clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Elizabeth Gordon’s International Style

The legendary 'House Beautiful' editor had a complicated relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright—and global design

Elizabeth Gordon at Taliesin West, ca. 1946.
Elizabeth Gordon at Taliesin West, ca. 1946.
Yale University Press

Today’s shelter magazines are mainly distinguished by their aesthetic sensibility. If there are political differences between the leadership at Architectural Digest and Dwell, they don’t trickle down to the average reader. But this wasn’t always the case. In 1953, House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon divided the architecture world with an editorial titled “The Threat to the Next America,” accusing International Style architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe of moving America toward totalitarianism and communism by way of visual austerity.

Gordon wrote, “Two ways of life stretch before us. One leads to the richness of variety, to comfort and beauty. The other, the one we want fully to expose to you, retreats to poverty and unlivability. Worst of all, it contains the threat of cultural dictatorship.” Her hero Frank Lloyd Wright telegraphed his approval upon reading: “Surprised and delighted. Did not know you had it in you. From now on at your service.” He signed his note “Godfather.”

“That telegram,” Gordon wrote years later, “was the beginning of our real friendship.”

To revisit this editorial in an era when shelter magazines differentiate themselves by being willing or unwilling to profile the Kardashians is shocking. To read it in the age of Trump, even more so. Simply put, “The Threat to the Next America” was a design editor’s vision of “American carnage”—that attention-grabbing phrase in Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address that portrayed a nation slipping into crime, drugs, and poverty. Like the speechwriter, Gordon was afraid of losing American culture as she recognized it. Her warning that proponents of International Style “make such a consistent attack on comfort, convenience, and functional values that it becomes, in reality, an attack on reason itself,” may not have been made from a political pulpit, but it nonetheless played to McCarthy-era fears of the “other.”

Gordon thought of herself as a crusader for the average homemaker. To Gordon, warning her readers about International Style in the strongest possible terms was justified: It was a public service. The reality is more complicated.

“My genetic and social background should not have produced me,” Gordon once wrote of herself. The Indiana native from modest Methodist means learned early on that “You can get anything as long as you want it and have a good story to go with it.” Gordon ran on confidence. She told a 1987 interviewer from Hagerstown, Maryland’s Morning Herald that when she was a student at the University of Chicago she figured out a scheme to fit in with the most popular students, who all had cars. Even before Gordon knew how to drive, she convinced a local dealer to let her drive one of their cars, to be returned at the end of each day, as free advertising. “It’s called gall or guts,” she told the Morning Herald.

May, 1948 Pace Setter House. House Beautiful February 1948.
May, 1948 Pace Setter House. Color styling by William Manker. House Beautiful February 1948.
Yale University Press

After the University of Chicago, Gordon taught English in Wisconsin for a year before entering New York media as a copywriter. Eventually, she landed at an advertising agency that handled Hearst’s Good Housekeeping magazine. An autodidact in the field, she recognized that the publication featured too much fiction and not enough actionable home advice for its market. “I began to be thought of as ‘a doctor for sick magazines,’” she wrote, and she was hired to join the staff of Good Housekeeping full-time. After eight years, she moved to House Beautiful in 1939 as editor-in-chief, a position she would hold for over two decades.

Gordon devoted three issues of House Beautiful to praising Frank Lloyd Wright as the true American modernist, beginning in 1946, when she dedicated the magazine’s 50th anniversary issue to him: “It is my thank you to you—for everything: for your contribution to design, for your personal courage in being perpetually articulate about your convictions. For your personal charm which aids your cause so effectively, and for just being so damn good,” she would write to the architect.

By this point she had visited with Wright and his wife twice—once at his Taliesin West compound in Arizona, and once at Taliesin in Wisconsin while working on the issue. Although their relationship may have begun as that of critic and subject, it developed to be more. One year she shipped him, for his birthday, “the best portable outdoor cooking unit there is.” In 1954, House Beautiful ordered a birthday cake for Wright with the line “To the Immortal Frank Lloyd Wright” and a facsimile of the red initialed tile Wright embedded in each of his houses.

Gordon was proud that House Beautiful had been the first magazine to publish a Frank Lloyd Wright house back in 1897 (in the magazine’s second-ever issue). “We have always considered that you were not only one of the actual founders of this magazine … but our spiritual leader as well,” she once wrote to him. But she got into hot water when she featured him again in 1950 alongside the younger American architects he inspired, or, as Wright called them in a scathing letter to Gordon, “many little boys who came along helping themselves (gratis) to what had cost a tragic lifetime of superlative effort.” He lamented having “lived long enough to have the misfortune to see my own work eventuate as a mere ‘ism.’” This criticism stunned Gordon.

“That we should offend you in even the slightest degree is an overwhelming tragedy to me. And that we have caused you distress is a crime for which we can never forgive ourselves,” she wrote. With “The Threat to the Next America,” Gordon would have a chance to win back Wright’s approval.

“She wouldn’t have said she was xenophobic, she would have said she was a patriot,” says Dianne Harris, the dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Utah and the author of Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America.

Borrowing from the scare tactics of the Cold War was her way of having an impact, explains Monica Penick, an assistant professor in the design studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Penick has studied Elizabeth Gordon for a decade and a half. Her book Tastemaker (Yale University Press), out in June 2017, is the most comprehensive tome to date on Gordon’s life and work. “Design critique doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Penick explains. “‘The Threat to the Next America’ needs to be understood in the context of [Gordon’s] editorial agenda.” This includes the rhetorical strategies Gordon employs, bringing the reader into the piece as an ally in the fight against insidious International Style:

What I want to tell you about has never been put into print by us or any other publication, to my knowledge. Your first reactions will be amazement, disbelief, and shock. You will say “It can’t happen here!”

“She knew how to sell ideas,” says Penick. Nora Wendl, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, agrees. “[Gordon] took it as an opportunity to distinguish the journal.”

As a stand-in for the American consumer, Gordon used one Dr. Edith Farnsworth, writing, “I have talked to a highly intelligent, now disillusioned, woman who spent more than $70,000 building a 1-room house that is nothing but a glass cage on stilts.” The house in question? Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.

Wendl has written about Farnsworth’s lawsuit against the architect, which has been interpreted as bitterness over romantic rejection. This gendered interpretation, Wendl argues, overlooks the house’s flaws. “I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night,” Farnsworth told writer Joseph A. Barry in a subsequent issue of House Beautiful. “I can’t even put a clothes hanger in my house without considering how it affects everything from the outside.”

In “The Threat to the Next America,” Gordon argues that these conditions are inhumane:

The much touted all-glass cube of International Style architecture is perhaps the most unlivable type of home for man since he descended from the tree and entered a cave. You burn up in the summer and freeze in the winter, because nothing must interfere with the ‘pure’ form of their rectangles—no overhanging roofs to shade you from the sun: the bare minimum of gadgets and possessions so as not to spoil the ‘clean’ look; three or four pieces of furniture placed along arbitrary pre-ordained lines; room for only a few books and one painting at precise and permanent points; no children, no dogs, extremely meager kitchen facilities—nothing human that might disturb the architect’s composition.

“Gordon was really concerned with what the American house would be,” Wendl says, so she harnessed “the ideologies at her disposal.” If Gordon could convince the public that International Style was tantamount to torture, she would win hearts and minds. Farnsworth would get her damages. Wright would keep his throne as the true American home builder. But whispers of Farnsworth and Mies van der Rohe’s romantic involvement overshadowed any genuine design critiques by either Gordon or Farnsworth, Wendl explains. “The story of sex and real estate has replaced any other history of the house,” she says.

Emil Schmidlin, 1949 Pace Setter House, Orange, New Jersey, 1949.
Emil Schmidlin, 1949 Pace Setter House, Orange, New Jersey, 1949.
Yale University Press

Wendl visits Farnsworth House every year. “Being in the house is just sublime,” she says. But it most definitely isn’t private. In Little White Houses, Harris explains that Gordon was interested in promoting three values: climate control, privacy, and the American style. “They formed a trinity of design imperatives that were meant to be mutually reinforcing,” Harris writes. Climate control encompassed comfortable living inside the house (light, heat) and landscaping that took into account the attributes of the region. Gordon’s work promoting these green values over many years earned her admission into the American Institute of Architects.

But Gordon’s environmental awareness wasn’t matched by her perception of social justice. “Gordon’s advertisers and audience are looking at single-family houses as the American ideal,” Harris explains, and the families represented in her editorials and Pace Setter House program—a House Beautiful initiative that featured exemplary region-specific homes in response to the Case Study Houses sponsored by Arts & Architecture—were white. “I think all of that is lost on her, [the era’s] sense of what it meant to be an individual,” Harris explains. “There’s no such thing as being out of the closet, everybody living in these houses is going to be white, they are unable to see how their conversation about individuality is constrained by their own conformity.”

Harris notes in her book that in 1960—seven years after “The Threat to the Next America”—the median value of urban and suburban homes owned by white families was $12,900, but only $6,700 for non-white families. It’s a far cry from the $70,000 Farnsworth House, which would have cost well above the median even if it hadn’t exceeded initial estimates by about $15,000. The postwar period saw tremendous housing demand thanks to the GI Bill, but the lack of availability meant marginalized populations were even more marginalized. Gordon responded to the frenzy for the American (real estate) Dream but missed a crucial element: fair access. “The Red Scare wasn’t what she should have been paying attention to,” Harris says.

Gordon’s ally, Frank Lloyd Wright, did develop his own affordable housing program, called Usonia. Although Wright’s vision was arguably just as totalitarian as she portrayed Mies van der Rohe’s, Gordon was willing to embrace it. “The reality is that Gordon saw in Frank Lloyd Wright the quintessential American modernist,” says Penick. Because Wright’s values aligned with Gordon’s, Gordon conveniently overlooked his controlling approach. (In fact, Wright thought Gordon should have gone further in “The Threat to the Next America” to name and shame the so-called elites: “You have been describing the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out,” he told her.)

Elizabeth Gordon and Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, ca. 1946. Yale University Press

Wright’s Usonian houses were supposed to be natural, unadorned, and affordable. The first one was built for a journalist and his wife in 1937—it cost $5,500 ($93,043 today). However, after World War II, the price of materials and labor went up, and by the time a Usonian village was built in Westchester County in 1945, homes were being constructed for $20,000, the equivalent of $270,670 today. Roland Reisley, the last living owner of a custom Frank Lloyd Wright Usonia home, was recently interviewed on the podcast 99% Invisible: “The true cooperative that we were was radical,” explains Reisley. Despite contemporaries touting Wright’s site plan as the embodiment of the “democratic zenith,” the New York co-op ended up as above-average housing for a left-leaning elite. Skeptics called it “Insania.”

Gordon experienced immediate backlash to “The Threat to the Next America.” Architect George Howe, then the chair of the architecture department at Yale, wrote a letter dripping in sarcasm that began, “Grandmother, what big teeth you have!” He went on to say, “Until you disclosed the cheering facts I did not know how extensively the ideologies of our foreign agents, Mies, Gropius and Le Corbusier, had infiltrated the American consciousness.”

Other shelter magazines attempted to use the controversy to gain leverage with fans of International Style. In July 1953, Gordon wrote to Wright, “Our friends on the [Architectural] Forum and House and Home were very busy at selling their official line that the International Style is THE great style and the only style.” Architectural Forum editor Douglas Haskell sent out a call for letters rebutting Gordon’s editorial. This bothered Gordon—especially because she knew Haskell still had some exclusive materials from Wright. “They are clearly using you as proof that they are broad-minded and not the organ of one school—which they really are,” Gordon wrote to Wright. The architect wrote back that he was distancing himself from other design magazines, specifically Architectural Forum and Architectural Record.

Gordon, too, doubled down. In a June 1953 speech, she said, “Vote either the Nazi or Communist party into office and it is your last election for a long time. Similarly, choose a way of life whose architecture is the International Style and whose philosophy of living is the Bauhaus and you subject yourself to something far beyond a casual change in home fashions.”

Though the editorial made her enemies, Wright’s approval seemed to outweigh them. “So glad all is forgiven,” Gordon wrote to Wright in response to his praise. “I haven’t liked being in the doghouse.”

Reading Gordon’s concerns about privacy in 2017 feels quaint. Post-Snowden Americans can no longer pretend that plenty of trees, a concealed driveway, and opaque walls are tantamount to privacy. However, the intensity of language regarding threats to America from an outside force feels current and unsettling. “I often see the the parallels” between 1953 and now, says Penick. We are experiencing a resurgence of “America First” rhetoric that also intensified during World War I and in the 1940s and 1950s, in the early days of the Cold War. “The civilization that we have is a remarkable civilization, but civilization is only a way of life. The way of making that way of life a beautiful way of life is what we call a culture,” Wright is quoted as saying in the November 1955 House Beautiful issue dedicated to him. Gordon drew lines in the sand regarding preservation of that culture.

Yale University Press

For the record, Penick doesn’t believe Gordon was genuinely xenophobic—just savvy. Like Trump, Gordon implied that the American elite would be complicit in their own cultural demise by allowing the incursion of outside values. “International Stylists and Bauhaus designers have had beyond a doubt the best publicists in the market place,” she wrote. “They promise more and perform less than any school of design in history.”

The idea of Gordon as a xenophobe is even harder to reconcile with House Beautiful’s later focus on global design. Her issue on Scandinavia earned her a Finnish knighthood. And two consecutive issues on the Japanese concept of shibui, a philosophy of organic minimalism, cemented her legacy as an editor-educator. “I used House Beautiful as a propaganda and teaching tool—to broaden people’s ‘thinking-and-wanting’ apparatus,” Gordon wrote in a biographical memo. “To make them think broader than locally. To make them want to travel internationally.” It’s not that she didn’t want her readers to see the world, it’s that she wanted them to see it through her interpretive framework.

In 1962, two years after the shibui issues, the editors of House Beautiful gave a speech to the magazine’s ad salesmen about the concept. Although American manufacturers had enough products to source for the issues, these companies didn’t know how to describe the appeal of what they had. They didn’t have Gordon’s vision. “The manufacturers did not have the word shibui. House Beautiful has the word.”

Louise Cort, a curator at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, theorizes that Gordon’s interest in Japan was partially due to Wright’s influence. Despite Wright’s positioning as the all-American modernist, he was deeply affected by his time living and working in Japan, where he completed commissions like the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. According to The Economist, he believed he had “found one country on earth where simplicity, as nature, is supreme.” Additionally, Wright was a prolific dealer of Japanese prints—The New York Times notes he once made more dealing art than building houses. Wright’s Imperial Hotel was completed in 1923, and it’s not hard to imagine him singing the country’s praises by the time Gordon was sitting at his table in the 1940s.

Edla Muir, Zola Hall House, Los Angeles, California, ca. 1951. "What the American Style House looks like," House Beautiful November 1951.
Edla Muir, Zola Hall House, Los Angeles, California, ca. 1951. "What the American Style House looks like," House Beautiful November 1951.
Yale University Press

Gordon spent a total of 16 months in Japan over the course of seven trips. After the shibui issues came out, she gave 12 lectures on the concept until the speaking circuit became too much of a distraction from her magazine duties. Readers wrote to Gordon from all over the country about how shibui had changed their outlook on design. She earned praise from the Japanese embassy, and Italian architecture critic Bruno Zevi wrote to Gordon with his approval: “I do believe that it is one of the very best issues of an architectural magazine I have ever seen.”

This time, however, Zevi was the one with the cultural suspicion: “How does it happen that a culture of this quality could accept a war like the last one, and be allied with Nazis and Fascism? Until this is going to be explained, I will never buy Kenzo Tange and the others.” (Tange would go on to win the 1987 Pritzker Prize, 27 years later.) Zevi tells Gordon that he argued with her maligned Gropius on the same subject, Gropius in this case claiming “the true architecture can be found only in Japan.”

Readers were hungry to apply shibui to their own lives. A lot of letters started to the effect of I never do this, but… “My ideas seem to differ from those of the typical young housewife,” wrote one Beverly Steer. “Still, I wanted you to know that I shall treasure your Japanese issue and that I appreciate an editorial policy devoted to homemaking ideals other than back-yard togetherness, status-styled decorating, and clam-dip conformity.”

Whereas “The Threat to the Next America” was anything but diplomatic toward the European origins of the International Style architects, a reader of the shibui issues suggested they be sent to the State Department for peacekeeping purposes. The issues were also applauded by academics. (Although not all of them: Henry Millon, assistant professor of architectural history at MIT, called the magazine “snobbish, narrow-minded,” and “naive.”) The issues were in such high demand that at one point the August issue was “black-marketed” (Gordon’s word) for $5.00 and the pair was selling for as much as $12.00—the equivalent of $97.22 today.

In the 1970s, Gordon contacted the Freer Gallery of Art about donating some of the Asian ceramics and art she collected in her travels. In the ’80s, Cort went to Gordon’s home, then in Adamstown, Maryland, to select pieces for the collection. Cort worked with Gordon to coordinate the donation of her papers as well, including the multiple letters praising the shibui issues.

The two kept in touch, and Gordon’s powerful personality left an impression on Cort. Her eccentricities included sewing all of her own undergarments from silk. Her Adamstown house was “a strange kind of lime green with sage green trim” (predating Pantone’s 2017 color of the year choice by several decades). The doors of her vast closet had been custom made by Frank Lloyd Wright. In her old age, Gordon still had impeccable taste—but didn’t always recognize that the world had moved on since her tenure. Her attempt to publish a book on Japanese cooking in the 1990s didn’t go anywhere—Americans had then been hip to sashimi for decades.

Harwell Hamilton Harris, 1955 Pace Setter, Dallas, Texas, 1954. View to motor court.
Harwell Hamilton Harris, 1955 Pace Setter, Dallas, Texas, 1954. View to motor court.
Yale University Press

In 1995, Gordon would try to give the word shibui to a fledgling brand called Anthropologie. She mailed a copy of the 1960 shibui issue of House Beautiful to one of the company’s stores, in Rockville, Maryland. An accompanying letter explained how Anthro’s retail experience aligned with shibui and a related concept, wabi-sabi. Gordon even suggested that Anthropologie give customers cards with a definition of wabi-sabi—which embraces flaws and asymmetry as part of beauty—so that they could better appreciate the store.

Recognizing the Japanese influence, Gordon figured there must be a kindred spirit at the helm. The store wrote back and returned her books, but the answer wasn’t altogether satisfying:

We wanted to say thank you for letting us borrow your books. They were quite interesting. We’re always pleased when our store is well received with our customers. Thank you again for your time + energy in pulling these resources together for us.

Actually, Gordon’s assumption that someone on Anthropologie’s management team was deliberately channeling Japanese culture wasn’t altogether wrong. A 2002 Fast Company profile of the brand explains that founder Richard Hayne hired Ron Pompei, an architect, to travel the world with him cultivating Anthropologie’s retail aesthetic. Pompei says that the company envisioned “a return to an earthier sensibility. We saw things that were tactile and visceral. Things that engaged the whole body. Texture was very important. Storytelling was central.”

So while Gordon’s name may not have carried much recognition in 1995, her influence had already primed women to reject objects without soul in their home—long before hygge and Kondo-ing.

The legacy of “The Threat to the Next America” is more mixed. Because history doesn’t see Le Corbusier or Mies as victims, much of Gordon’s political rhetoric has been excused. And today, “only a very small percentage of Americans live in homes with modern decor,” says Sophie Donelson, the current editor-in-chief of House Beautiful. “Scores of elements from the International Style crowd, from furniture to floor plans, contributed to how we live today, but the one thing that didn't make the cut is the idea that a single architect would define your home.” And though it might disappoint Elizabeth Gordon, neither would a single magazine editor.

Editor: Sara Polsky


How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis


The Neighbors Issue


Bungalow Courts Make the Best Neighbors

View all stories in Longform