Craig Ellwood was born with the name Jon Burke, in Texas in 1922. He moved with his family to California, where he attended Belmont High School. Showing early signs of charismatic charm and self-promotion, he became class president. He and his brother both served in the army and upon their discharge, formed a construction partnership, called the Craig Ellwood Company. As a first step toward achieving his self made image, he changed his name to Craig Ellwood. While working in his own company, he gained not only building experience, but also skill as a construction cost estimator. In addition, he took structural engineering classes through a UCLA extension program at night. The combination of this knowledge and experience, along with his keen eye and a high level of taste, made it possible for him to gather the kind of real world education that can’t be taught in a formal school setting. Ellwood was never licensed as an architect, yet he is considered to be among the vanguard if the Mid-Century Modern movement, due to his ambition, talent, and a carefully orchestrated public persona.
A turning point came in his career when he met Charles and Ray Eames, and John Entenza, curator of the famed Case Study House program, working as a cost estimator on their houses. The projects introduced him to the guiding principles of these studies: to use affordable materials, open and accessible use of space in an aesthetic design, which would cater to the client’s lifestyle and environment. Along with the work of Richard Neutra, Gregory Ain, Rudolf Schindler, his first exposure to the Case Study program would guide his future ideas. Before long, he would become a superstar in his new world and go on to produce two houses in the Case Study project.
In 1951, he opened his own practice, and through his ambition and public relations acumen, had immediately secured a number of clients, all small residential homes. His early homes were often given attention in publications like Arts and Architecture, often at his request, and brought more clients to his firm, both for residential and commercial properties. He began to keep an eye on the International Style of Mies Van der Rohe for inspiration, and became well know for combining its clean, but formal, simplicity with a more casual, California style.
His Case Study Houses remain his best known work. They comprise the Fields House, #18, his most elaborate of the two, and Hoffman House, #17. Both exhibit his ingenious use of space, wide expanses of walls for privacy when needed, combined with inviting expanses of glass to let the exterior blend with the interior. During this time he also built the noteworthy Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Craig Ellwood always took great care to hire traditionally trained architects in his firm, who brought the technical skills to execute his designs and ideas. This left him to his most important task…getting all the attention he could for his efforts…even if it meant driving a Ferrari with the license plates “VROOM”. Later in life, he retired to Italy, and a more humble existence, painting and restoring farmhouses. He died there in 1992.