clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Mary Lund Davis: A champion of modernism in the Pacific Northwest

The architect and furniture designer helped define regional style

Davis house exterior
Dearborn-Massar/University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

As an architecture student at the University of Washington in the early 1940s, Mary Lund Davis stood out. Not only would she go on to become the school’s first female graduate after World War II, but during long stretches of her education she was literally the only one in her class, as her fellow students had been called off to war. She recalled doing classwork in the dark because the windows at the school were covered in blackout curtains.

While school may have been a more solitary pursuit for the modern architect and designer, her timing was perfect. Graduating during a time when others in her profession were developing a uniquely Pacific Northwest form of modern architecture (featuring extensive use of unpainted wood and asymmetrical layouts), Mary Lund Davis began her career during a time of progressive experimentation, creating striking homes around Puget Sound.

Biography

Born to Danish parents in Sacramento, California, Mary Lund was exposed to the building trade by her father, who ran a construction business and often showed and explained blueprints to his daughter.

“My father firmly believed that a woman could do anything that a man could do,” Lund said in a 2002 interview. A prolific artist, designer, and sailor—Lund competed in races across the country—she took that advice to heart.

Lund pursued her interest in design and architecture, arriving at the UW campus in Seattle during the tenure of professor Lionel Pries, a pioneering regional modernist who encouraged a generation of students to fuse local influences and the International Style. Lund would make lifelong professional and personal connections at school, meeting her husband, George L. Davis Jr., whom she married in 1951, as well as becoming acquainted with many of the architects who would define the midcentury look of postwar Seattle, including Paul Kirk. After school, Lund apprenticed and worked at a number of influential local firms in the late ’40s, including Moore & Massar, Chiarelli & Kirk, and Thomas, Grainger & Thomas, before striking out on her own.

After her husband inherited his family’s cabinet-and-furniture shop, the Tacoma Millwork Supply Company, Lund found herself with access to a lab of sorts, in which she could experiment with furniture designs. The couple went on to modernize the firm, as elaborate and ornate woodwork had become passe, introducing laminates and computer-aided design into the practice.

Lund specialized in cabinets and storage space—“it influenced everything I did afterward,” she said—even contributing dozens of do-it-yourself furniture designs to the Douglas Fir Plywood Association, which sold books including Lund’s designs across the country. In 1962, Lund designed a new office for the family firm, an award-winning, 2,000-square-foot post-and-beam building with, naturally, a plywood finish.

Davis house, interior view of living room, Tacoma, Washington, 1956.
Dearborn-Massar/University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

Buildings to know

Lund Davis’s best-known residential designs showcased her fluency with small spaces. According to Jeffrey Ochsner, an architectural historian who teaches at the University of Washington, her body of work exhibited all the signs of what was becoming a very regional form of modernism: wood construction, natural finishes, indoor-outdoor relationships, and open, flowing spaces.

Her early standout was the 1954 Fircrest House, an 800-square-foot cabin she designed for herself and that was entirely modular, based on the size of a standard sheet of plywood. Called the “Fantastic Model Home,” the layout would later win a 1966 AIA-Sunset Western Home Award.

Toward the end of her career, in 1969, Davis created a large hexagonal home for her family on Wollochet Bay near Gig Harbor, across the sound from Tacoma, Washington, set amid a large Japanese-influenced landscape she also designed (which has been recorded by the Smithsonian Institute). Based on a series of 120-degree angles, triangles, and circles, the home features a number of ingenious storage solutions and built-in furniture, exuding a Danish modern-meets-Japanese take on minimalist design. The unorthodox home, built right before Davis retired in the early ’70s, also featured an uncommon decoration: a life-sized, lavender fiberglass horse, a gift from her husband that stood in the surrounding pasture.

Legacy and reputation today

A pioneer in her day, Lund Davis was part of a postwar explosion of architectural creativity in the Pacific Northwest that defined modernism on its own terms. She was especially skilled at functional and affordable work: A 2010 Good Housekeeping article showcased a 1956 home she designed for her family that cost $6,350 at the time, furniture included, at a time when the median home price was $14,700. Lund homes are much rarer than those by her contemporaries, but they can command a significant price when they come onto the market.

Architects

Eileen Gray gets her due with in-depth retrospective

Architects

2020 Pritzker Prize goes to Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara

Architects

You can now stream PBS’s new documentary on legendary architect Paul Williams

View all stories in Architects