John Lautner was raised in a home that was steeped in philosophy and art, which would have a profound impact on shaping his ideas about architecture throughout his life. He was born in 1911, in Michigan, to a father who was self educated in philosophy, and a mother who was an interior designer and a recognized painter. His parents both had a great interest in architecture. Their family home in Marquette was featured in publications, and they designed and built a summer home on a rocky shelf on the shores of Lake Michigan, inspired by Lautner’s mother’s study of Norse houses. Norse homes seem to emerge organically from their sites. This would prove to be a great influence on him and a trademark of his best designs.
John Lautner’s father became a teacher at Northern Michigan University, and he followed him there to study in its liberal arts program. He pursued his interest in jazz while getting his degree in 1933. That same year, his mother approached Frank Lloyd Wright, after reading his biography, asking him to admit Lautner into his newly formed apprenticeship program at Taliesin. He had just become engaged to his future wife, MaryBud, her mother paid for the young couple to join the first group of Wright’s disciples. John Lautner found drafting work to be tedious, and preferred to work with his hands. Wright took an interest in the young man and within a year, he was assisting Wright on the Millard House in Los Angeles, writing articles for publication, and working on Wright’s commission for his new mother-in-law’s house in Marquette.
John Lautner’s association with Wright continued until 1942. In the intervening years, his dedication to his mentor continued as he pursued his own path. He left Taliesin for Los Angeles in 1938, to begin his own career and start his family there. During this transition he continued to work with Wright on 11 projects, including the Sturges, Mauer and Bell houses, as well as re-design duties on the Ennis House. In 1939, his design for his own home would propel him into the dynamic world of Los Angeles architecture, launching his own name as a force among some of the most highlighted designers of the time.
Even as John Lautner was attempting to distance himself from the label as a Wright apprentice, he always credited and respected the inspiration he derived from his mentor, particularly for his philosophy about organic design. “Mr. Wright was around all the time pointing out things that contributed to the beauty of the space, or the building, or the function of the kitchen, or the dining room, or what-have-you. And also the details of construction: how a certain way of detailing, which he would call grammar, contributed to the whole idea, the whole, the total expression.”
Lautner continued to gain attention for his small residential projects, which helped him attain a more affluent group of clients, and larger projects, both residential and commercial. Like his mentor, he was drawn to the beauty of the sites, which would often include obstructions and challenges. Influenced by his own childhood cabin in Michigan, he used these difficulties to his advantage, incorporating them into his total design, for which he became well known. Some excellent examples of this approach include: “Chemosphere”, an octagonal home perched on a 50 foot concrete pole, set high in the Hollywood Hills, nestled in its surrounding nature, yet taking full advantage of the panoramic views; the Sheats Goldstein House, built into a sandstone ledge of Beverly Crest, is both cave-like and open to the wide open air and views; the Elrod House, built into a sunny hillside in Palm Springs, provides a sensual shaded dome, and an exuberant play between indoor and outdoor spaces, opening out to the sweeping vistas of desert and city. In each of these projects, his radical use of innovative materials, (especially prestressed concrete), and command of new technologies set him apart from his contemporaries.
John Lautner was a true iconoclast. His designs were challenging, not always accepted by his community, but always created debate and commentary. In 1949, the post-war nation became enthralled with a mid-century perspective on space-age modernism. These themes emerged in architecture, largely due to Lautner’s design of an LA coffee shop, Googies, in Hollywood. While he was labeled trite and frivolous, Lautner’s name was inextricably linked to this genre, which became known as “Googies”, defined by its themes of soaring, sloped roofs, domes, boomerangs, flying saucers, and starbursts. Whimsical versions of these themes would make their way into all areas of American design: dishes, textiles, art, film and advertising.
Recently, John Lautner has been applauded posthumously for his vision. The cult-like reverence for his work and innovation grows increasingly, in appreciation for it’s exuberance, sensuality, integrity, and poetic combination of earth, sky, structure, and philosophy.