A Discovery in Malibu
Auctioneer Brent Lewis shares the serendipitous tale behind a treasure trove of modern design and its reunion with an iconic Craig Ellwood home
I’ve always liked George Nelson’s Coconut Chair. It’s a strange design, almost like the beginning of an origami fold. The story is that Nelson—or perhaps George Mulhauser who worked in Nelson’s office and designed it—related its form to a slice of coconut. It’s generous in proportion and comfortable yet less ubiquitous than other iconic mid-century designs.
In the summer of 2018, I was emailed a pretty low quality image of one. I couldn’t make out much detail save the chair’s potentially interesting color, a kind of orange-pink. Perhaps my personal affinity for that design prompted me to respond right away, inviting the client to consign it to my upcoming Design auction while spelling out estimates, terms, marketing, and logistics—an all-in, one-shot proposal for something based on a value of around $2,000. I really shouldn’t spend much time pursuing this, I thought at the time. I’m so glad that I did.
The reply days later was a single sentence: “Is that for the pair or just one chair?” I was confused and wondered if I had made a mistake. After going back over the original inquiry, I saw only one chair was shown. So I looked again at the response and noticed there was an attachment. It was a scan of a sales receipt from the 1950s, which listed “2-Coconut Chairs - $445.” The purchaser named at the top was Craig Ellwood.
A Little Background on Craig Ellwood
Considered among the foremost proponents of mid-century modern architecture on the West Coast, Craig Ellwood was born Jon Nelson Burke in Texas in 1922. After the war, he moved to Los Angeles and set up Craig Ellwood Design in 1951 along with his brother and a couple contractor friends. The name of the firm was inspired by a liquor store nearby, and Ellwood later legally changed his name to match. As he pursued business for his architectural firm, he quickly embraced the International Style but adapted the tenets to make the most of Southern California’s sun-soaked climate, creating structures entirely sensitive to the region’s distinct nature.
Although Ellwood had worked as a construction cost estimator and studied structural engineering at night, he never actually became a licensed architect, relying on those in his office to sign off on plans. For whatever hindrance that caused, Ellwood made up for it by using his innate marketing and self-promotion talents. He adeptly forged relationships with some of the most influential figures in the field, most notably John Entenza of Arts & Architecture magazine, who became a major Ellwood champion and for whom Ellwood would build three Case Study Houses (#16-18).
The 1950s were a great decade for Ellwood wherein he enjoyed both commercial and critical success. He regularly found his work published in popular and design-oriented media. Though “found” would be a misnomer, as Ellwood worked diligently for his media placements. Upon completing a house, he would stage it—often borrowing furniture from Herman Miller—and send the photographs off to dozens of outlets around the world.
Like many great architects of the mid-century modern movement, especially in Southern California, Ellwood used his structures and surroundings as the medium for his message, and strategically employed photography to spread the message far beyond the region. Of the great photographers who worked with Los Angeles architects, the foremost was arguably Julius Shulman, who worked with practitioners like Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Pierre Koenig (his most famous image is that of Koenig’s Case Study House #22). Ezra Stoller is another whose images present California architecture so persuasively. But Ellwood worked with Marvin Rand. Unlike Stoller who was from Chicago and Shulman who was born in Brooklyn, Rand was from Los Angeles; his knowledge of the region impacted his ability to portray the work by Ellwood and others in such flattering light.
Craig Ellwood’s Hunt House
The invoice I was sent had one more intriguing piece of information: the delivery name and address of Dr. Victor and Elizabeth Hunt, Malibu Road.
Ellwood’s Hunt House, completed 1957, is a considerable example of mid-century modern architecture and certainly one of Ellwood’s most significant residential designs. Composed of two boxes, one tiered slightly below the other connected by a central staircase, it is perched atop the sand of Malibu, along one of southern California’s most prized beachfronts. A quick internet search will draw up a series of photographs by Marvin Rand, mostly of the same room—the lower oceanfront box with glass walls overlooking the Pacific—which feature a pair of Coconut Chairs of similar color to the image sent to me in the original email.
The room embodies the mid-century ideal: Nature in the form of a blue expanse on one side, framed by a glass wall opening to a deck. A wood paneled wall on the other side, with an internal built-in sound system and integral storage. A fireplace open to both the living room on the south side and the dining room and open kitchen on the north. An Eames Sofa Compact looking west to the ocean, alongside a strange table with black laminated top and chromed legs in front. Opposite the sofa in front of the windows, sits the iconic Eames 670/671 Lounge Chair. Many of the images feature a woman, a model, perched in the chairs or on the railing above the beach.
Rand’s images are alluring. The Hunt House was published more than a dozen times in the few years after its completion, not just in Architectural Record, Architectural Design, Arts & Architecture, Kokusai-Kentiku, and DOMUS, but also in the New York Times Magazine, Holiday, and Sunset. In all, the same set of photographs are used, almost always focusing on the living room.
Investigating the Inquiry
There was a phone number to call. After getting the client on the phone, I confirmed indeed these chairs were from Ellwood’s Hunt House. I asked how he acquired them, and he quickly answered, as if it should have been obvious, “I used to own the house.” After a pause, he added, “I have everything.”
As the client explained, Elizabeth Hunt lived in the house after her husband died and until her death, whereby my client became the caretaker and was charged with settling the estate; he sold the house in 2012. The buyer had ambitions to demolish the house and build something new in its place. Though the house was one of just a few on that beach in the 1950s, the shore is now filled with houses feet-apart, filling the oceanfront. Considering his plan, the buyer had no need for the interior furnishings, and so they remained with the caretaker in his home in the valley.
I made an appointment to visit the client and found not only the Coconut Chairs, in a beautiful faded hue, but also the Sofa Compact, the Nelson Tables, the Eames Lounge and Ottoman, the Eames Wire Chairs, the original platform bed designed by Ellwood, the Nelson Dining Set, and more, along with an archive of related documents that Elizabeth Hunt faithfully maintained.
Also present was the coffee table that I initially couldn’t identify in the original photographs. The laminate was similar to one used by Eames for various Herman Miller designs, and the metal structure of the base was similar to the frame of the Sofa Compact, but I had never seen this table before. In fact, few had. I called Daniel Ostroff, Eames historian and design enthusiast, who said he had seen the design before but only once. Over the next few months, as I discussed the table with him and others, I confirmed there had only been one other table like ever seen, which also surfaced in LA decades earlier. It was a little known and quite rare table by Charles and Ray Eames, number 473-T.
The Eameses’ Table 473-T appeared in Herman Miller catalogues published in Europe, but not until 1962 and then for only three years. Interestingly, in a 1964 catalogue, Herman Miller utilized the Hunt House photography by Marvin Rand. The table’s publication in the December 1958 issue of DOMUS, pictured in the Hunt House interior, remains this design’s first known appearance. In Elizabeth Hunt’s archive, there was an extensive collection of paperwork related to the house and the furniture—even invoices for when furniture was repaired or reupholstered (Ellwood arranged for Herman Miller to do it). Yet there is no invoice or paperwork for the coffee table. Was it acquired by Ellwood directly from the Eames Office? Was it the first one made? Possibly.
Something was illuminated for me while researching the furniture in this house and reflecting on the surviving images: All of the pieces were designed at the same time as the home. The Coconut Chair, 1955; Eames Lounge and Ottoman, 1956; the Eames Sofa Compact, the 1940s but only in production in its current form since 1954. These designs were brand new when photographs of the Hunt house were so widely circulated, and so many people were seeing them for the first time. It’s really no wonder editors gave over so many pages to this new residence filled with cutting-edge contemporary design. And for someone in my position, it was incredibly exciting to find a complete mid-century interior that is so well documented.
The Serendipity Continues
As I researched and worked on preparing the collection for auction, the serendipitous events kept coming. Coincidentally, I had just started following the work of architectural designer and restoration specialist Barton Jahncke, who was working on Ellwood’s Smith House (1958). Jahncke had engaged Chicago dealer and Design Miami gallerist Lawrence Converso to loan some period furniture to the house and install a group of paintings by Craig Ellwood. (Ellwood spent a lot of time painting at the end of his life, not to mention driving Lamborghinis and living in Tuscany).
In the meantime, the new owner who lacked appreciation for the house decided to sell to the long-term renters, architect Diane Bald and her husband Michael Budman, who fully grasped its architectural significance. They hired Jahncke and his firm Previous Partners to oversee a full and complete rehabilitation of the home. Of course, I learned about it on Instagram.
The restoration of an architectural home is a challenging undertaking. They are spaces that don’t yield much to improvisation, and they are often full of rare materials and fixtures that are no longer available. Jahncke is something of an Ellwood specialist, and aside from the Smith House he also worked on Casa Kuderna (1956) and is currently working on Ellwood’s Hale House (1951) and the Zack House (1952). All these projects require a team of skilled individuals to handle sensitive work. For the Hunt House, Jahncke brought in architect Jim Tyler, who worked with Ellwood and has first-hand knowledge of how the houses were put together in the first place.
I went to meet Jahncke at the Hunt House and brought along the archive, which included some drawings and blueprints of the house. As excited as I was to see the house, Jahncke was more excited to see the blueprints. Though he consulted the original drawings and specifications held in Ellwood’s archive at Cal Poly Pomona, the materials I delivered offered further insight into how the house was built and provided the original specifications for everything from the chimney hood to the original plumbing (much of which has since been re-fabricated in exacting detail).
As the auction approached, Barton introduced me to his clients, Bald and Budman (the new-new owners), so I could show them everything. We were already committed to the auction, so a private sale was not possible. Still they were very interested in pursuing the works. Condition was a concern. After sixty years next to the ocean, much of the metalwork was in bad shape and many of the surfaces had been bleached by the light pouring in over the Pacific. Could these historic works be restored? Was it worth the effort, especially considering most of the designs could be acquired in new production?
Historical design was often created using then-new materials and production techniques. It hasn’t all aged well. Plastics, foam, plywood, laminates: these are materials that don’t build patina or wear their age as well as natural materials like wood or bronze. But for all their fragility, many examples can survive and do exist with wear that can be appreciated, valued, and collected. The Hunt House Coconut Chairs were certainly in that category, with beautifully faded coloration to the upholstery and striking and slightly aesthetic oxidation to the chrome frame. Other than the effect of light and the salt water air, the furniture had been well cared for.
The Sale & the Reunion
In today’s market, it’s fair to say that American mid-century modern design is not on the top of many collector’s lists. The most innovative thinkers designed for industry, and companies such as Knoll and Herman Miller were expert at producing in large quantities. Though iconic, these designs do not have the rarity necessary to create secondary markets values in the upper tiers. Regardless, the work produced in the US between 1945 and 1965 remains a desirable touchpoint for many collectors around the world. Looking back on this era, we appreciate the compelling coordination between product design and architecture. The contextualization of iconic design within structures built from similar ideals is a romantic visualization from today’s vantage point. These designers were often idealists pursuing their perfect vision for how we should live, and the furniture that has persisted for so many decades remains a tangible artifact of that pursuit.
The auction took place in October of 2018, and I opened it with the Hunt House collection. Many bidders put their hands up for these pieces. Bald and Budman pursued those pieces that would be indispensable to the house and bought many that can be seen in their documentation of the house’s restoration, such as the dining set, most of the living room table, the custom bed, and Elizabeth Hunt’s archive. They in turn asked Lawrence Converso to help in faithfully restoring the furniture. Earlier this year, after more than a year of diligent work, the restoration was complete, the furniture was installed, and the restoration was recognized with a Historic Preservation Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles.
We rarely get to tell this story. Due to this strange confluence of events, these modern artifacts found their way home and now again sit where they belong, on Malibu Road, as the ocean waves roll in day after day. ◆
Previous Partners was awarded the 2020 Residential Architecture Awards Honor for Adaptive Re-Use & Historic Preservation by AIA Los Angeles for the Hunt House restoration project. Check out Hunt House's owners' Instagram @hunthouse_malibu to see how the project has come to life over the last few years.