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John Lautner papers, 1929-2002

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Lautner (John) Papers

Biographical/Historical Note

Born in Marquette, Michigan in 1911, John Lautner grew up in a world of ideas and art, the first child of parents who believed that a person is formed by the physical and intellectual environment in which he is raised. The young Lautner was immersed in a carefully crafted set of balancing influences: an academic father and an artistic and mystical mother; the wild, elemental landscape of the Upper Peninsula and extended visits to the urban worlds of New York City and Boston. By Lautner's account, one of the most formative influences of his youth was the family's cabin on the wild shore of Lake Superior, Midgaard. Here, each summer from 1923-1928, Lautner helped his father construct the building designed by his mother. This first exposure to architecture set him on his path, the merging of the natural and the fabricated, of landscape and enclosed space.

In 1929 Lautner enrolled in a liberal arts program at his father's school, Northern State Teacher's College (later Northern Michigan University). When he graduated in 1933, his mother, having read about the Taliesin Fellowship, contacted Frank Lloyd Wright and Lautner was accepted into the program. The impediments of a lack of funds and a recent engagement to Mary Roberts were overcome when Wright agreed to accept both Lautner and his fiancee, and Abby Roberts,the fiancee's mother, agreed to finance both young people.

Lautner spent six years with Wright at Taliesin in Wisconsin and at Taliesin West in Arizona. Over the years of his apprenticeship, Lautner's innate design talent stood out from that of his peers and he progressed to the point of supervising construction for Wright's buildings including Deertrack (1936) for Abby Roberts in Marquette, Michigan and Wingspread (1937) in Racine, Wisconsin for Herbert Johnson of Johnson Wax, as well as taking part in the Broadacre City project.

Lautner gradually began separating himself from the master, but he would continue his association with Wright for a further five years. By spring of 1938, Lautner had left Taliesin for Los Angeles. In this early phase of his career, Lautner began to establish a small independent practice, while also serving as Wright's on-site representative for several projects. Lautner's first independent project, a house for his family in Silverlake, was completed in the summer of 1939. During World War II, from 1942-1944, Lautner worked for the Structon Company on war-related construction projects. This experience expanded Lautner's engineering and construction skills, as well as his exposure to new materials. At the end of the war in 1945, Lautner joined the firm of Douglas Honnold as a design associate, but also continued his independent practice. By summer of 1947, Lautner ended his association with Honnold and entered the mature stage of his work.

While no two Lautner structures are alike, certain hallmarks of his personal style appear consistently across most of his projects. He characteristically developed innovative floor plans and skillfully manipulated fluid planes of concrete and glass to maximize vistas and create engaging relationships with natural surroundings. Lautner also integrated technology in his designs in order to give inhabitants greater control over light, sound, and space. Lautner's design ingenuity and technical mastery are most apparent in his treatment of the roof plane. Triangular coffers, undulating, rainbow-like curves, and cantilevered diagonal trusses crown his one-of-a-kind residences. Although recognized primarily for his eclectic private residences, Lautner might also be described as the father of the populist commercial architecture movement of Southern California. In 1949, he built Googie's Coffee House at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights, which gave its name to a style of eye-catching architecture, evocative of the new Space-Age speed and optimism of the period.

Lautner's work won many architectural awards and was featured in exhibitions, a book, and a documentary film, as well as being more widely disseminated through use as film locations and through the photographs of Julius Shulman. Yet, Lautner always felt that he did not receive the publicity he deserved and he did not have the skill or the patience required to market himself. Sadly, the broad appreciation Lautner desired came only after his death in October 1994.

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