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John Lautner (1911-1994)

Born in: Marquette, Michigan
Education: Northern Michigan University, 1933
Best known for: Residences where organic forms walk the line between those seen in nature and the Atomic Age architecture to which he contributed. One example is his flying saucer-shaped 1960 Chemosphere atop a 29-foot-high, 5-foot-wide column offering a bird’s-eye view of Los Angeles. The landmark property, called “the most modern house in the world” by Encyclopedia Britannica, had its own funicular.

Lautner’s design for Googie’s coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood inadvertently conceived the cheerful Googie style of post-war America, where space-age futurism meets lively modern angles, enticing drivers into restaurants, gas stations, and car washes.

Lautner grew up in a family that understood and appreciated art and architecture. His mother was an interior designer and painter, and his father a professor who taught French, German and philosophy. Lautner’s boyhood home was featured in The American Architect magazine, but he drew lifelong inspiration from their summer cabin. It sat among boulders on a rocky stretch overlooking Lake Superior. He spent three summers as a boy helping his family built it by hand.

He was an early apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright in the mid-1930s. In 1938, he reluctantly but confidently broke away from the mentor he called a “genius” to open his own practice (though Wright would call him back to help with problem projects). Lautner’s own multi-level hillside home, built the next year as his first big solo debut, appeared in House Beautiful.

Lautner’s work, primarily in Southern California, has been studied just as Wright’s has. Residential structures make up the bulk of his portfolio, in addition to restaurants, apartment buildings, and offices. For more than 55 years, building codes and contractors’ input were secondary to “designing for people,” as he called it: creating stunning buildings that provide a unique solution for each client and each site.

In Desert Hot Springs, The Lautner Compound is an luxurious vacation rental property built around a four-unit prototype Lautner designed in 1947 for a master planned community that never came to fruition.
Lautner is the subject of two films, most recently the 2008 documentary Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner, which describes his work as “surprising, sexy, fearless, joyous, and timeless,” adding that “concrete was his muse.”

Other Notable Properties:

  • Desert Hot Springs Community (The Lautner), 1947
  • Googie’s coffee shop in L.A., 1949
  • Chemosphere House in L.A., 1960
  • Sheats-Goldstein Residence in L.A., 1963
  • Elrod House, 1968
  • Arango House in Acapulco, 1973
  • Bob Hope Residence, 1980