Vintage Design Inspiration from Architect Harry Gesner

What can vintage design mavens learn from Lisa Germany’s new biography, Houses of the Sundown Sea, and its subject—pioneering 20th-century architect Harry Gesner? Plenty.

When he was younger, the now 80-something Gesner actually turned down a chance to study with Frank Lloyd Wright. His design inspiration came from more pedestrian places available to all of us.

Who is Harry Gesner?

By the time the 18-year-old Harry Gesner left Malibu Beach for Omaha Beach in 1944, the “Modernists of Los Angeles” had already marked his beloved landscape with minimalist square structures that scorned any reference to historic concepts and styles. When he returned home two years later, he brought more than just memories of shellfire and frost-bitten feet: he brought an imagination elevated by Parisian boulevards, Gothic cathedrals and Romanesque castles, yet still grounded in Southern California’s oak-crested cliffs and beckoning surf. Complete with preliminary sketches, detailed blueprints and vintage photographs, Houses of the Sundown Sea lets you peek into homes that cling to cliff faces and shorelines, their rooflines mimicking eagle wings and ship prows. Gesner’s innovative work will inspire you to discover in your own landscape, personality and adventures the impetus to create a home that is utterly unique.

Houses of the Sundown Sea

“Houses of the Sundown Sea: The Architectural Vision of Harry Gesner” by Lisa Germany, new photography by Juergen Nogai; published by Abrams Books, 2012;

What can we learn from Harry Gesner?

• Embrace your childhood passion as design inspiration: Germany points out a 1920s photograph of a 4-year-old Gesner playing with a model sailing ship. Later, she reveals how nautical images and structures appear throughout Gesner’s work, from the Cooper Wave House at Malibu (shown on the book cover, above) to the Boathouses in Hollywood Hills and to more unexpected places, such as the mountaintop Hynes house, with its prow-like roofline.

• Take risks: Gesner built homes that diverged from the box-like norm. So think outside the box when you arrange your flea market finds; for instance, instead of displaying your collections on the mantelpiece with your furniture arranged around the fireplace, make the coffee table the centerpiece. Create a tablescape with your collections and position your furniture in a circle around it.

• Respect “commonsense creativity”: Your grand vision for your next big project—whether it’s redecorating your living room or reupholstering a vintage couch—will fail if you neglect practical details like checking for studs before you hang your artwork or buying the right nail gun. Ask experts your questions and follow their advice.

• Consider your surroundings: Today, locals refer to Gesner as “Old Malibu”; the homes he built are so in tune with the natural landscape that they’ve come to represent a mythic Southern California that’s often buried in asphalt. With every room you design, choose materials and pieces that capture your landscape’s spirit: buy local antiques made of local wood or reupholster a vintage chair with organic fabrics in hues found in your backyard.


by Elaine K. Phillips

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