Mr. Mason Wells

Freightliner #1 (1958)

Small Painting #2 (1961)

Artist: Mason Wells (1906 – 1984)

Born in New England. Studied at Harvard University and at the Yale University Architectural School. Worked from San Francisco, and died in Marin County, Calif.

Group exhibitions include “Fifteen West Coast Painters,” Poindexter Gallery, New York,1961; Watercolor and Drawing Annual, San Francisco Museum of Art, 1960, 1961. One-man show at the Quay Gallery, Tiburon, 1963. Work held in the SFMOMA and Whitney collections.

Featured with 30 other artists in <a href=”; rel=”nofollow”>“Post-Painterly Abstraction,”</a> curated by Clement Greenberg with a 23 April 1964 debut at LACMA.

Art goes a long way to contextualize daily life.



Really ties the room together.  Vintage hand-woven Pakistani rug from Boomerang.


Eames Aluminum Group Lounge & Ottoman Repair

If one can anthropomorphize furniture, then the above photo of our early Eames Aluminum Group chair and ottoman expresses a completely dejected state.  It may even be in the midst of desperate prayer.  This was one of the first vintage pieces we bought when we got the house, and a craigslist find no less.  At a few hundred dollars, it seemed like a steal – until it became almost immediately clear that the Flo-tilt mechanism no longer functioned.  The chair would not return from a tilt.  The nubby wool fabric was in good shape, and the coating on the arms had not even yellowed. The previous owner, while testifying that she had no idea it didn’t work (!), apparently never sat in it.  I decided to get over the negative feelings of being deceived by the seller, and instead I would redeem the transaction and replace the Flo-tilt mechanism.

Our house was completed in 1958, the same year the Aluminum Group debuted.  I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.  But also, the design is  elegant and the group doesn’t seem to be as ubiquitous as other vintage modern pieces.  Original examples are not terribly expensive in relative terms – and even the new reissues, now with a lovely four-star base and available in graphite finish, are reasonable in comparison to other lounge offerings from Herman Miller and Knoll.  I should mention that later examples have a more reliable and modern torsion bar if one choses the tilting/headrest option.

The Flo-tilt mechanism – essentially a cylinder of rubber – was used in countless office chairs in the 50s and 60s.  Initially, I tried to contact Past Present Future, which I won’t even link to because of a lack of responsiveness.  They used to have lots of NOS flo-tilt parts, but no more.  I found a donor base from Jeff at Mid Century on Park Blvd from what used to be a Eames DAT.  The parts were frozen, so I used WD-40 to try to loosen them to no avail.  After nearly giving up, I picked up some PB Blaster, and really soaked it.  A machine shop removed the bolt that secures the whole apparatus free of charge.  I slowly worked on the rest of the pieces until I finally extracted the cylinder.

Donor base from a DAT-1.

The confounding Flo-tilt mechanism

Without much fuss (and a little hammering), out with the old, in with the new.  Now we’ve got a functional chair.  With the ottoman, it takes up quite a lot of space, even though it strikes a svelte profile  for a lounge group.  We’ll see if we can find a place for it.  Its a deep red color – brighter than our other stuff.  I’d say its more ergonomic than comfy – good for reading but perhaps not the chair that will invite many naps.  If I were to hunt for a vintage example again, I would almost certainly opt for a non-tilt antler to avoid the problems with the original parts.  However, with the older Flo-tilt design, at least you get the elegant aluminum antler, whereas the newer and more reliable torsion bar works great but appears less integrated with the overall design.

Grasshopper Chair

One of my favorite chairs from all those Shulman photographs makes its way into our place.  This is an early example, likely from the late 40s by Knoll Associates.

I’d never sat in one until I showed up at a woman’s home in Berkeley after answering a Craigslist ad while visiting family in San Francisco.  Sits much lower and more comfortable than I imagined.    Still looks cool, especially from the back, which requires some perhaps temporary re-arranging.


‘Tis the Season: Charles & Ray Are Coming to Town

The new documentary on Charles and Ray Eames, The Architect and the Painter, will get its own San Diego screening December 15th prior to national broadcast on PBS, thanks to Modern San Diego, the Mingei, and KPBS!   You’ll need to RSVP though the site, as seats in the museum’s theater are rather limited.

I’m excited for the screening because, 1) I missed last weekend’s accumulation of excellent events (Delawie house tours, ObjectsUSA show, etc) while away for work in New Orleans, and 2) the holiday season, rendered in a more sustainable, community manner, must embrace craft.  And craft is the story.  Or, at least, modifying mass production in the name of the human spirit and creativity.

Hope to see you there!

Interior Design: Never Final

There was a great Far Side cartoon that had some mobsters moving furniture around, one of them directing in an artistic fashion, and the ring leader remarking sternly to a frightened resident: “Next time, we’ll rearrange more than your furniture.”

One of my favorite elements of mid-century modern furniture and design is the lightness and inherent flexibility of pieces.  For me, this is what made Eames’ LCM so interesting – there was almost nothing there and it could be moved easily.  Imagine the kind of chairs it was meant to replace – large upholstered pieces that likely stayed in place for decades.  Just looking at Shulman photos, I get the impression that the furniture was moved around and placed “just so” along with the plants he brought for the shoots.   I went over to my friend Keith’s place recently and was floored at the new lay-out.  A little change can go a long way!

There was a curatorial element to 50s middlebrow modernism.  The homeowner could assemble and exhibit the house and the furnishings in different configurations at different times, depending on the situation.  And still today, its part of the fun.

So for our living room, it been something of a journey getting to a place where things are “set.”  The room is 17×14, with glass doors to the terrace on one side, opposite a room divider in mahogany veneer.  When we first moved in, the sofa sat in the middle of the room, dividing a conversation area from a dining area.  One of the key ideas is that we would often fold our McCobb drop-leaf dining table, push it off to the side, and make a space for the children to play.


Our Danish wall unit held our only white wall in the room, and then we put it in the library and picked up a Paul McCobb Planner storage unit, and things began to make more sense.  Moving the sofa to face the windows seemed better, and two Bertoia diamond chairs created a conversation area, but you can still see through the chairs out to the terrace.


So, we have things how we like them.  Which means, I think, a configuration ready for change.


All the Small Things

As a child, objects in the house stand out most in my historical and material imagination.  My parents were in their early 20s during the 1970s, and very cool.  On a shoestring budget, they put together a home filled mostly with love, but also hippie-modern pieces that became objects of some fascination: a leopard carved into a gourd, spinning on a metal rod atop a teakwood block; a heavily-textured wall tapestry hanging above the fire place; the metal knobs on my father’s Pioneer hi-fi.

So, now its time to think about the objects that will be a part of my own children’s imagination.  This is the fun part of building a house into a home – looking for things that make the space interesting, and ultimately – ours.

I went over to Ron’s place (of Objects USA) to look over a few things that that I was considering on our dwindling decorating budget.  I found a vintage Paolo Soleri bell for our front porch and an unsigned sculpture in clay and wood from the late 1950s (see above).   I eyed all the other things by notable San Diego and Bay Area artists with the future in mind.  That will have to wait.

Elsewhere, we picked up an inexpensive 1950s abstract oil-on-canvas by Andrew Athan Tagaris, a Los Angeles painter who was involved with the California Art Club in the 50s and worked with a palette knife.  We quite like it.  Its holding the wall above the dining table until we can find something perhaps larger.  But piece by piece, the house comes together with these small things.  The children seem to be enjoying it.



Offer Accepted: One Year In

About a year ago, we agreed with the sellers on a price for our first house, a 1958 custom post and beam mid-century modern in complete original form, purchased from the Trust of the commissioning clients.  We were delighted and anxious about owning our first place (after all those years watching and waiting and generally confounded at the housing market), but we also began to feel stewardship for the original vision of architect, J. F. Bernard. Our soon-to-be next-door neighbors are the daughter and son-in-law of the original owners, and their children (who are our age) grew up playing at grandpa and grandma’s.  We were attracted to the story of these two progressive intellectuals raising their daughters in the house and, a generation later, inspiring their grandchildren within the walls and in the garden.  A year later, our house-hunting fretting, anxiety, and lofty hopes seem rather silly as we’ve settled into daily life with our children in the house.  But we still feel responsibility to the possibilities that were outlined in a meeting of the academics and the architects in 1957.

As a first post, its worth spending some words on the nature of this blog, which I hope to put in the “About” page when I get around to it.  I intend to do a few things here, with posts predictably patchy:

First, I’d like to explore in words and images the aesthetic and intellectual nature of mid-century modernism, especially as created, commissioned, and consumed by middle-class folks.  I’m interested here in the middlebrow as a structure of feeling – as a generative, productive place.

Second, this blog serves to document various stories and projects around the house, serving as something as an archive of furnishings re-arranged, landscape plans, to-do lists, and interviews.  Seeing that we’re trying to keep things as they are, and not take out walls or build a second story, this may not be terribly exciting.  But I suspect that lots of other folks are in the same boat as us.

Third, I’d like to use it to write a historical piece for the Journal of San Diego History titled “Academics and Architects: Building the Middlebrow Modern House in San Diego County” or something like that.  We’ll see about that one, as my own research usually asks for my full-time attention.

(Photo: scan of an original drawing by J.F. Bernard, 1957).