Born into Mid-century Modern

S.F. native celebrates genre with activism, self-published books, even playing cards
Fridays on the Homefront
San Francisco native who now lives in San Jose, historian/preservationist Heather David is more fascinated by commercial use of mid-century modern than residential. That's also the perspective of two books and a deck of playing cards she has self-published. Above: Heather during her recent stay at the Wigwam Motel in San Bernadino. All photos: courtesy Heather David
Fridays on the Homefront
Heather at a recent book signing for Motel California.
Fridays on the Homefront
Fridays on the Homefront
'Bay Area Modern' playing cards

The way Heather David sees it, she was unavoidably born into her passion for mid-century modern.

With MCM being the underlying theme of her two delightful books and cool set of playing cards, it's clear that we are the lucky ones for it.

"I guess I've been attracted to modern design all my life because of who I'm related to," says the San Jose woman, whose family once owned a tiki bar along San Francisco's Geary Boulevard. Perhaps more significantly, David's father was an art teacher and grandmother a fashion illustrator for the San Francisco Chronicle, so, "I was just sort of raised to be visually oriented."

"This has been a passion of mine since childhood," she admits, recalling a 1960s bank in San Rafael as her "first building crush." Besides being naturally observant, David says her childhood environment after birth in Summer of Love S.F. was like a cavalcade of eye-catching visuals.

"I was certainly surrounded by eye candy. It was everywhere, great stuff…I was enamored with it all," she recalls, noting that even childhood drawings of family travels sometimes featured the iconic, spherical Union 76 gas station signs. Describing MCM in simple terms, she said, "These buildings and signs were designed to be noticed."

David, 51, said much of the best evidence of Bay Modern design today is in San Jose, where she lives in an MCM home with décor that includes a George Nelson bubble lamp and her father's Cubist paintings.

"San Jose blew up in the '50s and '60s, so we're surrounded by mid-century modern, [but] we're losing it," she commented. One thing that she believes helps make San Jose the best large Bay Area city for architecture, she said, "is because San Francisco and Oakland were pretty much built-out by World War II."

With a master's degree in sociology, David said she is more fascinated by commercial use of MCM than residential, adding, "I'm interested in 'what does it mean?'—what does it mean in the larger cultural context?"

That's the perspective of both books she has self-published as CalMod Books, starting with Mid-Century Modern by the Bay, which has sold out and is now a collectible since its 2010 release.

"It wasn't just about architecture. A lot of it is about culture, mid-century modern culture," said the author, who spent and eventually made back half her life savings on the project.