Critics have no idea what to do with architect Cliff May. He’s hard to fit into any of the usual midcentury modern categories. He’s often called the father of the ranch house, but many critics don’t think ranches are modern. He designed hundreds of houses, but he was never a licensed architect—he never even trained as an architect. While most midcentury modern architects wore their techno-modernism on their sleeves, May felt no such need. As House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon once put it, his architecture was “modern without looking it.”
A retrospective of May’s career, Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House, is showing at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara. The exhibition, co-curated by museum curator Jocelyn Gibbs and historian Nicholas Olsberg, with a catalog coming in May, lives up to the Pacific Standard Time initiative’s promise to bring us fresh scholarship so that we can reassess the extraordinary midcentury flowering of California art and design.
The evidence here shows that May, despite his heretical historicism, should be considered alongside stalwarts like Richard Neutra, Rudolph M. Schindler, and Pierre Koenig as a major practitioner of California design.
Drawn almost entirely from the museum’s own collection, the evidence is broad and deep, thanks largely to the far-sighted acquisitions of former museum director David Gebhard. Long before California’s historicist, moderne, or even modernist architects were considered significant, Gebhard was amassing a tremendous collection.
Was May the father of the ranch house? No. The exhibit shows that May’s work continues California architects’ ongoing adaptation of vernacular and historicist architecture since the turn of the century. We get to compare May’s early work (beginning around 1930) with earlier work by George Washington Smith, Arthur B. Benton, Myron Hunt, Irving J. Gill, Carleton Winslow, Sr., and others. May’s work emerges quite naturally. His work is also held up to that of his contemporaries in the 1930s and 1940s, when it seems that every California architect worth his or her salt could design a decent ranch. We see the evidence in designs by Roland Coate, Edla Muir, John Byers, Lutah Maria Riggs, Paul László, H. Roy Kelley, Albert Frey, and others. The only major figure not represented is William Wurster, the Northern Californian.
These examples are custom homes that define and refine the ranch house we know today: usually one story, casually asymmetrical in design, open in plan, nestled into hills and groves, with board-and-batten or stucco walls and shingled roofs. While the exhibit challenges the notion that midcentury modernism was only about steel and glass boxes, May’s ranch house, though rooted in historical references, was also clearly modern. Over the decades his designs became more abstract; for example, windows turned into aluminum sliders.
Thoroughly modern was May’s skillful use of the levers of mass media (especially House Beautiful and Sunset magazine) to popularize the ranch— a role he played better than anyone. He must be considered as formidable a propagandist in defining and disseminating modern design concepts as Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier.
His designs met his clients’ desires to live in close contact with nature by opening entire walls to the patios and making patios true outdoor rooms for socializing or private relaxation. Formal dining rooms disappeared as open, multi-use family rooms grew.
But the crowning proof of May’s modernist credibility is his success, with partner Chris Choate, in achieving the Holy Grail of modernism: a buildable and successful low-cost, prefabricated house. May and Choate’s low-cost houses drew on modern design, fabrication, and mass production. They deserve full recognition alongside those of builder Joseph Eichler and architects Palmer & Krisel in applying modular and prefabricated elements to reduce cost and enhance design.
Astonishingly, May and Choate’s tract houses retain the architectural essence of his large, sprawling custom homes. The exhibit presents a series of drawings from 1946 that reveal May's thinking: one shows the large, splay-winged designs he perfected to grab light, views, and outdoor space in his custom homes on large lots. Then he boils down the essence of those spacious homes into a truly affordable size (as small as 900 square feet) on the tiny, cheek-by-jowl lots of a housing tract. Nonetheless, the homes retain the connection to nature, the usable outdoor rooms. His solutions are nothing short of pure architecture. Perhaps only May, with his mastery of expansive custom homes as seen earlier in the exhibit, could have accomplished this so effectively.
May’s work clearly challenges the narrow notion that modernism and history are irreconcilable. His use of historical, regional imagery in place of machine portrayals seems not so much derrière-garde as fully in sync with a diverse, modern world of movies, television, and jet travel.