Some Recollections of My Association with John Lautner
In the Fall of 1959 I attended a lecture sponsored by the Architectural Guild. The place was the unfinished Silvertop, and the speaker was John Lautner. I was in my first semester in the School of Architecture at USC, having entered after two years of undergraduate work in Liberal Arts. The building needed no narrative, even though John spoke about it in the midst of it. For me it instantly expanded my awareness and comprehension of architecture and the idea of space. Not long thereafter, early in November, I went to John’s office on El Cerrito and told him that whatever was going on in his office, I wanted to be a part of it. I came determined not to leave with out some kind of employment, even if it was only emptying waste baskets and sharpening pencils, and not expecting to get paid. He said to Guy “Give him something to do,” and so I found myself seated at a drawing board. Since I had satisfied all my non-architectural academic requirements before enrolling in architecture school, I was able to work 20 plus hours a week. At the end of the year John handed out Christmas bonuses. I came to work the week after Christmas, and a check was on my drawing board. Every two weeks thereafter, I had a paycheck along with everyone else.
The group in the El Cerrito office was a tight-knit bunch. One evening at a social event at the Zebert home, I made a remark about working in a garage. One of the other employees, quite German, got very indignant with me insisting that we did not work in a garage and that I had insulted John. I half expect to be hauled away by some suddenly appearing SS type compatriots of his, or wind up in a duel, so defensive of John was he.
Prior to coming to work for John, I had worked during the summers for a cement contractor, and grew to love being out on the job while a building was going up. Spring vacation of 1960, I worked at Silvertop, returning to the office afterwards for the rest of the semester.
When summer came along, after talking to John, it was arranged that I would work for Johnny de la Vaux on the Malin Residence for the summer. When I arrived after school was out, the roof was framed, and my first job was to help hang the siding on the slanted portion of the exterior below the windows. As I remember, there was suspended from a 2×4 framework from the overhang, two 2×12s upon which we walked and did the work. It was a long way to the ground on the downhill side.
The crew consisted of Johnny, his son-in-law Len, Odie (Otis Montgomery), and myself. If memory serves me correctly, Odie was from Texas. He wore white bib overalls, and had a hundred stories. He could frame anything, with or with out drawings. Often, working on John’s jobs, it was without certain drawings or details. That is where people like Johnny and Wally came in. One of John’s standard notes in those days consisted of two regular phrases, “CUT TO SUIT” and “SEE DETAIL LATER.” Usually, when we got to one of those notes, Johnny would call, and John would come out on the job.
Johnny’s houses were well built. Johnny would not tolerate anything less than KD select structural framing material. Every 2×4 and its blocking fit exactly, along with every other piece of lumber. A 16 ounce framing hammer was considered a club, not to be tolerated on the job. I acquired all the correct hand tools including a 14 point finishing hand saw which was hard to find. Years later I built a wooden tool box for my saws and hand tools exactly like the one Odie hauled around.
Len Malin was also involved in the construction during that time, and he and his wife were expecting another child. My dad was an obstetrician, and presided over the delivery of the Malin’s baby.
I went back to work in the office after the summer, and the following summer worked for Johnny on a big house in Palos Verdes (not one of John’s), the Malin house having been completed, at least Johnny’s part.
While working for John, I built the first model of the Sheats Residence, the first presentation floor plans and some of the working drawings; the working drawings for the Akers Residence (not built- floor plan shown on p. 267 of the John Lautner (edited by Frank Escher) book); some details on Wolff, Tolstoy, and Garcia; an office layout for Ingo Preminger.
From John I learned about space, and that an idea or concept was the key. I remember John saying about designing, that “without an idea, you don’t have anything.” Another phrase that came up often in the course of figuring out how to put John’s concepts to paper was “All you gotta do is do it.”
John’s work seemed to get better and better as he was afforded the opportunities to do work of larger scope with decent budgets.
Since 1971 I have lived and worked in the Seattle area, rarely getting to Los Angeles. In 1982 my wife and I made a trip to LA and spent some time with John, taking him to Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard for lunch (which had been there with the same chef for 50 years at that time), and having dinner with him and Francisca one evening. We had the privilege of visiting many of the houses John had completed since I had left LA, and visited with Wally out on the big “Pacific Coat House” under construction north of Malibu. That was the last time I saw John, although I spoke to him on the phone once or twice afterward.
James Bryant, AIA