In the spring of 2008, Julius Shulman attended a crowded book launch at A+D Museum in Los Angeles, California. Then 97 years old, the prolific architecture photographer was there to celebrate the debut of Dream Homes: Los Angeles, a coffee-table book filled with glossy photographs of high-luxury domestic architecture. Shulman had contributed a few images and a short foreword to the text.
Unrelated to the evening’s events, A+D Museum was also hosting a traveling exhibition, After the Flood: Building on Higher Ground, documenting the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After the Flood in part sought to rethink housing as a response to environmental catastrophe, and the exhibition at A+D highlighted thirteen prototypes for homes deemed affordable, ecologically friendly, and disaster-resistant.
As the evening unfolded, Shulman addressed the crowd, unprompted: “Here we are for something called Dream Homes, but no one gives a damn for New Orleans and the thousands of people in these big pictures showing the disaster.” Pointedly he continued, “What good is a dream house if you haven’t got a dream?”
Then, as before—but especially in that moment of crisis—the domestic, for Shulman, was political.
Julius Shulman got his professional start at 26 when five or six shots he’d snapped of modernist architect Richard Neutra’s 1936 Kun House happened to make their way across the architect’s desk. Neutra invited Shulman to visit his office, and there the architect purchased the photographs Shulman had taken with his portable Vest Pocket Kodak and recruited the photographer to document a number of other projects. Soon Shulman was busy taking photos for many of the leading modernist architects of the period including Gregory Ain, JR Davidson, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Pierre Koenig, Rudolph Schindler, Raphael Soriano, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Painstakingly composed and carefully staged, Shulman’s photographs are typically noted for their celebration of the crisp forms, sober lines, and unadorned materials that characterized modernist architecture in Southern California. He often enlivened his scenes with cinematic props like lush foliage or well-dressed actors. Among his output in this period were the indelibly iconic images of Arts and Architecture magazine’s Case Study House program.
Though his work is perhaps most immediately associated with this strain of California Modernism—heroic yet refined, austere yet full of life, and very often the work of white, male architects—his subject matter was more diverse than this narrative lets on. Shulman’s career spanned decades, and in that time he turned his camera onto subjects as varied as his aesthetic and political commitments. He continued taking photographs well into his 90s, somewhat reluctantly chronicling the slow ebb of the modernist project and the advent of postmodernism in architecture and design. A selection of photographs from the Julius Shulman Papers at Getty Research Institute tells this story, the story of another Shulman, perhaps less characteristic of his overall oeuvre, but no less telling of what was at stake for him in the architecture of domesticity. Together, these photographs represent the work of designers, some known and others unknown, as well as incremental alterations by occupants and owners, as they reconsider the aesthetics of domesticity around 1970.
In images produced in 1970 for the American Wood Council, a trade association for wood product manufacturers, Shulman documented a bedroom at the Furgatch house in San Diego, California, by an unknown architect. The scene is dominated by wood paneling and shag carpeting underfoot. Hot pinks and touches of teal pierce the almost all-beige scene as if to foreshadow bolder design gestures to come. An artfully placed guitar suggests other signs of life, while an icon of modernist design, Marcel Breuer’s 1925–26 Model B3 chair, lingers in the foreground to harken back, perhaps, to an earlier moment.
Elsewhere Shulman finds further evidence of a sensibility shifting away from the austerity of modernist design. Photographed in 1971, a bedroom in a house in Calabasas, California, designed by Paul Jacobsen, features Jacobean florals in red, yellow, white, and green as they dance indiscriminately across wallpaper, curtains, valance, and comforter alike. Tiered lace cascades from a bedside table. Atop the expanse of green shag carpeting, naturalistic motifs recur.
This embrace of the graphic pattern, natural imagery, and unrelenting color resonated throughout the period. In 1970, Julius Shulman captured architect Lois Gottlieb and her family in their house in Riverside, California. Swathed in Orientalizing rugs and framed by Chinese palace lanterns, the living room becomes a stage for Gottlieb to communicate her aesthetic commitments. Gottlieb poses for Shulman holding a tanpura; her husband plays a sitar; her daughter, the harp; and her son, the tabla, suggesting a fascination with cultural forms of the Indian subcontinent. Meanwhile architect Paolo Soleri’s Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, which just the year prior had put forward theories for utopian living in desert megastructures, is perched conspicuously in the foreground, as if to suggest a utopic charge to this mélange of cultural reference.
At this same moment, the busy Shulman photographed the Coacalco Housing development in Mexico City. There, he finds a bedroom clad in olive green. Nestled between silk flowers in yellow and white and a floral print in red, a twin bed is capped by a headboard alluding, perhaps, to a miniaturized Cathedral front. A paisley doll reclines against the centuries-old historical motif, playfully reimagined. The allusion echoes what would come to be identified as a key strategy in postmodernist design: lighthearted, historical reference that was thought to appeal to the general public.
This return to historical precedent was visible elsewhere in the period. In 1970 the American Institute of Interior Designers and the National Society of Interior Designers designated a Tudor-revival house, originally designed and built in 1928, as Design House West. The house had been among architect Paul R. Williams’s earliest projects after he became the first black architect inducted into the American Institute of Architects. Here, thirty-three interior designers redesigned the home’s interiors and opened it to the public as a showcase of contemporary design. Shulman’s photographs, produced later, capture a kitchen clad in patterned tile and encased in carved wood, with almost-Solomonic columns and naturalistic scrollwork framing the stove. The revival of Williams’s quasi-historical artifact was an early example of postmodern architecture’s embrace of historical motifs.
Shulman was at best ambivalent about postmodernism. In a 1990 interview, he alternately called that architecture “hideous,” “horrendous,” and “horrible” and cited it as the primary reason he’d slowed down his professional activity by the mid-1980s. And yet, his oeuvre nevertheless chronicles the wane of modernist austerity in favor of a form of excess—marked by exuberant forms, vivid color, bold graphics, expressive ornament, and playful historical reference—perhaps identifiable as postmodern. This small selection of images illustrates this reconsideration of the aesthetics of domesticity around 1970. It is likely doubtful that these interiors, fashionable at the time, would have met the aesthetic and political criteria that Shulman laid out throughout his career and made a particular point of in 2008. Yet, they nevertheless highlight the domestic interior as a site of reimagining, as a site available to ad hoc alteration, as a site open to speculative potential.
To delve further into aspects of Julius Shulman’s career, see Anne Blecksmith’s essay A Transitional Place: Julius Shulman’s A to Z Negatives on the photographer’s earliest works, as well as Dianne Harris’s Case Study Utopia and Architectural Photography on some of his most iconic images.
For comprehensive overviews of Shulman’s work, see Julius Shulman’s Architecture and Its Photography and Joseph Rosa’s A Constructed View: The Architectural Photography of Julius Shulman.
For select digitized images from the Julius Shulman photography archive, browse the Getty Research Institute finding aid.
For a longer history of modernist architecture in Southern California, see Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism, 1900–1970 by Thomas S. Hines, and a video lecture on the topic given by the historian in 2010.
For more on the controversial politics surrounding After the Flood, see Sasha Ingber’s article Brad Pitt’s Foundation Sued For Crumbling Homes After Hurricane Katrina.