Suburban cool

Josh Agle relaxes in retro style by the pool of his 1960 Modernist house near Santa Ana, surrounded by 1950s fiberglass furniture and faux lava rock heads. (Mark Boster / LAT)

Josh Agle, the artist popularly known as Shag, doesn't just draw from life. He paints from his living room. Using the architecture and interior design of his own home, he creates the candy-colored, acrylic-on-Masonite works that have made him an art world double threat — gallery star and hip commercial brand. Populated with groovy ingenues, Rat Pack roués, cute animals, tiki gods and the occasional mythical creature, Shag's art, which also pops up on stationery and housewares, is an inventory of the furnishings in the 1960 Modernist ranch that Agle decorated for his wife, theater director Glendele Way-Agle and their two children.

Paying a visit is like climbing — Alice-through-the-looking-glass style — into a Shag painting. George Nelson bubble lamps hang by the fireplace, and Eero Saarinen trumpet-based stools sprout near the glass doors leading to a pool surrounded by 1950s yellow fiberglass loungers and faux lava rock Easter Island heads. Arne Jacobsen's Swan and Egg chairs nest in Agle's home studio, and two contemporary Scandinavian children's chairs, for daughter Zoey, 6, and son Zach, 2, flank the Bertoia bikini-pad wire chairs around a Noguchi kitchen table. Circular area rugs in tangy lime and orange dot the rooms.

"Yes," Agle says, "they are shag carpets."

"My furniture appears in my work because artists paint what they are surrounded by," the 42-year-old Southern California native adds. "But it's also become a part of my vocabulary."

This vocabulary is a part of the emerging visual language of 21st century Modernism, an aesthetic that embraces contemporary design but constantly looks over its shoulder to the past. You can see it everywhere: in cars like the 2005 Mustang, Target's new "Design" ad campaigns, and the sets for the animated film "The Incredibles."

In the work of Shag (the moniker comes from the last two letters of his first name and the first two letters of his last name), the democratization of retro design is visible in the architecture: Space Age penthouses, Palm Springs compounds and ski lodges. The artist's depiction of these buildings emphasizes the angular lines, steel, glass and stone found in the work of Los Angeles Modernists Richard Neutra and John Lautner and Palm Springs' William Cody.

Shag compositions often echo what Agle calls the "sparseness" of Julius Shulman's classic architectural photographs. In these settings, the artist reduces furniture and accessories from the 1950s and '60s to simple graphic shapes, arranged with the eye of an interior designer.

"The way Shag uses certain pieces as iconic symbols of modern living definitely inspires people and builds awareness of midcentury design," says Jeff Perry, proprietor of Futurama, a vintage home store in Los Angeles.

"I am drawn to organic shapes," Agle says of the furniture, "for what they represent, something a swinger would have had in his really cool pad."

Despite his black turtleneck, fashionably rectangular eyeglasses and barely noticeable blond goatee, Agle is a suburban dad, not a beatnik with a collection of etchings to show the women in his little black book. "Because of the paintings I do and the lifestyle they depict, people have this preconceived notion of what I'm like and assume that my world must match those paintings. And to an extent it does," Agle says. "Aesthetically, I'm still a swinger.

"Among our art school friends, we were the weirdos who got married in our early 20s," says Glendele, Agle's wife of 13 years, who sports a bob with vibrant blond and red streaks. Now ensconced in a small Orange County enclave called Lemon Heights, they are weirdos still. "He's the dad who stays home and works," she explains. "I'm the mom who goes off at night to direct a modern interpretation of 'Medea' for an avant-garde theater company."

The two bohemians rhapsodize about their slice of suburbia. "The O.C. can be so generic, but this neighborhood is all custom-built houses on big pieces of land," says Agle. It took seven months of hunting.

"We had so many close calls where we'd see a house and think, 'This is it!' and then we'd see the crown moldings and oak woodwork and walk out feeling so depressed."

In 2003 they found a 3,200-square-foot house near Santa Ana, built in 1960, that had not been significantly altered. They scraped off the popcorn ceilings, changed the cabinets and counters in the kitchen, hung hourglass-shaped, spun-aluminum light fixtures and had a mason build a stone fireplace surround with three display niches.

Agle did "junior scientific tests on carpet swatches, smearing them with spaghetti and peanut butter to see which was the most kidproof" before settling on an industrial gray tweed. He also had a new couch custom-built to seat the whole family and paired it with a 7-foot vintage tiled coffee table in front of the fireplace. He hung flea market abstracts and metal wall sculptures bought on EBay.

For months, however, Agle could find nothing to fill the niches above the fireplace. In a burst of inspiration, he turned particleboard, glue, string and paint into three birds that have the whimsical look of Danish modern pewter sculptures.

"There's always a sense of happiness in his work," says fellow artist Tim Biskup. Along with his innate Scandinavian design sensibility (Agle is of Norwegian stock), Biskup adds, "Disneyland epitomizes the kind of modernism Josh relates to. When you walk into Disneyland, there's that sense that everything's going to be OK. That's what it's like at Josh's house."

Even after the recent rains, the hillside house has enormous curb appeal and a touch of Magic Kingdom whimsy. Topiary cypress and juniper rise in front of jazzy black Mondrian-style fences and railing designed by Agle. The front door, glazed a vivid shade of orange that he spontaneously customized for the painters, sports an address plaque you might find on a Honolulu hotel room. When the door is opened, a wooden tiki mask designed by Shag greets visitors in the two-story entry.

Up a short flight of stairs, past walls decorated with patterned rugs from IKEA, Agle is at work in the Shag studio. Or, at least, he is trying to be. Son Zach, quite the conversationalist though still largely preverbal, is shrieking. Baxter, a skittish rat terrier, is barking. Soon Zoey, a budding ballerina and painter of all things relating to princesses, will be home from school and pirouetting through the halls.