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Modernism on sale, at Kemper and the film festival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 20, 2008 - I spent part of a recent Saturday afternoon at Ivey-Selkirk Auctioneers in Clayton. As the auction proceeded, I realized that, until quite very recently, the objects on the block wouldn't have been considered worthy enough to build an entire auction weekend around.

This was modernist material - chairs and sofas, tables and sideboards, bowls and silver candlesticks, lamps, paintings and so forth, all representative of an eclectic strain of design that captured the fascination of American in the mid-20th century, then petered out before that century was over. Just a few years ago, many of the consigned objects would have been considered out of date or kitschy or downright tacky, not Elvis on velvet but just this side.

Economic blows had battered auction-goers, like everyone else, so the prices seemed flabby and the enthusiasm for bidding was rather lackluster while I looked on. I could hear old Ben Selkirk entoning "Come, Come, Come!"

But there was interest in this material both by collectors and smart setters who want to furnish their surroundings with interesting, well-designed objects and furniture. Mid-century American design is in the midst of a popular re-appreciation. If you watch television on Sunday nights, you may have seen one of the best series ever produced for the tube. It's called "Mad Men" and, by the way, stars a local fellow named Jon Hamm. The decor of "Mad Men" is flawlessly mid-century, and it is stunning. It takes you back -- but it also propels you forward.

Some of the inspiration for mid-century modernism came from Europe, from Scandinavia in particular, and from avant-garde German circles, represented by emigres such as architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. But what bubbled up would be intrinsic melting pot American.

The best of that best came from Los Angeles, where cool was incubated in the warmth of a region that has always produced so much more than motion pictures. The Kemper Museum, part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual at Washington University, has a show up through early next year that celebrates the California modernist movement. It is called "Birth of the Cool - California Art, Design and Culture at Mid-century." Check out the website and the Eames chairs are part of what you'll see.

Modernism as it evolved in Los Angeles had permeable boundaries. The subjects of bold abstractionist paintings were absorbed into furniture design and vice versa. A splint designed for use in World War II looked like sculpture, so did ash trays and tabletops. Television, rather unselfconsciously, spread the impression that all of this was glamour. Distinctions correctly were made between high and low art, but there was also a democratic spirit at play, where painting and sculpture might be esteemed but objects regarded as decorative, utilitarian or both were not excluded from the game.

In fact, what is so interesting about the show at Washington University is that many of these so-called decorative or utilitarian objects stand up better to aesthetic scrutiny than do the paintings in the show, which, while certainly interesting as period pieces, are rather more decorative than compelling. In Eames vs. Karl Benjamin, Eames wins.

But a California artist just might say, "So What," and I tend to agree. All this material, be it record covers or furniture or Case Study Houses hanging over the canyon-side, or a photograph of modernist houses by Julius Shulman or photographs of jazz by William Claxton, or paintings or birdbaths or sculptures or music or photographs, whatever - all of it has a special, transcendent value that soars like a mid-century modern rocket beyond the realm of curiosity or trend or fashion into the stratosphere of the significant.

Know why? Because this material, at its best, is original and refined. What's more, and what should matter more, is the fact that it is absolutely authentic.

Julius Shulman was mentioned above in connection with his photographs of Case Study Houses, which were designed by contemporary architects and produced in mid-century LA as part of an experiment in modernist residential design, sponsored by Arts & Architecture Magazine. Shulman is authentic himself, and one of the ways we are able to observe and to learn about California modernism, the Case Study Houses included prominently, is because of him.

Shulman didn't know what to do with his life until someone put a camera in his hands. In a phone interview in 2002, he told me he became a photographer when he went to look at Richard Neutra's Josef Kun House on Fareholm Drive near Fairfax in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles. His father had given him a vest pocket camera, and rather on a lark he photographed this modernist landmark that cascaded down the hill before his eyes. Neutra saw those pictures and commissioned Shulman to photograph other examples of his work. And he touted this young photographer to his colleagues, many of whom were receiving important commissions. Shulman was set.

In our conversation, Shulman said he believes he was "ordained" to be a photographer. As I wrote then, his work is inextricably linked to modern architecture. It is not unreasonable to say that, intentionally or not, he has been a salesman of modernism. Most of his photographs show these residences at their shiny, squeaky-clean best, although Shulman says he sometimes argued with clients to show the houses as they were lived in, not as the architects preferred them to be shown and to be perceived.

At 6:15 p.m. Nov. 22, Eric Bricker's movie about Shulman, "Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman," will be screened at the Tivoli Theatre as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival' s season. I just resisted suggesting the picture is "recommended for anyone who's interested in architecture or modernism" because it is commendable for so much more of us than the modernist fans. "Visual Acoustics" is, above all, a dedicated character study developed on a modernist stage. Shulman and his camera are in the spotlight. Many of the movement's most celebrated characters make appearances great and small. But Shulman, along with his critical eye, his irascibility, his confidence, his artistic ability and, yes, his authenticity, is the star.

There are interesting St. Louis connections between St. Louis and Shulman. One is Eric Bricker, a native son.

Another is Charles Eames. Shulman lavished attention on Charles and Ray Eames' Case Study house in Pacific Palisades, because, as I read Shulman, it was more in line with his idea of what a Case Study house should be, and that was modest and available to a buyer who wasn't necessarily rich. Eames was born in St. Louis. His uncle was William S. Eames, an architect also, a partner in the prominent firm of Eames and Young. Charles was reared here and practiced architecture in St. Louis for a few years, and was part of a dynamic social circle of artists, architects and intellectuals called the Paint and Putter Club before moving on, eventually to Los Angeles. He died of a heart attack on a visit to St. Louis in 1978.

The Eameses' house was built of rather "common" standard industrial materials, but it proved to be as influential as it is comfortable and stylish. There is a direct connection between the Eames House and Frank Gehry's provocative reconstruction of his little pink house on a street corner in Santa Monica.

Another St. Louisism explored in the movie is the Grace Lewis Miller house in Palm Springs, designed by Richard Neutra. In 1935, after the death of her physician husband, Herman Miller, Mrs. Miller and her two sons, Philip and Jefferson, moved from Vandeventer Place in St. Louis to California where she intended to teach school. In 2004, Jeff Miller told me that, soon after they arrived in Palm Springs, his mother bought some land at a bargain price in Palm Springs and hired Richard Neutra to design a house, constructed of glass, steel and concrete.

Shulman photographed the house over three years, 1936-39. As I wrote in 2004, his photographs show it having the long, lean lines characteristic of this architect's work. A House Beautiful magazine article, illustrated with Shulman's pictures, described Miller's residence as the best desert house in North America. Washington University Architecture College professor Stephen Leet wrote an excellent book called "Richard Neutra's Miller House," published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2004. Naturally, Shulman's photographs are featured in it and contribute considerably to the book's overall distinction.

The Miller House fell on hard times and was headed for destruction, the fate of so many well-designed, well-built mid-century buildings. All too many have been knocked down wantonly, such as the extraordinary Morton D. May house on Warson Road in Ladue.

Bricker's movie looks at the Miller House as it was built and returns to look at it in recent times. It escaped the May house's fate. It was rescued and rehabilitated and survives. Shulman's photographs of it are very much part of its legacy and of modernism as well. Bricker's fine movie adds another chapter to the story, and it is a good one. On Saturday evening, a packed house at the Film Festival gave it an enthusiastic reception. 

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.