You no longer have to be in Los Angeles to get a taste of the city’s historic design. Recently, Richard Neutra’s VDL House and Studio got a rebrand with a new website, offering anyone with access to a computer an in-depth experience of the modernist architect’s famous family home and workplace.
Neutra referred to his 1932 residence, which was rebuilt in 1963 after a fire, as the Research House, because it was an experiment in achieving a high quality of life within a limited footprint. Built-in features make it spatially efficient, while exterior glass walls give it an unlimited feel, even in the dense Silver Lake neighborhood where it stands. It was his vision for housing’s future.
Today, under the stewardship of Cal Poly Pomona, the National Historic Landmark and exemplar in modernist design serves the city of Los Angeles as a community resource, educational facility, and venue for talks and exhibitions. It’s also the only Neutra home available for public viewing. So when the pandemic put a full-stop to visitations, the university had an idea: Why not expand its accessibility, not just within Southern California, but to everyone everywhere?
"Cal Poly has allowed people to have better access to, and a unique experience with, midcentury architecture than most places," says Abraham Campillo, cofounder of Mouthwash Studio, the firm behind the site’s redesign. "In conversation with them, we asked, ‘How can we expand the experience they offer to people who previously didn’t have access?"
The home’s director, Noam Saragosti, agrees: "We don't like the idea of the VDL to just sit here trapped in amber." Saragosti moved into the property’s Garden House during the pandemic, but first became familiar with the home while earning an undergrad at Cal Poly Pomona, when he spent time as a docent to the property. After earning a Masters in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Saragosti returned to the state university to teach architecture and found his design practice, Park Saragosti, with his partner, Juhee Park. Today, he and Cal Poly manage every aspect of the VDL House: maintenance, exhibitions, fundraising—and its image.
With his guidance and Park’s input, Mouthwash redesigned the website like an architect might. "We approached it like a ‘digital home,’" says studio cofounder Abraham Campillo, "with the top-level navigation as hallways, and subpages existing as respective rooms. Approaching this as ‘digital architects’ rather than web designers opened us up to how the VDL’s site can operate in a way that’s reminiscent of its physical form."
The new website offers an interactive experience with the home that includes a virtual tour, a chronology, and an extensive digital archive created by scanning Neutra’s on-site library. Photographer Liz Carababas added new images to the archive, capturing everything from a few of Neutra’s furniture designs to printed records kept by his wife, Dione. In the process, she referenced midcentury Bauhaus, Knoll, and museum posters, along with the photography of Julius Shulman—the VDL House’s original photographer—to achieve an archival print aesthetic.
"Shooting on film as well as printing and scanning the photos really helped us achieve a textured feel," says Campillo. "So much of that has gotten lost in architectural photography. Things have become so digitized and everything feels too perfect or edited."
The final product is an informative and artful digital platform for VDL that can engage a broader audience. "Yes, it’s a historic house, but Noam’s intention of really moving it from something that feels like a museum to something that’s inhabited and people can actively participate in has been a huge change," says Ben Mingo, a designer and partner at Mouthwash. "Inviting the community and making it a much more active place really just goes hand in hand with what the home stands for."
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