects. What is that fact? That people love possessions and objects as much and sometimes more then they love buildings. So sometimes focusing on those possessions, which can occupy the special universe that includes objects of affection, such as pets, kids, houseplants, is a more direct route to client happiness. So given these very different approaches of architects and interior decorators and designers, I wanted to understand what happened when a designer acted as the architects of their own home facades, particularly when they were on a budget and they could only make a few key changes in an existing house."

"After World War II, West Hollywood became a center of the interior design industry. The designers moved into the small, simple houses that make up the WEHO neighborhoods across the border from Beverly Hills. They remodeled their houses to reflect who they were, re-clad them with facades that reflected their own taste and their own identity. The remodels were miniature evocations of the houses of the wealthy that the designers decorated and often helped design. The Exterior Decoration remodels were altered, not as a whole, but in pieces, and sometimes simply by placing iconic decoration on them. Usually much of the original house was still visible. So the parts that were altered became shorthand for the whole, and the houses themselves could be read on two levels, as their remodelers intended, or like Andy Warhol's 1961 painting “Before and After” could be glimpsed in both its original and altered state. That intrigued me, and I thought that it would be fun to try and investigate that duality. It's also why I included photos of Before, After and During for the remodels."

SY: To me, Exterior Decoration is as much a social commentary on the lifestyle of West Hollywood as it is a historical account of the indigenous Architectural styles of the city. Was this your intention, or a wonderful consequence of your research?

JLC: "The book is an integrated investigation of a place, West Hollywood, a style, post World War II Hollywood Regency, a profession, interior design and decoration, and of a sensibility, some of its the relationship between male homosexuality and aesthetic taste and understanding. I liked the idea of examining the intersection of all of those subjects by using a relatively small and well-defined case study group of buildings, people and places.
I was also interested in local history, gay history, and how gay people affected and created urban neighborhoods. You could call it proto queer history, and proto queer space, though I would not have thought of it in that way at the time. I was trying to push the boundaries of what was permissible to discuss at the time. The book was researched in the late 70s. So for example I would not say that John Woolf was gay, rather I would say that he legally adopted Bob Koch Woolf as an adult. I was interested in how gays participated in a taste culture that was consumed by the culture at large. To my way of thinking the vernacular mansard roof that was promulgated by decorators in the 1950s wound up in spec. All discussions of gay taste are potentially liberating and oppressive, just like any other generalizations about any group of people."

SY: Historically, residents of West Hollywood seem to be remodel rather than replace? Why?

JLC: "It was way faster and cheaper. They were more familiar with stage-set construction, draping, painting and attaching objects rather than actual construction."

SY: Much of your book is a meticulous account of Spanish Revival Homes that were transformed into Hollywood Regency style in the 50’s &60’s. For me, this was particularly interesting because we just witnessed, once again, a trend for the Regency style mainstream in the past few years. How is this second wave similar or different than before? What’s your take on designers like Kelly Wearstler who have reinterpreted Regency for another run?

JLC: "Just to be blunt, the difference is that Kelly Wearstler is a genius. God bless them, but the authors of the house remodels were not. Wearstler is a consummate design professional in her work who creates fully realized, completely coherent designs. The homeowners I discuss in my book were working on a more vernacular, almost folk level, in which they approached their work piece by piece, but not necessarily with such a clear awareness of what they were doing, or how the pieces added up."

SY: Why Hollywood Regency? Is it a result of the link between the film world of Hollywood and the physical world of Hollywood, or is it linked with a desire to be associated with an upper-class status?

JLC: "Hollywood Regency is a descendant of Classical Architecture, which signified erudition, refinement, sophistication, and the taste of the wealthy to the decorators. The attenuated proportions and the pared down quality of the Classical references particularly lent themselves to easy fabrication with paint, plywood and plaster. The mansard roof that became a hallmark of the Ex Dec-ers version of the style was a symbol of French culture, of all that was artful and civilized. In the 1950s the mansard roof was part of a set of aspirations towards a more highly evolved and sophisticated life style, symbolized by the use of concepts such as "gourmet" or "custom". These houses might have been thought of as bungalows or cottages. Add a mansard and you had yourself an instant city townhouse. Many of the remodelers had associations with Hollywood, as part time or former actors, or stage set, set dressing or prop experience. And I always think, as people who both know and are often reminded they are different gay people are especially sensitive to social status, and markers of class. I think some people get to think their identity is somehow automatic or god-given. Not true for gay people. We are always aware that our identities (unlike our sexual preferences) are a choice, that they are socially constructed. And certainly anyone who works in the entertainment industry is very conscious of constructed identity as well. I also think during the pre Gay Lib years, there would have been an extra depth charge behind compensating for any perceived slight or lack of social status as gay, by putting on a bit of extra pomp and circumstance for the world at large. In the case of the Ex. Decs’ that could come in the form of a cast concrete urn, or a special clerestory window designed to display a chandelier."

SY: What is it about Hollywood Regency that speaks to generation after generation of West Hollywood and neighboring homeowners?

JLC: "In certain ways, Hollywood Regency is literally the last word in design. Here the classical tradition has been attenuated, and concentrated to an essence, refracted through a modernist sensibility of blank wall surfaces, and the use of ornament as punctuation. Take Hollywood Regency any further and you wind up with either a bland and undeveloped modern neo-classicism or just plain modernism, neither of which is a bad thing, but neither of which possess the brilliant tension between elaboration and restraint of Hollywood Regency, doe. Hollywood Regency is a style that has it all, both modern and period revival at the same time."

SY: I love the contrast you describe between the decorative efforts of an L.A. homeowner to that of a New Yorker. The difference of interior vs. exterior decoration becomes clear in this comparison. What are the key differences between the coasts as it pertains to remodeling?

JLC: "Maybe it’s easiest to focus on the difference by contrasting Manhattan and L.A. In Manhattan, only the privileged few get to own and have control over the full facade of a building. In Los Angeles, in the prime Exterior Decoration period my book covered, from the later 1940s to the early 1960s, there were still parts of Los Angeles, like WEHO, that people of modest means could buy a small free standing single family house, whose public appearance they could readily alter.

SY: “Exterior Decoration is devoted to the […] contributions of private fantasy to the public realm.” Please elaborate for us.

JLC: "If I should ever come into a great deal of money, I would cross dress. That is, dress as a cross between Elton John and Lady Gaga in order to get as much attention as possible, not necessarily to look as good as possible. If I were to go to a special event, say a retrospective exhibit for design icon Tony Duquette, my outfit of choice might be a suit made from a fabric with fleur-de-lis and a top hat to match. Ideally it would be in Hollywood so I could walk down Hollywood Boulevard. There I would pass by Jesus, Catwoman, and Mario Brothers’ impersonators in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. I would be part of the theatrical atmosphere of the Boulevard, where you are free to be anyone you want to be. My private fantasy would wind up on tourists' Facebook page in pictures, as a record of the public goings on in public space of the Boulevard. My private choice becomes some one else’s experience, just as the individual private sensibilities of the Ex Dec-ers created the fabric of the public streetscape, one remodel at a time."

SY: You speak of a common thread that runs through “both the most facile interior-decoration remodel and the most sophisticated period-revival Pasadena mansion. After years of research, what do you think the link is between the vulgar and the refined remodels of greater Los Angeles?

JLC: "The common link is the need to make a statement in unequivocal terms, to make a complete set piece that evokes the attitude, time and place of the designer/architect's and clients choice with no apologies and no holds barred. The difference between the two is that the sophisticated period revival buildings were designed far more carefully, and with a much deeper understanding of their vocabulary. The Ex Dec remodels, in effect aped these houses, including key elements that signified the fancier mansions, such as columns. But in every respect the Ex Dec buildings were far simpler in their composition, execution, and not often necessarily complete as a work of architecture."

SY: The Regency remodels discussed were occurring at the same time as L.A.’s golden age for Modernism. While some desired to bring a regality to their home, the Case Study program simultaneously in full effect, designing homes with simple lines that lacked ornamentations. These are two significant movements in Southern California that seem to be at poplar opposites. Did these design trends overlap in any way?

JLC: "Southern California has long been an important site for the production of culture. It’s very American to get to choose who you are and to transform yourself into who you want to be, whether it’s by self-help or plastic surgery. There's no place more American than Los Angeles, where this opportunity creates a great diversity of design ethos and predilections. That said, I do think that throughout the history of modern interior design and decoration in America there has been a continuous interest in period revival design, as well as modern design. This has not been true in the culture of architecture, where period revival architecture for most of the period since World War II has been reviled, viewed as anachronistic, and pointless nostalgic. Interior designers and decorators are far more eclectic in their taste than architects."

SY: It’s clear now that the West Hollywood remodeler is looking for some kind of public validation is their over-the-top decorations. At the same time, your book discusses the desire for privacy from the very same residents. I’d love to hear your take on this contradiction?

JLC: "Well, who doesn't want to give a party that is so fantastic that your joy in the excitement of the guests is equaled only by your schadenfreude at everyone’s envy who did not make the guest list! There were two major variants of Exterior Decoration West Hollywood style in the ‘50s. One version featured a big picture window where possessions could be put on display. That was the version where you were supposed to be able to see and admire what you saw. The other was a largely blank facade with a false wall taller than the house. It telegraphed that something very grand was going inside, very special and really too good to be available to the prying eyes of Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public."

SY: You wrote Exterior Decoration in 1982, and it’s eerily as relevant today as it was 28 years ago. That said, I’m interested to hear your take on any highlights, evolutions, or shifts in the city of West Hollywood as it pertains to trends in remodeling in the past 28 years?

JLC: "The biggest change is that prior to the incorporation of West Hollywood as a City in 1984, it was a place that had little control over it’s own destiny. West Hollywood was a place that was neglected in its governance, and that had the potential to be so much more. With cityhood, the consciousness of the citizenry as a community has expanded exponentially and now there is a great deal of public involvement with the city, a greater sense of civic pride, and much more that the City can offer the world than the town ever had when the County governed it. The explanation often given for the presence of nightclubs on the Sunset Strip, and gay clubs on Santa Monica Boulevard is that West Hollywood was left over territory between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, not incorporated as a City. As an example of the control that West Hollywood did not have over itself in one area alone, that of historic preservation, the County allowed Irving Gill's masterpiece, the Dodge House to be torn down, and one year before cityhood, allowed the oldest house in Hollywood, the 1875 ranch house of Eugenio Plummer to fall into disrepair and ultimately be moved to Calabasas in order to save it. West Hollywood had long been a site for the generation of culture in architecture, design, entertainment, music, fashion and literature. Now it has become a center of organized political action on a range of issues from gun control to senior, renters and LGBT rights. It has also gained a new generation of landmark architecture such as the residential buildings by Lorcan O’Herlihy, Josh Schweitzer’s Kol Ami Temple, and Patrick Tighe’s brand-new affordable housing/mixed use building at Sierra Bonita and Santa Monica Blvd."

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