Daring Design

The Elrod House epitomizes John Lautner’s go-for-broke philosophy

Allison Engel Modernism

An apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright early in his career, John Lautner eschewed the cool, severe geometry of his midcentury minimalist peers. Instead, he spent a lifetime as an iconoclast, alternately overlooked or miscast by critics. Several of his best-known projects — including the iconic Googie coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard — have been wrongly celebrated as Atomic Age or Hollywood kitsch.

"Lautner’s fascination with new shapes and structures had nothing to do with Space Age futurism, or movieland glamour, or virtuoso engineering, but came from his determination to humanize the spaces of the built world and create an endlessly varied organic poetry. This was a profoundly serious agenda," wrote Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum, in a foreword to the book that accompanied a retrospective exhibition of Lautner’s work at the Los Angeles museum last July.

Only after he died in 1994 did Lautner’s original designs start to receive attention and recognition as an influence on current architecture luminaries — such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid — whose work displays an organic, earthy bent.

One project that contains many Lautner hallmarks — a difficult site, a modest entrance concealing a soaring space, rooms that flirt between inside and out — is also one that represents the contradictions between his designs and how they were originally perceived. The Elrod House on Southridge Drive in Palm Springs, built in 1968 for interior designer Arthur Elrod, is memorable for its enormous domed concrete roof, with wedge-like sections cut out to accommodate skylights and provide indirect light.

Designed to shield the home from the intense desert sun, the roof rests on curved concrete walls. Black slate tile floors add drama, as does an indoor-outdoor swimming pool and boulders massed in the living room. When Lautner saw rocks exposed on the 23-acre site from grading, he directed the contractor to dig 10 feet deeper, uncovering massive rocks that would became an integral part of the interior design.

The general public knows the house primarily as the ultimate bachelor pad from the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds are Forever and as a location for Playboy photo shoots. Instead of a realization of Lautner’s emphasis on the relationship between space and nature, for most of its existence, the house was considered a symbol of Hollywood excess.

During Lautner’s lifetime, critics and the public seemed not to know what to make of his oddly shaped, back-to-nature structures. The longtime Los Angeles resident retained a deep longing for the north Michigan woods of his youth, designing homes that were alternately cave-like and open to the sky. In a career that spanned 55 years, he backed up his daring designs with extraordinary feats of engineering. (As he was said to have put it, "You’re wasting your time if you don’t know how to hold up the roof!")

Faced with impossible sites, harsh climates, or both, Lautner time and again invented solutions. In the Elrod House, for example, the pavilion-like living room originally was ringed with floor-to-ceiling glass arranged in a zigzagged curtain wall. Shortly after the house was built, a desert sandstorm broke the panes. Lautner reacted with something even more outrageous: He installed two 25-foot-wide hanging glass curtain walls that retract to open up the living room completely to the outside at the touch of a button.

The 8,901-square-foot house is now praised for its relationship with its mountain landscape and its sense of drama. Contemporary critics, warming to Lautner’s designs, consider the home one of the architect’s most important works. The curators of Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner, the Hammer Museum retrospective, looked at 300 of his projects and selected 50 to feature in the exhibition. Of those, they gave six projects particular emphasis, commissioning videos that were projected next to newly built large-scale models of the structures. One was the Elrod House.

The exhibit, which closed at the Hammer in October, moves to Glasgow, Scotland, in March; heads to Florida International University in Miami in October; and runs at Palm Springs Art Museum from Feb. 20 to May 23, 2010.

Beguiled by the home’s audasity, a real estate investor who divides his time between Hermosa Beach, Palm Springs, and West Hollywood admired it for a year before buying it in 2003. Since then, he has brought back some of the project’s original staff to care for the treasure. The owner later purchased the two adjacent Southridge houses (both architecturally significant), creating a portfolio of unusual houses that he is preserving in a way that also honors their use as lived-in spaces, ones made available to friends, family, business associates, and for special occasions.

The owner felt a special bond with the Elrod House; Lautner is the favorite architect of his father, an aeronautical engineer.

The main floor includes a kitchen, hidden from the living room by a long, curved wall. The generous master bedroom (originally only of only two in the house) features a bar and refrigerator tucked behind walls of exotic wood, with carefully matched grains. Elrod was a wizard at organization, wanting everything in its proper place, and Lautner obliged by filling multiple closets with row after row of pullout Lucite drawers. The closets are lined with cork so that jewelry or other accessories can be pinned up.

The sunken tub in the master bath is exposed to the outside, with only a glass wall standing between the T-shaped tub and a tidy row of bamboo. The area is unprotected but private, thanks to the remote site and the natural screening of a boulder.

A guest house and servants quarters, reached down a spiral staircase from the pool deck, was added two years after the main house was built.

Gardens around the house interweave formal and casual plantings: a moss area, fern patch, bamboo garden, paths of crushed rock ringed with cactus, and perennials that Elrod used to make potpourri to give to house guests. In a room carved into the cliff face, his many bins for dried flowers remain, with his hand-lettered labels: arrow, tansy, cornflowers, bergamot, roses.

The current owner managed to get a tour of the house in 2002 and couldn’t get it off his mind. "I walked out muttering, ‘That’s the best expression of space I’ve ever encountered,’" he says. "I muttered for over two months and began writing offers."

He bought the house from supermarket magnet Ron Burkle, who had poured millions into the house during the years he owned it.

"I give Burkle full marks," says the current owner. "He did all the thankless stuff you never see, basically renovating all the mechanical systems and furnishing it in a manner that’s true to the space." Lautner visited the house during that restoration and approved of the work.

Even at $5.5 million he paid for the house, the owner thinks it was undervalued. "You’ll never find the site again. You’ll never get the approvals again. And you had true simpatico between the client, architect, and contractor — something impossible to count on and critical to the best results."

He hired a contractor; housekeeper; pool man; manager; and Ricardo Flores, the son of the man who installed and maintained the original Lautner landscape. The staff also cares for the two other Southridge properties he bought: the former Steve McQueen house designed by Hugh Kaptur and "Boat House" designed by Michael P. Johnson for race-car driver James Jeffords.

As for the Elrod House, the owner says he discovers "fantastic sight lines and subtle design details" every time he stays in the house. "I really love the space," he says. "At the end of the day, environment impacts mood. And one of the best ways to shape mood is good design."