Chances are, if you’ve taken a spin around Southern California, you’ve seen Googie architecture, even if you’re not familiar with the term for it. The futurist aesthetic originated in the area in the ’30s and is typified by curvilinear, geometric shapes, swooping space-age parabolas and boomerangs, and plenty of glass, steel, and neon. Taking its name from the (now-demolished) John Lautner–designed Googie’s coffee shop in Hollywood, the trend peaked in the mid-20th century but petered out in the early ’70s, and has since become increasingly hard to spot as more and more period motels, cafés, and gas stations disappear from the ever-evolving Los Angeles landscape.
For attendees at this year’s Googie World Expo, though, the architectural style isn’t just a cool look or a hip take to midcentury modernism, but rather an important and endearing part of the SoCal landscape. Now in its second year, the Expo recently drew a sold-out crowd of around 300 people to Van Nuys’s Valley Relics Museum, all interested in spending an afternoon listening to speakers discuss how they lovingly restored bowling alleys or spent their pandemic "time off" researching and writing a book about how U.S. car designers wooed women consumers in the ’50s and ’60s. Other speakers at the November 13 event paid tribute to L.A. architecture firm Armet and Davis, a Googie-loving practice (now Armet Davis Newlove Architects) that popularized the "Coffee Shop Modern" aesthetic, embracing bold-orange accents, cantilevered counter seating, and sweeping walls of glass. (As Googie World Expo organizer Chris Nichols writes on the event’s website, "An Armet and Davis coffee shop was often a confection of colorful space-age plastics and rugged flagstone that would rise up out of a tropical garden.")
For Nichols, crafting the Expo is clearly a labor of love. Long before he became an expert on all things Googie, he was just a middle school kid whose daily walk to school passed an abandoned modernist shop that had fallen into disrepair and was boarded up. "I just thought, What a weird juxtaposition to see a piece of modern architecture that’s falling apart, and that captivated me," Nichols says. He got a Googie book for Christmas that year and promptly looked up author and architectural historian Alan Hess in the phonebook. "He taught me everything, and it changed my life," Nichols says of his mentor turned friend, who spoke at this year’s event. "I found my life’s work in that abandoned hamburger stand."
Since then, Nichols has become an outspoken advocate for historic preservation, chairing the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee and working with the Hollywood Heritage Museum. He’s brought his passion for the past to Los Angeles Magazine, where he works as senior editor and pens the monthly "Ask Chris" column, answering reader questions about the city’s most beloved (and forgotten) myths, locales, and residents.
For people who grew up in California, loving Googie is like loving Disneyland. "It’s like, this is my culture."
Nichols says he’s met "all his best friends" through his preservation work, including conference attendee Adriene Biondo, who owned a L.A. vintage store called Astrolux in the ’90s. Biondo says that when she opened her store, interest in space-age furniture and midcentury fashions was niche at best. Now, she says, her community of Googie fans and retro-revivalists is growing and thriving. "It’s because of social media," Biondo says, "but also because people are becoming more alarmed as they see the destruction of these Googie icons."
Charles Phoenix, a midcentury expert and influencer who signed books at the Expo, agrees. "Born and raised" working alongside his dad on a used car lot that sold mostly cars from the ’50s and ’60s, Phoenix has been an Americana aficionado for most of his life, he says. Lately though, he’s noticed more and more people becoming enamored with midcentury style and design. "The accessibility to information is so different now," Phoenix says. "You can just Google, Google, Google, and it’s fun to go in search of the places that still exist from the era."
Star Foreman, another Expo attendee, said she got into Googie after living across from a retro-futuristic coffee shop in Pomona. Since then, she says, she’s made a lot of friends with the same interests, though as she’s quick to note, "It’s not that we hang out together." Rather, she explains, "We just always end up at the same places. You’ll go to the roller rink and it’s like, "Oh, there’s Charles. There’s Chris. I know everybody here.’" She says she thinks that, for people who grew up in California, loving Googie is like loving Disneyland. "It’s like, this is my culture," says Foreman.
Ashleeta Beauchamp, a retro-enthusiast and burlesque performer whose boyfriend surprised her with tickets to the Expo, says she’s long been familiar with Googie style, even if she didn’t previously know it had a name. "I grew up in L.A., and a lot of the places they talked about [at the Expo] are places I’ve heard about either from my grandparents or parents, or are places I’ve been," Beauchamp says. "There’s a Don’s sign up there on the wall; that’s a place that I used to go with my grandma all the time." She said she was sad when the restaurant closed in 2002, but the Expo helped her both remember the good times she had with her family and learn more about the architecture she’s always admired.
For Nichols, that’s pretty much the point. "We’ve had all these years of Mad Men and stuff that shows off the modern movement, so a lot of people like it, but they don’t know what it is," Nichols says. "People recognize that it’s all part of some theme, but they don’t quite understand where it fits together. But if you come to Googie World Expo, you’ll be like ‘I finally understand it!’"
More than anything, Nichols says, he loves that the Expo drew a diverse crowd who came together because of a shared love of the same design aesthetic. "Maybe now that they’re all in the same room," Nichols says, "we can make converts out of everyone here and they’ll all try to start saving these places, too."
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