8 Great Modern Masters - Page 5

Mid-century architects of Southern California who pioneered an international movement
8 Great Modern Masters
8 Great Modern Masters
Cliff May and the May house, Los Angeles (1956).


The 'Modern Movement' really was a movement, with a shared ethos and goals that united architects worldwide starting in the 1920s. May (1909-1989) was not part of it—though his forward thinking and experimental contributions to home design played a major role in making life more pleasant for owners of both custom homes and tracts.

A sixth-generation Californian, May began as an unschooled building designer. His defining style was the ranch-style home. One reason the ranch home became an American icon is because of his influence, largely through Sunset magazine and Sunset Books.

Starting in the 1930s May designed more than 1,000 custom homes, some with traditional ranch styling and many in 'modern' open-plan and glass-walled style. He also designed thousands of compact, modern tract homes as well, some with collaborator Chris Choate.

The tract homes have rooms that open onto a livable courtyard and are completely modern in appearance, though their plan is rooted in the Spanish Colonial ranch. To May, design was about livability, not style. "The plan is what counts," he said.

Most modern about May's work was its focus on how a home functions—and his love for experiment. He saw homes as tableaus for a better form of living and believed people should live outdoors as much as possible. May defined the ranch house not through its appearance but as "an informal way of living out of doors."

May praised the old California adobes as a direct expression of pure function. "There was no architect who designed them," he said. "They were built just for the function of housing the people. They were made U-shaped in most cases around a courtyard completely for protection."

May also pioneered one innovation that has proven popular to this day—the master suite, which he called "a completely private home within a home."

He designed homes that were slab on grade with radiant heat, so the interior flowed into the exterior. He also created an 'experimental ranch house' for his own family with a large skylight that slid back to create an open-air dining room.