An apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright early in his career, John Lautner spent a lifetime as an iconoclast, dismissed by critics and sought out by progressive-minded wealthy clients. Several of his best-known projects have been wrongly celebrated as Atomic Age or Hollywood kitsch, while clients knew they enjoyed artistic, theatrical environments created by the genus architect.
“Lautner’s fascination with new shapes and structures had nothing to do with Space Age futurism, or movieland glamour, or virtuoso engineering, but came from his determination to humanize the spaces of the built world and create an endlessly varied organic poetry. This was a profoundly serious agenda,” wrote Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum, in a foreword to the book that accompanied a retrospective exhibition of Lautner’s work at the Los Angeles museum.
After his death in 1994, Lautner’s original designs received renewed attention and, then, recognition as a vital influence on current architecture celebrities — such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid — whose work exhibits an organic, earthy bent fostered by Lautner half a century earlier.
One project highlighting Launter’s best traits — a difficult site, a modest entrance concealing a soaring space, rooms that flirt between inside and out — is also one famous as a centerpiece of the James Bond movie, “Diamonds Are Forever:” The Elrod House on Southridge Drive in Palm Springs, built in 1968 for interior designer Arthur Elrod — memorable for its enormous domed concrete roof, with wedge-like sections cut out to accommodate skylights and provide indirect light.
Designed to shield the home from the intense desert sun, the roof rests on curved concrete walls. Black slate tile floors add drama, as does an indoor-outdoor swimming pool and boulders massed in the living room — two 25-foot-wide hanging glass curtain walls retract to open up the living room completely to the outside at the touch of a button. When Lautner saw rocks exposed on the 23-acre site from grading, he directed the contractor to dig 10 feet deeper, uncovering massive rocks that would became an integral part of the interior design. The 8,901-square-foot house establishes a mutual relationship with its mountain landscape and its sense of drama.
The main floor includes a kitchen, hidden from the living room by a long, curved wall. The generous master bedroom (originally one of only two in the house) features a bar and refrigerator tucked behind walls of exotic wood, with carefully matched grains. A guest house and servants quarters, reached down a spiral staircase from the pool deck, was added two years after the main house was built.
Gardens around the house interweave formal and casual plantings: a moss area, fern patch, bamboo garden, paths of crushed rock ringed with cactus, and perennials that Elrod used to make potpourri to give to house guests. In a room carved into the cliff face, his many bins for dried flowers remain, with his hand-lettered labels: arrow, tansy, cornflowers, bergamot, roses.
Environment impacts mood, and one of the best ways to shape mood is good design. John Lautner’s “Elrod House” is good design.