Helen Fong | Los Angeles Conservancy

Helen Fong

Helen Liu Fong, AIA (1927-2005)

Helen Fong was a true pioneer. Very few women, let alone Chinese-American women, were practicing architects in postwar America. Yet by 1951, Helen Fong had cemented an integral role for herself at the renowned firm of Armet and Davis.

Fong was born in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1927. She received a degree in city planning from UC Berkeley in 1949. Upon graduation, she moved back to Los Angeles and got her first job working as a secretary for architect Eugene Choy, where she learned the administrative side of architecture. Two years later, she began working for Armet and Davis, located in the same office building as Choy’s firm.

At Armet and Davis, Fong was in charge of drafting and interior design, as well as served as the company’s administrator. Co-workers regarded her as tough and meticulous, with partner Victor Newlove telling the Los Angeles Times she was the “guiding light who kept the firm going.”

Best known for her interior design work for Armet and Davis’ signature Googie-style coffee shops, Fong had renowned attention to detail and seamlessly integrated interior and exterior elements. To complement the whimsical, space-age exteriors and glass expanses of a restaurant, Fong implemented futuristic yet inviting, open-space interiors.

Fong and the interior design staff chose and designed every internal component:  scale, placement, furniture, lighting, textiles, paint color, and flooring—right down to employee uniforms, dishes, and menus. Noted landscape architect Sid Galper, was hired to design interior and exterior tropical landscapes. 

Fong also commissioned a variety of talented artists to custom create artwork, murals, and clocks, among other things. Perhaps her best-known work—and certainly the best preserved—is the iconic Pann’s Coffee Shop on La Tijera Boulevard in Westchester.

Fong remained at Armet and Davis until her retirement in the late 1970s. She passed away in Glendora, California in 2005 at the age of 78, leaving a legacy of innovation and inspiration.

Pann's Coffee Shop
Photo from Conservancy archives

Pann's Coffee Shop

One of the last and best of the iconic futuristic coffee shops designed by the prolific firm of Armet & Davis, its traffic island is an oasis of subtropical planting beneath an immense, hovering "tortoise shell" roof.
Photo by Hunter Kerhart.

Norms La Cienega

Among the most exuberant and exaggerated Googie designs in the nation, Norms is a rare remaining example of the California coffee shop type.