Gregory Ain grew up in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in the early 1900s, and briefly lived with his family in an experimental collective farming community in the Antelope Valley, founded by Job Harriman, a socialist, whom his father had supported in the 1911 Los Angeles mayoral race. These formative years would shape Gregory Ain’s philosophy and application of his art, as he pursued a career in architecture. He would later ensconce himself in the school of thought that espoused architecture’s potential to shape a more egalitarian world and make design accessible to all socio-economic levels.
Gregory Ain’s first, most impressive experience linking him to architecture came as a teenager, when he visited the Schindler studios on Kings Road. Not only was the physical space intoxicating, the cadre of artists who lived and gathered there would have a profound impact on the young man. Shortly afterward, he enrolled in the USC School of architecture, but soon became disillusioned with the focus of Beaux Arts formality offered at the time. His training came mostly from his apprenticeship to Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, and the continuing influence of Schindler. Ain is described as one of the most important of the “second generation” of Modernists in California, referring to his study with Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler, who lived and worked at the Schindler Kings Road studio. Fellow apprentices Harwell Hamilton Harris and Raphael Soriano worked alongside Ain, and each went on to make their own significant contributions to the Modernist movement in Southern California architecture.
From 1930 to 1935, Neutra and Schindler, who were both disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright, had established private careers, while at the same time assisting Wright on important commissions in LA. The projects he collaborated on created the training ground which would allow him to strike out on his own, applying the design elements of open kitchens, flexible floor plans, and adaptable interior spaces, to modest family homes, “to solve the common architectural problems of common people.” In 1937, he completed his first solo project, the Ernst House, which, according to commentary of the time, achieved the best principles of Schindler and Neutra’s influence, combined with the thoughtful approach he took to a growing family’s needs.
In 1940 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to study prefabricated building, addressing the needs of the housing boom in the country, and taking advantage of the new technologies advanced during the war. One of the most utilized of these materials was molded plywood, which Ain explored as chief engineer for Charles and Ray Eames, for the development of their iconic mid-century furniture.
After the war, Gregory Ain began working in earnest to realize his ideal of providing low cost, efficient and well-designed homes to lower and middle class families. While these were major objectives of the Case Study House program, it is a mystery as to why Ain, who was respected for his work, was never asked to participate in the program. His philosophies and socialist approach were suspect at the time and may have influenced the process. In any case, he found supportive partners Joseph Johnson, Alfred Day, and the brilliant landscape planner Garrett Eckbo, to pursue these goals. This began his most productive and prolific mid-century design period, resulting in the developed and protected areas we enjoy today including Mar Vista Housing, Park Planned Homes, Avenal Homes, and Community Homes. It was also during this period that his work inspired Philip Johnson, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, who commissioned him to build a house in the museum’s garden, in 1950.
Gregory Ain was a well-respected professor at the USC School of Architecture, along with his mentor Richard Neutra. He went on to become the dean of the architecture school at Penn State University from 1963 to 1967.