Modern Design as Seen through the Lens of Playboy Magazine

The Playboy Town House Production Recommendations.. Image Courtesy of The Playboy Company. Architect: R. Donald Jaye; Renderer: Humen Tan, Playboy, May 1962.

Architects throughout the modern era have displayed their fantasies through their designs and their obsessions with how women have inhabited them. Take for example Corbusier’s infatuation with Eileen Gray and her home, E. 1027. Plagued with unconfirmed tales of how he broke into her home to paint murals on the white walls, he was also known to publicly downplay the home's design, while conversely praising it in a series of unreciprocated love letters to Gray. In the same vein, while Adolf Loos stood firmly against architectural decoration, he perhaps supported the elegance of women acting as a human ornament, an assumed notion in his envisioned home for the French Entertainer, Josephine Baker. The unbuilt proposal took on the form of a black and white striped solid which located a glass pool at the center of the space, forcing Baker to catch the male gaze of other occupants.

The relationship of sensuality and space doesn’t stop with the provocative desires of these three men, but lives on in one of the world’s most famous publications, Playboy magazine. Perhaps best known for its significance as a vanguard in the sexual revolution with its promotion of masculinity, the magazine also illustrated a showcase of swanky glass bachelor pads standing high above Beverly Hills that pushed forward a debonair lifestyle punctuated by modern design. As a generator of a glamorized lifestyle, the magazine highlighted architectural titans including Mies van der Rohe, Bucky Fuller, and Eero Saarinen, and made them palatable to a general audience.

© Burt Glinn. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.

Playboy was one of the first life-style magazines that used architecture and interior design as a prop for disseminating its message and storytelling abilities. Hugh Hefner and his editorial team knew how to craft imagery- from the velvet robes, to the glasses of whiskey, the frequent cigars, down to the details of slippers. The magazine invented a new persona for men which advised what men who desired this glamorized lifestyle should wear, what they should drink, how they should act, and what kind of home they should inhabit. Playboy’s features on architecture, particularly its series on furniture design and Playboy Pads, were more popular with the readers than the Playmates themselves, as if to say that the spaces designed for the seduction were more essential to the success of the magazine than the nude women who were shown as inhabiting them. In its first two decades of publication, Playboy had already covered Charles Moore’s House in New Haven, John Lautner’s Elrod House, and Ant Farm’s House of the Century. The magazine had also proclaimed Frank Lloyd Wright as the “uncommon man” whose love life was as exciting as his buildings.

"Design for Living". Image Courtesy of The Playboy Company. Playboy, July 1961.

One of the most famous spreads in the magazine's history featured a white BFK Butterfly Chair that aligns perfectly with a naked woman’s shoulder- an effect that effortlessly overwhelms the reader, inducing a sense of curiosity both about the woman, and about the advertised chair. This notion of architecture influencing Playboy magazine, and vice versa, was hardly been a secret to many architectural critics, including Reyner Banham. He applauded the magazine’s consumerist influence on modern design in a 1960 essay for The Architect’s Journal titled, “I’d Crawl a Mile for a Playboy.”

Even art museums around the country have caught on to this dynamic speculation, including an exhibition titled Playboy Architecture: 1953-1979, hosted by the Elhmhurst Art Museum only a few years ago. The show displayed renderings and models of speculative mansions filled with technology, beautiful women, and of course, fetishized modern furniture. A section which heavily documented real-world residences included Bucky Fuller-esque pleasure domes and an UFO shaped dwelling that could be transported once a party died down, or simply continued on to a new location.

The Playboy Town House Production Recommendations.. Image Courtesy of The Playboy Company. Architect: R. Donald Jaye; Renderer: Humen Tan, Playboy, May 1962.

Over the last several years, Playboy has become a trending venue for architectural discourse. Although there is a sense of skepticism about staking claim that a soft-core pornography magazine holds merit in the design world, it is representative of something much larger than itself. It’s nostalgic, and recalls a time when Cold War era America sought to bury their heads into a distraction to keep their minds off of the threat of an impending doomsday, offering a lifestyle that felt out of reach, but design objects that were very tangible. In some ways, Playboy was less about nudity, and more about acting as a printed Knoll furniture showroom. If Corbusier once proclaimed that a house was a machine for living, Playboy invented the house for seducing, and its influence and relationship with design is more evident than ever, seven decades later.

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "Modern Design as Seen through the Lens of Playboy Magazine" 17 Apr 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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