Introducing the Alvin Lustig House—a.k.a. the William H. Thomas Residence.
In May, my wife and I purchased a small home in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles.
It turns out to have a very interesting history. Unknown and unpublished until now, it seems to be one of only two houses designed and built by the great Alvin Lustig before his death at age 40 in 1955.
The first clue was the cement tiles pictured above. They used to exist in only one place: on the facade of the Beverly Carlton Hotel, which is now called The Avalon and which Lustig also designed.
Then we found them in our bathroom.
The second clue was a classified ad from the November 1958 issue of Arts & Architecture (above). “House designed by Alvin Lustig,” it read.
This is the only explicit mention of Lustig’s name in connection to any built residential structure other than the June Wayne residence, and the description matches our new house precisely. My guess is that it was placed in the magazine by the house’s original owner, JBL chief Bill Thomas, who moved to Los Feliz that year and who always told friends and visitors that his house was designed by Lustig, according to his son Christopher.
After some digging—most of it by the house’s previous owner, Andy Hackman—the full story has finally been uncovered:
Alvin Lustig and William H. (Bill) Thomas likely made acquaintance in the late 1930’s while students at Los Angeles City College. Lustig was an upstart graphic designer, printer, and educator, and Thomas was a brilliant engineer and businessman.
In 1939, while at Kittell Muffler, and later with various other companies in which Thomas had established an interest, Thomas hired Lustig to design brochures. In 1944, Lustig designed an innovative helicopter for the Roteron company, a commission from and collaboration with Thomas. In the mid 1940s, Lustig also designed brochures and speaker cabinet enclosures for JBL (James B. Lansing), a company that Thomas would come to control and own in 1949 upon Lansing’s death.
During 1946 and 1947, Thomas commissioned Lustig to design his residence in Silver Lake, Calif. It was near this same time that Lustig and Sam Reisbord, a licensed architect, began work on the Beverly Carlton Hotel (now the Avalon Hotel) and the Beverly-Landau Apartments, both in Beverly Hills, Calif.
During the early post-war period, Lustig provided interior design and furnishings services for a number of close acquaintances in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles along with designing a large scale residence for the artist June Wayne in 1949 above Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood. The Thomas residence of 1946-1947 is believed to be Lustig’s first full expression of residential design and the only known example other than the later Wayne residence.
Renovations are currently underway, and our goal is to restore this lost modernist gem to its original luster.
For updates on the process—as well as more information on Alvin Lustig and his designs—bookmark or follow my new site, The Lustig House.
P.S. Tragically, the house did not cost us $32,500.
I spent last Friday hanging out with legendary record producer Rick Rubin at The Band’s old clubhouse in Malibu. He was just about to notch his second No. 1 album in a row: first Black Sabbath’s 13, then Kanye West’s Yeezus. We talked about those records, but we spent most of the day discussing the rest of his career—discovering LL Cool J, writing “Girls” with Ad-Rock, stalking Chuck D, convincing the Red Hot Chili Peppers to record “Under the Bridge,” running Columbia Records. Rubin was a marvel: wise, generous, and just really, really cool.
Here’s a short excerpt:
I know it’s an impossible question, but I’m going to ask it anyway, because you’ve helped create a lot of them: what makes a great song great?
I don’t think you can define what it is, but you know it when you hear it. It’s amazing that sometimes you might hear a song that, knowing what you know, won’t make sense—and yet it will still be great. There are songs that can transcend whatever genre limitations they have or style limitations they have.
So you don’t believe that, say, a great melody is necessarily part of a great song?
No, no. I think one of the things that really drew me to hip-hop was how you could get to this very minimal essence of a song—to a point where many people wouldn’t call it a song. My first credit was “Reduced by Rick Rubin.” That was on LL Cool J’s debut album,Radio. The goal was to be just vocals, a drum machine, and a little scratching. There’s very little going on.
Why was that so important to you?
There’s a tremendous power in using the least amount of information to get a point across.
Read the rest—all 5,000-plus words—in the latest digital issue of Newsweek.
Views of Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright (1935)
Visit if you ever get the chance. Pictures are nice, but they’re no substitute for experiencing a house in person. You really need to be inside this place to process it.
Harrison McIntosh. Obsessed.
Fun fact: McIntosh started throwing pottery in the garage of his parents’ house—which happened to be designed by Richard Neutra.
Here’s McIntosh on the house:
HARRISON MCINTOSH: It was while I was carving picture frames at Gustave Gilbert’s that we started—my parents decided they didn’t want to go on renting a house or an apartment. They wanted to build a house of their own. So my mother and I started to drive around, looking for a lot to do this. We found a beautiful lot up on the top of a hill, south of Sunset Boulevard and southwest of Silver Lake district.
MARY MACNAUGHTON: Is this around 1940?
HARRISON MCINTOSH: This was 1938. Yes, still—because we weren’t able to find suitable plans for a house. And so I—I’d always been following exhibitions of architecture and so forth. And I was familiar with the work of Richard Neutra. And I knew that Neutra—his home and his offices were over there on Silver Lake Boulevard. So I suggested to my parents why don’t we call Richard Neutra and find out something about designing a house, with no knowledge whatever of how architects functioned or whatever. So anyway, we called up one day and the very next night, we were sitting in the living room with Mr. and Mrs. Neutra in their Silver Lake house, talking about our house. And he was very enthusiastic even though it was going to be, turned out to be probably the smallest house he ever built. [Laughs.]
So this was an interesting experience for me and my brother too. We went through all the discussions with Neutra about getting the plans worked out with what my parents wanted. The purpose was to have a small house that would be easy to take care of because my dad was going to be retiring in a few years. And so it was a house that Neutra designed done all in redwood. Because redwood was the new product those days. It was supposed to be the marvelous permanent material that was easy to care for, which didn’t quite turn out that way. [Laughs.] But anyway—so my brother and I helped and worked along with the contractor doing a certain amount of the work with the house. And so I was very familiar with the whole process of the whole construction of the house. We had a very good contractor, who was a man who had been a ship builder in Sweden. And we came about having him really was just by chance. It was the fact that he offered the lowest bid. And-
MARY MACNAUGHTON: Do you remember his name?
HARRISON MCINTOSH: Oh, I know his name but I can’t remember it at the moment now. Oh, Erich Nelson. Anyway, he turned out to do such a very nice job that Neutra had him do some more houses for him which was unusual because Neutra usually was really upset with most of all contractors. And let me see—there was a thing—so in the process of designing the house, I had him do a double garage but on the whole north side, we had him make—put windows on the whole north side, with the idea that we could use it as sort of a workshop area.
The coolest. I love these little modernist intersections.
More on the McIntosh House’s current incarnation here.
Someone who worked at the American Crayon Company in the 1950s had very good taste.
To wit: the company’s Pacific Coast Studio, above, was designed in 1951 by Richard Neutra.
It was located in a building—the Northwestern Mutual Fire Association Building, below—that was also designed by Neutra.
When the American Crayon Company needed an advertisement to lure students to its summer course and a display to impress visitors at the 1954 Aspen Design Conference, it turned to Alvin Lustig:
Oh, and the ACC also published a magazine called Everyday Art (below). It was designed by John Follis and Fred Usher, both of whom studied under Lustig at the Art Center School and went on to design for Arts & Architecture as well. Usher worked for Charles and Ray Eames at one point; Follis designed some wonderful planters and iron stands for Architectural Pottery.
One issue of Everyday Art (below) featured a story about Alexander Girard’s Santa Fe folk art collection—photographed by Charles Eames.
I’ve read that Lustig also designed the ACC’s New York offices, but I haven’t been able to find photos. If anyone out there knows why a crayon company from Sandusky, Ohio suddenly became a stronghold of modern design around 1951 or so, I’m all ears.
Why do we binge?
For the inaugural issue of Newsweek Global, I reported on the art and science of today’s most addictive television, in part by asking the people who make it—Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, Carlton Cuse of Lost, Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development, Beau Willimon of House of Cards, and D.B. Weiss and David Benioff of Game of Thrones—how exactly they hook us.
Hypnosis isn’t a bad metaphor. After watching Game of Thrones for a mere 30 seconds, my brain begins to produce the alpha waves typically associated with hazy, receptive states of consciousness, which are also generated during the “light hypnotic” stage of suggestion therapy. At the same time, my neurological activity switches from the left hemisphere to the right—that is, from the seat of logical thought to the seat of emotion. Whenever this shift takes place, my body is flooded with the natural opiates known as endorphins, which explains why viewers have repeatedly told scientists that they feel relaxed as soon as they switch on the television, and also why this same sense of relaxation tends to dissolve immediately after the set is turned off.
The pattern mimics addictive drug use, as my wife and I know too well. After two hours of Game of Thrones, the apartment goes suddenly quiet. Our guilty eyes meet from opposite ends of the sofa. We are thinking the same thing. Maybe just one more? Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi describe it as a kind of withdrawal response. “Habit-forming drugs work in similar ways,” they wrote. “A tranquilizer that leaves the body rapidly is much more likely to cause dependence than one that leaves the body slowly, precisely because the user is more aware that the drug’s effects are wearing off. Similarly, viewers’ vague learned sense that they will feel less relaxed if they stop viewing may be a significant factor in not turning the set off. Viewing begets more viewing.”
This last bit helps to explain the underlying appeal of serialized shows and the recent rise of binge watching. Before DVDs, Internet streaming, and video-on-demand, fans of television had two (rather unsavory) choices: (1) watch whatever program happened to be on, however idiotic it was, or (2) experience immediate endorphin withdrawal. Now we have a third: watch the shows we like for as long as we like. Serialized, streaming TV is tailor-made to keep the endorphins flowing.
Read the rest here.
A seven-piece grouping of modular case goods designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen (1941)
Comprising two four-drawer units, one unit with a door, an open unit with six shelves, a double-wide four drawer unit, and two 54” benches. A prize-winning entry in MoMA’s seminal 1941 “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition, the series was produced in Honduras mahogany by Red Lion Furniture. Only a very small number of pieces were actually made, owing to America’s entry into WWII a month after the MoMA exhibition opened.
The present set, which can be stacked double high or arranged in a line, is one of the largest intact original groupings to surface in the past twenty years—bought together in 1941, the units even book-match across the tops. From the estate of a Grumman engineer from Long Island. In remarkably good original condition, the pieces have only been cleaned and polished.
A perfect design.
Available now at Weinberg Modern. If only I had [price upon request].
Ghost Architecture: The John Fava House by Carter Sparks (1956)
Located on a one acre lot just off of Winding Way, the Fava House is in serious disrepair. One of Sparks’ earliest known works, it shows a sometimes reckless creative ambition that many of his later works do not. FLW’s influence hovers like a ghost in the spaces, angles and flow. It’s nice to see that the kitchen showed some respect for the homeowners, affording them a open view and soaring 15’ panes of glass above the sink. You could be washing dishes, or you could be in church.
John and Joan Fava were avid painters, writers and talented musicians who had a fondness for stories of the Wild West. Mrs. Fava is the daughter of Carmel area painter, Margaret Seagraves. A small cloisonné pin of a gold saddle and lasso is embedded into the shard glass fireplace surround.
The Favas lived in the house for nearly 60 years until they could no longer take care of it. It was sold to a party with a promise to fix the place up, but they tore off the delapidated carport and sun deck without doing any other repairs. Perhaps the task was too great, but they walked away. The house fell into Foreclosure and sold at auction in March 2012.
Reminds me a little of R.M. Schindler’s Van Dekker House—both now and then.
Also, that bridge!
See what remains of the Fava House here.
Greta Grossman: A Car and Some Shorts at R Gallery in TriBeCa. Go!
I’ve spent the past few months flying back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, and every time I’ve landed at LAX I’ve had to make my escape through some long, windowless tunnel. The only redeeming aspect of these transitional spaces has been the colorful tile mosaics running along one wall, from one end to the other.
At first I didn’t really notice them. Then, at some point, I started to look forward to them. But it wasn’t until now that I actually bothered to find out who put them there.
Turns out it was an L.A. designer named Charles Kratka, who studied with Alvin Lustig, worked for Charles and Ray Eames, and had a rewarding career of his own.
The son of a printer, Kratka was born Oct. 12, 1922, in Pasadena and grew up in Eagle Rock.
After attending UCLA, he enrolled at the Art Center College of Design and later taught at the school. During World War II he served as a pilot in the Navy.
From 1947 to 1953, Kratka worked as a graphic designer for architect and designer Charles Eames. Kratka left to teach before going into interior design and planning.
Kratka also oversaw the design of the original interiors for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when it opened in 1965.
Two years later he opened his own interior design firm in West Hollywood.
As for the mosaics themselves…
Completed in 1961, the mosaics were designed to make the approximately 300-foot tunnels seem shorter, said Ethel Pattison, the airport’s historian.
"He was a grand artist, way ahead of his time," Pattison said. "His approach to the walls was novel and gave passengers something of interest to look at."
Kratka told his daughter that the brightly colored geometric panels in the seven tunnels were designed to represent the changing seasons.
School students on field trips heard another story. Tour guides compared a walk alongside the mosaic to traveling across the U.S., which reflected Kratka’s original intent, said Ann Proctor, director of volunteers at the Flight Path Learning Center-Museum at LAX.
The blue tiles at the entrance represent the ocean and are followed by browns, yellows and oranges for the geography of the heartland, according to the museum.
"There was one line of red tile in the middle, and we’d say, ‘We’re halfway across now, in the Midwest,’" Proctor said. "The blue on the other end, that was the Atlantic Ocean."
Photos via Kid Made Modern.
More Lost Lustig: Menasco Manufacturing Company’s 1946 Annual Report.
Seeking further information on Alvin Lustig’s Los Angeles design work, I recently got in touch with a Southern California graphic designer named Ken Parkhurst. Parkhurst told me that he’d worked for Lustig in the late 1940s and recounted how he’d gotten the job.
I’d been a student at Los Angeles City College during World War II. Just before or after the war ended, Alvin called the school and talked to the teacher who recommended me. Alvin had also gone to City College and studied under Harry Koblick.
There was a little company called Menasco Manufacturing. It was originally a builder of racing airplanes. Al Menasco had started it; later they got into landing gear. Apparently Alvin knew the man who had become CEO of Menasco after Al—a PR guy who had taken over. So Alvin put me into Menasco Manufacturing Company as the in-house designer. I was a kid at that point. Twenty years old.
But Alvin was a young man also. He designed the annual report and the trademark, and then I followed through and produced the work. After that Alvin opened small office in Beverly Hills, California and hired me as his assistant. I was the first assistant he had. This was in 1946.
After I got off the phone with Ken—he had a lot to say about Lustig, more of which later—I Googled “Menasco Annual Report 1946.” There was only one relevant result: a personal blog post by Katherine Pandora, an associate professor of science history at the University of Oklahoma.
Turns out Katherine’s grandfather once worked at Menasco—and was featured in the 1946 report:
Robert B. Barnes [was] an antsy high school dropout from small-town Ohio who was gifted at working with machines (he was a race car driver in the 1920s). He ended up in LA, becoming an employee at Menasco in Burbank in 1940. That’s a picture of him from Menasco’s annual report in 1946, which featured his story of rising from a lathe operator (.95/hr pre-war) to a position as an “experimental machinist” (1.90/hr), and about how he had been rewarded by “a committee made up of his fellow workers and management representatives” for a “suggestion he submitted for improving the handling of one of the parts of a landing gear.”
It was Menasco, in fact, that would later be the company that designed the landing gear that made it possible for the Shuttle to touch down on the ground upon re-entry. A small part of my grandfather’s mind and hands had gone into the eventual developments that allowed each Shuttle journey to regain physical contact with home.
Katherine and I went on to exchange a few emails, the end result of which is pictured above. Here for the first time are selected images from Lustig’s lost Menasco report, graciously scanned, uploaded, and sent to Covenger & Kester by Prof. Pandora herself.
Ken Parkhurst writes:
As I remember, Lustig came up with the lowercase Futura bold “m” as a logotype for Menasco, and did layouts for, I think, just about all spreads. I produced camera ready art for the whole thing, following Alvin’s layouts and verbal instructions.
I remember his little symbolic men design, for which I carefully drew finished art. I think Alvin’s innovations—the small month-by-month charts atop each page and the clean type format—while appearing prosaic now were actually very fresh at that time, at least by West Coast standards.
We were called commercial artists out here. The phrase “graphic designer” wasn’t heard.
I for one think it’s a lovely bit of commercial art.
Partying at the Gotham Book Mart:
This photograph, taken on 9 November 1948, by Life Magazine photographer Lisa Larsen, captured some of the assembled guests at possibly the most famous literary party in American history.
The scene was the Gotham Book Mart — New York City’s most famous bookstore. The occasion was to welcome the poets, Sir S.W. Osbert Sitwell and his sister, Dame Edith Sitwell, to the United States to do a series of readings.
Seen in this image are, front row: William Rose Benet, Charles Ford, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell; Middle row: Stephen Spender, Sir Osbert and Dame Edith Sitwell, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop; Back row: Marya Zaturenska, Horace Gregory, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart, Gore Vidal, Jose Garcia Via, and W. H. Auden.
One of the guests, the noted poet Randall Jarrell, preserved this copy of the print among his papers now in the Stuart Wright Collection. On the verso Jarrell commented: “I thought you’d want this for the eyebrows. Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop are just behind me, Auden on the ladder, Spender sitting table to far left. What could have possessed me to cut off so much of the moustache? That isn’t Medusa in middle with snakes, but that awful creature Edith Sitwell.”