Spotlight on the Midcentury Design Duo Who Invented the Term Indoor/Outdoor Living
After 1945, the optimism of the second generation of modernist architects and designers was a great tonic to the austerity imposed by the exigencies of World War II. No place adopted midcentury modernism as quickly, or as definitively, as the United States did. And no part of the U.S. was more ready for newness, for reinvention, than California. Located at both a literal and figurative frontier, California had superb weather and an influx of non-neophobic migrants from other parts of the country (as well as refugee intellectuals from Europe, many of whom were sympathetic to modernism). California also had a healthy, diverse economy that was only strengthened by the war.
These factors resulted in California becoming a kind of laboratory of lifestyles, perhaps the most enduring of which was "indoor/outdoor living." The most pioneering of the designers who explored and established the contours of this lifestyle were Hendrik Van Keppel and Taylor Green, who in fact are often credited with inventing the term "indoor/outdoor living."
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Yet it is unlikely that any other designers of this important period are more overlooked than these two. As an antiques dealer specializing in 20th-century decorative arts, I have bought and sold many dozens of VKG pieces and watched them climb in demand and value. But until recently, very little was written about Van Keppel and Green. They began as a couple, were then business partners, and remained best friends even after VKG’s last store, in Santa Monica, closed in the 1970s. Starting in 1937, when the 23-year-old designers first met in Los Angeles, Van Keppel and Green (or VKG, as they are usually called) designed, manufactured, and sold a wide variety of furniture and decorative arts out of their Beverly Hills shop, filling the role of tastemakers as much as that of designer-manufacturers.
The glamour of the indoor/outdoor California lifestyle as celebrated in the Case Study Houses owed much to the effortless grace of VKG designs.
In form, materials, and functionality, the pieces VKG created for their own manufacturing operation (as well as their designs sold to larger companies) were innovative, though never ostentatiously so. Balance, proportion, and economy of line make the VKG aesthetic an almost classical one. At the same time, the VKG look gave form to the attractive informality that was to become increasingly identified with California living. This also encompassed the accessories they promoted in their shop, such as large-scale ceramics by Architectural Pottery. Prosaic but strong materials like enameled steel tube (originally WWII surplus!) and marine cord ensured durability when used outdoors—without diminishing the promise of luxury—while the furniture’s beauty and functionality made it equally welcome back inside the house.
The design of VKG’s indoor/outdoor furniture was subject to the same formative constraints that applied to the evolution of furniture designed for use in the military (campaign furniture) and for sport and recreation (hunting furniture, beach furniture). These genres anticipated modernist design by more than a hundred years, just as some British naval warehouses of the 18th century anticipated modernist architecture with almost eerie prescience. Military, hunting, and beach furniture are all characterized by radical functionalism, a value not found in many other kinds of furniture until the 20th century. The inventiveness seen in the structure of the best of such functionalist furniture resulted from the need to balance rigidity and comfort with light weight and ease of getting in and out. The philosophical doctrine of structural honesty promoted by 20th-century modernism had nothing to do with it.
The glamour of the indoor/outdoor California lifestyle, as celebrated in the Case Study Houses, owed much to the effortless grace of VKG designs. Van Keppel and Green themselves were comfortable members of the elite Hollywood social scene, their shop regularly visited by celebrities. Friendships with movie stars, though, did not make their furniture glamorous. The furniture did that all by itself.