John Lautner | Los Angeles Conservancy

John Lautner

John Lautner, FAIA (1911-1994)

John Lautner was one of the most important American architects of the twentieth century, and perhaps one of the most misunderstood. His career spanned fifty-five years and left an indelible mark on the built environment of Southern California.

Lautner was born in 1911 and raised in Marquette, Michigan. His remarkable natural surroundings made a deep and lifelong impression. He had his first building experience at the age of twelve, when he helped his father construct a chalet designed by his mother. 

He earned a degree in English from what is now Northern Michigan University, whose only architecture class at the time was a history survey. After reading Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography, Lautner applied to Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He served from 1933 to 1939 as one of Wright’s original Taliesin Fellows. 

Lautner adopted Wright’s philosophy of “organic architecture,” which promotes harmony between man and nature by exploring the interplay of people, spaces, and the natural and built environments. 

He began practicing in Los Angeles in the late 1930s. Lautner designed over fifty significant structures in Southern California alone, each a unique expression of his constant exploration of new ideas and materials. 

Unlike Michigan, the Southern California climate and light allowed Lautner to use large planes of glass, exposed wood, and other elements that brought nature into his designs. He was an engineering genius, able to juxtapose different angles and shapes to create forms that were at once organic and futuristic. He pioneered the use of concrete as both a sculptural and architectural element. 

He was instrumental in creating the California coffee shop, designing both Googie’s and Tiny Naylor’s (both demolished). Yet most of his best-known works are residential, with iconic designs including the 1960 Malin residence (Chemosphere) in the Hollywood Hills and the 1963 Reiner residence (Silvertop) in Silver Lake. 

In 1970, Lautner became a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He received the Gold Medal from the Los Angeles AIA chapter in 1993. Lautner was active in a number of projects when he died in 1994 at the age of 83.

Despite its great significance, Lautner’s work was largely overlooked in his lifetime. It has gained increasing recognition in the years since, with exhibitions, publications, a documentary, and appearances in numerous films, commercials, and other media. 

Yet his legacy remains vulnerable. His 1951 Shusett House in Beverly Hills was demolished in 2010, and AbilityFirst’s Paul Weston Work Center (1979) in Woodland Hills was proposed for demolition in 2014. 

The nonprofit John Lautner Foundation was created in 1996 to celebrate, maintain, and protect Lautner’s work. For more information, visit johnlautner.org.

Photo courtesy Architectural Resources Group

Sheats Apartments

Completed in 1949, the building was designed by master architect John Lautner as eight units of student housing. Asymmetrically arranged shapes, from circular volumes to long, flat planes, step up the hill and around each other to form a strangely harmonious, abstractly futuristic, and truly organic-feeling whole.
Photo by Iwan Baan

Reiner-Burchill Residence (Silvertop)

Commissioned by industrialist and engineer Kenneth Reiner as his home, Silvertop was Lautner’s first major use of monolithic concrete as a sculptural as well as architectural component.
Photo by Elizabeth Daniels

Schaffer House

Constructed largely of redwood and glass supported by red brick and concrete, the Schaffer House by John Lautner feels like a newly pitched tent or a wood cabin that provides shelter and privacy without boxing out nature.
Photo by Laure Joliet

Salkin House

Forgotten for decades, this "Lost Lautner" found a preservation-minded owner who restored it to its former glory.
Familian House
Photo courtesy Architectural Resources Group

Familian House

In the Familian House, the celebrated architect—delicately manipulating dramatic contradictions between outside and in, light and dark, modern and ancient—created a masterpiece.
Photo courtesy Architectural Resources Group

Carling House

Designed for film composer Foster Carling, who wanted an open plan to accommodate his grand piano, the home's design played a key role in developing architect John Lautner's extraordinary ideas and methods.
Lautner House
Photo courtesy Architectural Resources Group

Lautner House

The architect responsible for some of the most famous Southern California designs of the twentieth century is less well known for his very first solo design, the house he built for himself and his wife.
Malin Residence (Chemosphere)
Photo by Nick Neyland on Flickr

Malin Residence (Chemosphere)

An octagon perched atop a twenty-nine-foot high, five-foot-wide concrete column like a flying saucer on a stick, the Chemosphere is recognizable even to those who know nothing else about mid-century architecture.
Midtown School
Photo courtesy Architectural Resources Group

Midtown School

Just over the southern edge of Los Feliz's historic Shakespeare Bridge is an unusual group of tent-like buildings on a small private school campus, the Midtown School.