It sounded absurd at first glance, a headline worth double-checking to see if you weren't clicking on an Onion story slipped into your social feeds. "Playboy Mansion: FOR SALE ... But Hef Gets to Stay" read the breaking news from TMZ. The octogenarian publishing pioneer, who presided over one of the most successful and arguably culture-shifting publications of the last century, was putting the symbol of his empire for sale, but choosing to stick around as a lifelong houseguest, seemingly unable to leave the throne, even though the kingdom is a shadow of its former self. The story was easy fodder for comedians and late-night hosts, a profession which Hef, who hosted two late-night variety shows Playboy After Dark and Playboy's Penthouse, once excelled at.
A few decades ago, the idea of buying the Playboy Mansion would have seemed farcical; when Hef's empire was at its peak, just hoping for an invite, a chance to attend the famed Midsummer Night's Dream Party, would have been fantasy enough for many readers. And now, the mansion, with an absurdly inflated asking price of $200 million—nearly twice the price of the highest real estate transaction in LA history—offers buyers a chance to purchase a mansion with deferred maintenance and an elderly tenant. While there's plenty that's been said about the decline of Playboy and its current status, the sale of the magazine and company's most visible physical property is a reminder of its role as an architecture and design resource. Those who may giggle at Hefner's place in the sale should also keep in mind that, for much of his life, his magazine was a powerful voice in favor of a particular view on modern design and modern lifestyles.
When Hef's idea for a magazine went from his kitchen table to being a harbinger of radical cultural shifts in the '50s and '60s in the space of just a few years, the man once called "the Chairman Mao of the sexual revolution" suddenly had a platform. Playboy's championing of new lifestyles, as well as numerous authors and literary figures, is well known. But the magazine, and the Playboy empire, also did its part to support modern architecture and design (not to mention the great layouts and graphic design overseen by the legendary Art Paul). As the first issue notes, "we plan on spending most of our time inside. We like our apartment." At a time when most men's magazines focused on the outdoors and interior design was considered a female pursuit, Playboy suggested the single man get involved in shaping his own environment.
Serious architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Buckminster Fuller, Moshie Safdie and John Lautner, were all featured in the pages of the influential magazine. Perhaps the most famous example was a spread on modern furniture and chairs featuring George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames and Jens Risom showcasing examples of their own work. The second issue included 25 steps to seduction that included most aspects of the home, later issues would showcase Playboy-designed interiors and apartments, and an early cartoon featured a 1940 Hardoy Butterfly chair. In a 1960 piece in the Architects' Journal titled "I'd Crawl a Mile for Playboy," Reyner Banham, an English critic, wrote his own take on the famous axiom: he read the magazine for the furniture. "Playboy has over the years discussed and illustrated quite a lot of furniture," he wrote.
But while it supported the cultural conversation about design, the magazine was more instrumental for showing men how to design their own homes (and, in Playboy fashion, turning the home into a way to impress and seduce a woman). The magazine was instrumental in popularizing the ideal of bachelor pad living, and the home as a den of seduction.
Hef's first show, Playboy's Penthouse, staged to look like his apartment, was filmed at a set with a revolving bookcase that turned into a bar and a wood-burning fireplace. Chicago's Playboy Club, the first of many, was an opulent lair atop the Palmolive building, decked out in leather and chrome. According to Professor Beatriz Colomina, who organized the "Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979" exhibition, said that, "everything that happened in architectural discourse is presented in the magazine, but it's sexualized."
A September 1956 Playboy spread on the Playboy Penthouse.
Hef certainly did his best to embody these ideals in his own life. The original Playboy Mansion in Chicago, a 70-room mansion of French brick and limestone in Chicago's posh Gold Coast neighborhood, even had a swimming pool with a glass wall in the basement (after being turned into student housing for the Art Institute of Chicago, it was later converted in luxury condos). His new mansion, built in 1927 for a department store magnate, was acquired by Playboy for $1 million, then the largest real estate deal in LA history. Both were celebrity hangouts in their heyday.
Hef, who once called himself a modern recluse for his habit of working and partying inside his own walls, has maintained that lifestyle for decades. With the sale on the mansion pending with very specific terms regarding his future, it appears like he will continue to do so, in an fine example of the environment he helped popularize.