J. R. Davidson - the missing mid-century modernist?
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
This monograph took me right back to my Los Angeles years and friendships there with architects and architectural historians. California is the place for mid-century modernism and we were always visiting the houses of Lautner, Schindler, Neutra - yet I knew nothing at all of J. R. Davidson before this project arrived on my desk. Lilian Pfaff has recorded the architect’s life and work in detail, working with his and other archives such as that of architectural photographer Julius Shulman, to show Davidson’s transition from Europe at the beginning of the last century, to California by the 1920s, where he lived and worked for the next four decades. “Mid-century” modernism is in evidence from as early as the twenties in Davidson’s elegant commercial designs for stores, restaurants, night clubs (The Hi Hat, Sardi’s, The Cocoanut Grove). He turned to private residences only later in his career, never achieving the fame of some of his contemporaries and it is the strength of this book that the reader feels slightly aggrieved that he didn’t. These homes were where his love of customised built-in furniture and his special approach to lighting were combined with his keen interest in designing houses that fitted their occupants, and not the other way around. One of his early residential commissions was originally commissioned to Richard Neutra who then “fired” his client because they didn’t quite see things his way. Davidson’s approach was the opposite; his houses were designed from the inside out, with the owners’ needs and movements dictating the floor plan. Davidson’s focus was on the detail, yet – it seems like a contradiction – he kept things beautifully simple.
Sardi's Restaurant, Los Angeles, 1937, © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).
The list for a book like this one can be daunting at first glance. Out of around 160 pictures, less than a handful were stock images from regular photo libraries. The rest took me to dozens of archives, libraries, museums and collections all over the world, with many images needing additional third party permissions, or at least sufficient due diligence to establish that copyright was lapsed or lost. You can never be certain that images taken by defunct photographic studios and published in defunct magazines in the 1920s don’t have a copyright holder still alive somewhere. It has to be checked out, hence the epithet Picture Researcher – and not simply picture buyer. (And here I must acknowledge the Library of Congress who were so helpful tracking down these long-dead publications.) When it finally all comes together, it’s like the light at the end of the tunnel. Or the emerging of a butterfly. Anyway, it’s a treat to see the result in print.
Mrs. Paul Kingsley House, Pacific Palisades, 1946, © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).