Norms La Cienega Coffee Shop | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photo by Hunter Kerhart

Norms La Cienega Coffee Shop

Lovers of Googie architecture always cite Norms La Cienega as a stellar example of the style, and with good reason: it is among the most imaginative Googie designs in the nation.

Los Angeles native Norm Roybark opened the first Norm's restaurant in 1949, expanding to the now-famous La Cienega location in 1957. His restaurant chain grew to become a regional icon, with eighteen locations across Southern California, all flying the space-age, motorist-oriented Googie flag to some degree.

Designed by Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, Norms La Cienega is the oldest location still in operation. In his assessment of the building, architect James Black summed up the building's exuberance:

"Everything that isn't zigging can safely be assumed to be zagging."

When asked about the enduring appeal of Armet & Davis designs, Davis demurred, "We would have liked to have made them more aesthetic, but we were just designing them to sell hamburgers."

Once widespread in Los Angeles, approximately eight Googie restaurants remain in the city today. 
 

Architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, who were best known for their postwar Googie architecture, were responsible for Norms La Cienega, as well as myriad other Norms locations. The project's structural engineer, Richard Bradshaw, worked on a number of iconic L.A. structures, including the Theme Building at LAX.

Armet & Davis' La Cienega design included a monumental "saw tooth pennant" neon sign spelling out N-O-R-M-S to capture the attention of drivers and would-be diners. The sign echoed the building's bold diamond-shaped roofline, and the architects repeated these playful geometric motifs throughout the diner.

Landscaping was an integral part of this modern California design. Subtropical plantings were installed at the building's perimeter, easily visible to diners inside through the sleek glass walls. This juxtaposition created the effect of dining on an outdoor patio. 

Pioneering Chinese-American architect Helen Fong, who worked for Armet & Davis, designed many of the interior elements. 

The recommendation to hire Armet & Davis came from restaurant kitchen equipment designer Stan Abrams. Abrams collaborated with the architects to integrate the kitchen seemlessly into the restaurant. As a dealer of modern furniture, Abrams also advised the use of the wire chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames. Because owner Norman Roybark envisioned a chain of restaurants, he sought a unified design with a distinctive image or brand that could be repeated in each restaurant site as a form of advertising. 

Armet & Davis designed a total of eight Norms restaurants, including locations in Los Angeles, Culver City, Hawthorne, Huntington Park, Long Beach, and Inglewood. The duo also designed the popular Johnie's Coffee Shop on Miracle Mile. 

 

Norms La Cienega's car-friendly design and distinctive modern architecture represent a period of growth and technological optimism in Los Angeles history.

From 1945 to 1965, the California coffee shop, a new restaurant type and architectural style, developed in Southern California in response to the return of prosperity after World War II, rapid population growth, and the rise of the suburbs. Compared with the diners and drive-ins of the pre-war era, the California coffee shop was larger and more comfortable, yet still reasonably priced. It featured indoor seating, expansive menus, and stylish contemporary designs. 

The Norms chain emerged as the benefits and look of modernism were becoming more and more accessible to the average citizen in the buildings of everyday life. 

As epitomized by Norms, Armet & Davis were major figures in the popularization of California coffee shops and made significant contributions to the development of the Googie architectural style. Although a number of architects shaped the style's evolution from the drive-in architecture of the 1920s and '30s, including John Lautner and A. Quincy Jones, Armet & Davis were the most prolific. The pair designed more than twenty-five Googie-style coffee shops in Los Angeles in the 1950s and '60s.

In countless ways, Norms La Cienega reveals the deeply innovative spirit of modern architecture and culture in Los Angeles in the middle of the century. The open, flowing plan and large glass window walls reflect modernism's rejection of the traditional box and its interest in blending indoor and outdoor spaces. Its creative spacial configuration, modern engineering, and cutting-edge materials (plastics, stainless steel, formica, etc.) further embody the style and period. 

With repeated geometric details reinforcing the chain's modern brand identity, Norms La Cienega represents Armet & Davis' first attempt to use architecture as a means of establishing a recognizable brand, a practice that would become a standard of the restaurant industry. Norms was also one of the first California chains to apply the branding concept to a larger, sit-down restaurant. The function of advertising was directly integrated into the building's design, from the bold neon sign that echoed the shape of the roof, to the well-lit glass walls that put the activity of the restaurant on view to passing motorists.

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