When you hear the words "Playboy magazine," I doubt you think about modern architecture.
But maybe there's a link between modernism and the sexual revolution.
A new exhibition makes the arresting argument that the pages of Playboy (at least the non-centerfold pages) were inspired by, and helped to popularize, the sculpted and sleek designs of such mid-20th century architectural giants as Eero Saarinen and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. And Chicago, which was Playboy's headquarters before the company decamped for Southern California, was at the center of this story.
Before founding the magazine in 1953, Hugh Hefner walked the city's streets late at night and gazed longingly at the lights in the high-rise apartment buildings like Mies' 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive. As Thomas Dyja writes in his insightful book, "The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream," Hefner imagined what he was missing: "women in mink stoles and silk stockings curled around men in tuxedoes; jazz combos and martinis." He wanted to be a part of that good life. And in Playboy, he codified it.
The archetypal playboy was a design-savvy urban bachelor, not a husband and father in a tree-lined suburb. He was an indoorsman who pursued consumer goods and women, not an outdoorsman who fished and hunted. He lived the urban high life in an apartment filled with everything from sophisticated hi-fi equipment to Saarinen's curvaceous Womb chairs. Forget the ascetic spirit of "less is more." This was the art of materialistic seduction. Buy the right stuff, the magazine seemed to say, and your dreams of sexual conquest would come true.
If you hated to see "Mad Men" end last year, this illuminating, sometimes frustrating and definitely-not-feminist exhibition, titled "Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979" and making its U.S. debut at the Elmhurst Art Museum, should satisfy your nostalgic thirst. It also seems surprisingly relevant because Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is a thrice-married city dweller who takes a page from Hefner's playbook and travels the world in a private jet. Hef's plane, a stretch version of a DC-9 outfitted with a disco, showers and an elliptical bed covered with Tasmanian opossum skins, was called "The Big Bunny"; the exhibition has a nice cutaway model of it.
One of the show's intriguing subthemes is the symbiotic relationship between architecture and media, the alluring object and its carefully-staged representation. What do photos of Playboy models and sexy buildings have in common? They're both idealized versions of reality. Even if the show oversells Playboy's influence in popularizing modernism — other magazines spread the word and, unlike Playboy, Time put architects like Saarinen on the cover — it's still worth a visit, both for its substance and its setting, a little-known Mies-designed house that became a wing of the Elmhurst Art Museum in 1997.
Fittingly, the home's original owner, Robert Hall McCormick, Jr. was one of the developers of the 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive, which was finished in 1951. The Elmhurst house, a one-story steel-and-glass design completed in 1953, is like a piece of Mies' Chicago exported to suburbia. Step inside and you're transported to the 1950s. Even the wood cabinets have that musty smell. As part of the show, old issues of Playboy line the bookshelves. And there's a warning at the entrance that some nudity awaits.
Yet if the McCormick House was a felicitous home for the show, its tight confines challenged the curators, Beatriz Colomina, director of Princeton University's architecture Ph.D. program, and Pep Aviles, a doctoral candidate at the school, and their exhibition designer. The show's four sections — focusing, respectively, on bachelor pads, vehicles and mobility, architecture and furniture, and (naturally) the bedroom — are displayed in small, sometimes claustrophobic spaces. While custom-built platforms creatively display furniture and photographs, the images shown on white boards are not much bigger than postage stamps.
As if to compensate, an accompanying, intelligently-written booklet clues you in on what you're straining to see. And there is some smart visual drama, like a miniature version of Hefner's revolving bed that's showcased inside a circular blue curtain. As you voyeuristically peer through the curtain's peek-a-boo cutouts, a show that's largely about the two-dimensional pages of a magazine comes vividly to three-dimensional (which is to say, architectural) life.
So where, exactly, did the architects fit into Playboy's vision?
Hefner, good Chicagoan that he was, clearly admired them. Architects like Mies, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bertrand Goldberg and Buckminster Fuller were regularly celebrated in Playboy's pages, along with such distinguished figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jean-Paul Sartre. Perhaps they were literary fig leaves, conveying an aura of respectability to a magazine whose trademark was the nude centerfold. As the joke went, "I read Playboy for the articles."
But with millions of men reading the magazine, it's hard to dispute the show's central point: Hefner's decision to champion modern architecture, particularly at a time when it was under attack in such aesthetically conservative magazines as House Beautiful, helped it gain a foothold in mass American culture, particularly in home furnishings. By the 1970s, the show asserts, Playboy's vision "was realized in the real domestic lives of everyday citizens and reinforced in popular movies and television shows." James Bond was the ultimate playboy.
Yet that begs a larger, and far more fraught, issue: What kind of modern architecture was Playboy championing?
The magazine treated women and buildings as objects of fantasy and desire. The show's architecture section features a flying saucer-shaped, prefab house, by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen, that extended the sybaritic, inwardly-focused world of the bachelor pad to wherever the playboy and his helicopter wanted to take it. Dubbed the "Portable Playhouse" and published in Playboy in 1970, it came equipped with dimmer-controlled lighting and (shades of Austin Powers) shag carpet.
It's hard to make a community, or a vibrant city, out of a bunch of buildings shaped like flying saucers. They keep the world at bay — an architecture of the self and perfect symbols of the "Me Decade" '70s. But there's an undeniable place for architectural objects in our cities. As I walked past the curvaceous, corncob-shaped towers of Goldberg's Marina City the other night, it was hard not to think, as Hefner once must have, of the visual pleasure they bestow on the cityscape as well as the Playboy pleasures that still, perhaps, go on inside.
"Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979" exhibit at the Elmhurst Art Museum through Aug. 28.
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