Beatriz Colomina, a prof of architecture at Princeton, was reading Playboy( for the articles) about a decade ago when she stumbled across somethingshe deemedstrange. This was background research–Colomina was looking for grist on a guest lecturer, a late-1 960 s experimental designer named Chip Lord, and Playboy had actually done a profile of him and his famous bubble-shaped House of the Century. This being Playboy , there werenaked females photographed in the house–but only a few. The tale, and the photos, mostly focused on Lord’s unusual architecture. And at some point I asked myself, What else is in Playboy ?
The answer, it turns out, is Playboy Architecture, 19531979 , an exhibit at the Elmhurst Art Museum in Chicago that collects what Colomina unearthed. In its 1960 s heyday, Playboy was a treasure trove of swoopy, lean, midcentury modern design. Big names like Charles Eames, Mies van der Rohe, John Lautner, Eero Saarinen, and Buckminster Fuller all stood next to artful nudes and besuited bachelors–if not in person, than at least via their interiors, furniture, and floorplans. The more Colomina appeared, the more she realized how much Playboy and midcentury moderns devoted each other life.
And as lives go, this was a pretty good one. Publisher Hugh Hefner wasnt pitching the post-war picket-fence-and-garage lifestyle. His was full of conversations about jazz and Nietzsche and the company of beautiful girls. Men — real men–lived in cities, in bachelor pads. These newbachelor padswere signifiers of life lived interestingly and independently. To be sexy, theyhad to be intriguing.
Modern design, Colomina says, became part of the equipment for seduction. In part thats because of what modernism was not. In 1953 — the same year Playboy was born–the editor of House Beautiful wrote an article called The Threat to America, dedicated in part to slamming van der Rohes germinal, open-plan Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois. Elizabeth Gordon decried minimalist designers like van der Rohe as supporters of a grim, internationally influenced style–maybe because that giant open room didnt give itself to traditional, multi-room family life.
Playboy , on the other hand, greeted thinkers like van der Rohe and spaces not entail for families. The magazines editors use these designers to construct the idea of the Playboy pad, a space the Elmhersts academics describe as a universe of revolutionary interiority and total environments that sustain the art of seduction. The editors even had hypothetical blueprints. The Playboys Town House, from a 1962 issue of the publication, was originally created for Hefner himself. The marquee feature–and ultimate signifier of wealth and leisure–was a swimming pool in the atrium.
The layout for the Town house also came with pages of product recommendations, prices, and places to shop–an unusual move for magazines at the time. Colomina says Playboy ‘ s decision to feature chairs, which were accessible in ways apartments and indoor swimming pool were not, was particularly significant. They helped create a new class of bachelor-consumer–patrons of decorators who still sell today and of publishings that offer aspirational looks at gear and contraptions for modern living.( Like, you know, WIRED .)
To be clear, Playboy has always featured naked, or virtually naked, females. Was the high-end modernism the backdrop for them, or were they the backdrop for shelter porn? That was the deal the publication was trying to cut. To be aspirational , not smutty, it needed to consider not just the women in its pages, but their surroundings. In doing so, it made a platform for a new wave of decorators. Playboy may have needed design–but designneeded Playboy , too.