Arts & Entertainment

How the design duo behind 3,000 SoCal buildings overcame discrimination

A sketch of one of Williams' mid-century modern home designs from the City of Ontario Planning Department. The work of Williams, an African-American architect, and Maria Kipp, a German immigrant who designed textiles, is on display in a new exhibit at the San Bernardo County Museum.
A sketch of one of Williams' mid-century modern home designs from the City of Ontario Planning Department. The work of Williams, an African-American architect, and Maria Kipp, a German immigrant who designed textiles, is on display in a new exhibit at the San Bernardo County Museum.
Courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum
A sketch of one of Williams' mid-century modern home designs from the City of Ontario Planning Department. The work of Williams, an African-American architect, and Maria Kipp, a German immigrant who designed textiles, is on display in a new exhibit at the San Bernardo County Museum.
Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, formerly Los Angeles County Hall of Administration (seen from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion).
jann_on/Flickr Creative Commons
A sketch of one of Williams' mid-century modern home designs from the City of Ontario Planning Department. The work of Williams, an African-American architect, and Maria Kipp, a German immigrant who designed textiles, is on display in a new exhibit at the San Bernardo County Museum.
The Theme Building looks futuristic today...but it must have looked totally far out to travelers in the early 60s.
LAPL Photo Collection
A sketch of one of Williams' mid-century modern home designs from the City of Ontario Planning Department. The work of Williams, an African-American architect, and Maria Kipp, a German immigrant who designed textiles, is on display in a new exhibit at the San Bernardo County Museum.
The English country-style house was built in 1927 by the famous Angeleno architect Paul Revere Williams, who also designed the Beverly Hills Hotel.
David Tolley


A new museum exhibit in San Bernardino chronicles the work of two Southern California designers and the discrimination they faced throughout their careers.

Paul Revere Williams, an African-American architect, and Maria Kipp, a German immigrant who designed textiles, are well-known among mid-century modern design enthusiasts. Now curators at the San Bernardino County Museum hope to shed more light on the duo in the new exhibit, “Visions of Southern California: Mid-Century Modern Designs of Paul Revere Williams and Maria Kipp.”

Kipp and Williams developed a strong working relationship in the mid-1920s, designing some of Southern California’s most famous hotels and homes, exhibit co-curator Jennifer Dickerson told KPCC. Their work showcased the staples of mid-century modern design: sleek lines, subtle curves and geometric patterns.

"As corny as it sounds, [their story] is kind of the American dream," she said.

The exhibit, modeled to feel like an art gallery, tells the story of that working relationship through photographs and interactive multimedia stories displayed on iPads. Visitors can also interact with mid-century modern furniture and watch videos of the designers at work inside Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs bachelor pad and the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The two made their mark on more than 3,000 buildings throughout Southern California. They also faced discrimination because of their identities, said Maggie Latimer, another curator of the exhibit.

When Williams met new clients, he kept his hands behind his back to appease white clients who didn't want to shake his hand, Dickerson said. He learned to draw and edit his architectural designs upside-down so he could sit across the table from clients, instead of sitting right next to them.

"He wanted to make them as comfortable as possible,” Latimer said. "So that no one would have to be awkward."

Williams designed numerous buildings in Los Angeles, including the iconic LAX Theme Building, the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, and many private homes, from the Bel Air hills to the foothills of La Cañada Flintridge.

A photo of Maria Kipp from the exhibit opening this weekend at the San Bernardino County Museum. Kipp was a German immigrant who moved to the U.S. when she was 24.
A photo of Maria Kipp from the exhibit opening this weekend at the San Bernardino County Museum. Kipp was a German immigrant who moved to the U.S. when she was 24.
George and Denny Lynn Engelke/Courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum

Kipp, a German immigrant, was a textile engineer and designer. She was also a working mother and the first female owner of a successful textile business in the U.S. She divorced her husband at a time when women rarely did such a thing, Dickerson said.

Kipp despised the term “employee," instead using “co-worker” to communicate her dedication to equal treatment for workers at her company, said David Myers, another curator. Kipp proactively hired other immigrants and members of the LGBT community, cutting costs in other areas of her business to keep them employed.

“I would label Kipp as a progressive — even a progressive for now, let alone in her era,” Myers said.

Kipp is credited with designing textiles and drapery for L.A. City Hall, the San Francisco Stock Exchange, the Los Angeles Times building, and many private commissions for Hollywood elite. LACMA has two of her pieces in their collection, though they are not currently on public view.

Williams and Kipp worked on a number of well-known projects together during their careers, including the design of Frank Sinatra's personal residence. One of the duo's most famous collaborations was the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel and the hotel's Crescent Wing expansion.

At the time, black people weren't allowed to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Latimer said. If the owner of the hotel wasn't there to escort him, Williams would have to wait outside, unable to enter the hotel on his own.

Paul Revere Williams, pictured here, was orphaned at the age of 4 and grew up in early Los Angeles’ eclectic downtown. He graduated from USC’s School of Architecture and Engineering and became the first African-American certified architect west of the Mississippi in 1921.
Paul Revere Williams, pictured here, was orphaned at the age of 4 and grew up in early Los Angeles’ eclectic downtown. He graduated from USC’s School of Architecture and Engineering and became the first African-American certified architect west of the Mississippi in 1921.
Courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum and the Williams family

The breadth and impact of Kipp's and Williams' work shows that social progress is slow, but possible, Dickerson said. The duo's influence on each other and design in California is a story she said she hopes resonates with all of the exhibit's visitors. 

Both designers stopped working in the 1970s and died shortly after. Many of their relatives still live and work in Southern California. 

This year, Williams was the first African-American to win the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal Award, 37 years after his death, according to the exhibit's website. His granddaughter will accept the award on his behalf at a ceremony in April.

"I think that architecture as a profession is trying to recognize some of their under-recognized minorities in the field," Latimer said. "And I think there continue to be few African-American and women architects, so [the exhibit] is especially important now."

The exhibit's curators said they hope visitors leave with a newfound appreciation of the architectural history of Southern California, while at the same time understanding the struggles both designers had to overcome.

The exhibit opened Saturday in honor of both Black History Month and Modernism Week in Palm Springs. It runs through Aug. 31.