Tim Street-Porter is an admired interiors and architectural photographer, whose work over the last four decades has put many a Los Angeles architect and designer on the map. His wife Annie Kelly, is a prolific and witty design writer, author and decorator. Along with their individual work they have collaborated on numerous publications including the ‘Rooms To Inspire’ series for Rizzoli.
This week Tim and Annie will be honored at the Los Angeles Antiques, Art + Design Show as recipients of LACMA’s 2013 Design Leadership Award.
DnA’s Mallery Roberts Morgan sat down with them in their Hollywood Hills home to talk about photographing architecture in Los Angeles, our lost cultural heritage, books that changed the city and more.
Mallery Roberts Morgan: Tim, you came to Los Angeles in the late ’70s from Britain. What attracted you to LA at that time?
Tim Street Porter: Although LA at the time seemed to be more of a cowboy town than the super, globally sophisticated community it is now, it had an enormous visual appeal. It attracted me in the same way it had attracted artists like David Hockney, who had come here slightly earlier. It was all about the light and the desert landscape around LA, and also the architecture which had a sort of very stark cubistic quality, especially all those apartment buildings which Hockney loved, with a palm tree vertical accent rearing up out of the back, with some blue sky. It just was so opposite to everything I had grown up with in England. I didn’t have a lot of interest in the east coast of America because visually the architecture and landscapes there resembled what I was used to in Europe. But out here it was totally exotic.
MRM: At that time what were the things that you were photographing that were remarkable to the east coast and European publications you were presenting them to?
TSP: When I first came to live here Frank Gehry was just launching into his career as an artist-architect, abandoning his early career as a more commercial architect. He had me photograph some of his early ventures into the area of his work we are more familiar with today. He was just starting off and then shortly after he started to work on his own house. I took one or two of his early projects to a senior editor at Architectural Record Magazine saying ‘here’s some of Frank Gehry’s new work are you interested?’ and she said, ‘oh, dear Frank ,we love his work and one day hope we will be able to publish it.’ And that transitioned within a year to his house being completed and becoming the most widely published house in the world! So, he was suddenly launched and I was the one who was there and photographed all of these projects at about that time. So, in that way I was in the right place at the right time
MRM: Which of your books can you signify as the game changers – the ones that began to shine a light on Los Angeles in a way that people hadn’t seen it before?
TSP: Freestyle was the first book. It was all about radical architecture in Los Angeles at that time. It was published in the late 80s and did really well.
There was a wonderful opening party at Rebecca’s restaurant in Venice designed by Frank Gehry. Ray Eames came. And completely unexpectedly, this slightly elderly woman named Esther Williams, the movie star, came. We all wondered why she was there and thought it must have been because it had ‘Freestyle’ in the title!
Then came The Los Angeles House in 1995, which I thought was important because it became like a history through the entire 20th century. From the Greene & Greene Brothers, who were the first people to do a house which was designed specifically for the Los Angeles climate and landscape, and all the way through to the end of the ’80s ending up with John Lautner and Frank Gehry. It was about modernism but had alternating chapters with important period architecture from the 1920s onward – so I had Paul Williams and all those people included as well.
MRM: After Freestyle and The Los Angeles House was a book called Los Angeles Deluxe with an introduction by Diane Keaton. It was a very large format with foldout pages, a special edition of 5,000 copies. A few years later, in 2008, a ‘mini’ version was published; Los Angeles Mini. Would you say these books were creating a new audience for architecture and design in Los Angeles?
Annie Kelly: Los Angeles Mini was very portable and what was wonderful was people could take it back home with them so they could show all their friends and family that Los Angeles actually looked pretty good! – it looked kind of fabulous and it looked kind of glamorous. These pictures really were a love story to LA with the palm trees, art deco architecture, the parks, the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. It was Los Angeles on a very positive note. People usually preferred to do sort of gritty realism but Tim came across with what he visually loved. And because they could be packed in a little suitcase and taken off, they could be sent to France, sent to New York…it was a really positive view of Los Angeles going out into the world.
MRM: And then came the now iconic L.A. Modern. I think it’s fair to say this was a real game-changer. What would you say is the most significant change or evolution you’ve seen for design and architecture in Los Angeles?
AK: I think one of the most important things to happen from a design point of view in Los Angeles was the realisation by people like Diane Keaton and Brad Pitt, and other movie stars, that Los Angeles residential architecture was really, impressive, amazing, worth saving. In fact the first one was Joel Silver who bought Frank Lloyd Wright’s Storer house, which I might add, is for sale again. At the time he really didn’t realise what he was doing. He was just restoring it because he had a sense it should be done properly. He was actually surprised I remember by all these enormous national awards he received. I think once he did that the rest of the film industry started becoming more aware of Los Angeles design history and how attractive it was to live in these really unusual and amazing houses. Diane Keaton also bought a Lloyd Wright house near Los Feliz and it appeared in Tim’s books.
If you really have a look closely through LA Modern you’ll find it’s sprinkled with people who are very well known and I think that has a lot to do with the renaissance in Los Angeles design which just kind of spread from there. Because then it went to the furnishings as everyone wanted to furnish these houses correctly. So, it started to be this huge movement.
MRM: In many cases it was about recording architecture and design that was also disappearing?
TSP: Yes, absolutely. What was challenging to me was something I heard on the radio. Somebody in city hall said ‘architecturally there’s practically nothing worth saving in Los Angeles’. I think this was in the ’80s when there was a construction boom and everybody was doing new stuff and laying waste to a lot of the wonderful old stuff. So, that was a huge challenge to me. We had to put what I regarded as all this wonderful architecture and this huge heritage from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and all the rest of it – on the map.
One of the buildings I was able to document was the wonderful, incredible Pan Pacific Auditorium. I went there to photograph several weekends. They had fires in the building because it was LA County that was supposed to be taking care of it and they weren’t – because they didn’t know what to do with it – so it was like benign neglect. There were kids living in the building on weekends and having parties. So, at least I have pictures of the building while it still existed.
I think the façade of the Pan Pacific represented all that was great about the early automobile age, the age of streamlining. People who’d grown up in LA remembered going there and going ice-skating. It was a happy place and a wonderful landmark. LA, and in this case LA County, just allowed it to go to down hill and then in the end there was nothing left and it had to be torn down. That was one of the worst I think.
MRM: Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to about the upcoming Los Angeles Antiques, Art and Design Show?
AK: It’s a very modern interpretation of antiques and design because I think the show is going to incorporate a wide variety of decorative furnishings. This is not your grandmother’s antique show! An eclectic mix is where design is going today and that’s going to be reflected in the show.
TSP: We’ve been to the antiques show for the last few years and it seems to be growing and developing and gets more exciting every year. In the wonderful new space they have I think it’s going to be a really exciting event for everybody who’s interested in contemporary or mid-century design – and for antiques too.
AK: I think it was a wonderful decision to shift locations because having been to events for years at the Barker Hanger we were getting a bit tired of the primitive facilities!
TSP: Yes, in reference to Annie’s comment, the new space is huge and wonderful and very cleverly designed. You’ll see three metal bowls on the floor, with water in them, that’s an amusing reference to the owner’s three Labradors (thus the name 3 Labs). The facilities are what you would expect to find in a Four Seasons Hotel, very glamorous. So, people who have been to fairs in the Barker Hanger (which is wonderful in its own way) but try to avoid the trip out to the portable restrooms, well, now their visit to the facilities will be something they will remember almost as clearly as anything else about the fair!