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Inspired to turn over an old leaf
As a poor kid growing up in L.A.'s Chinatown in the 1970s, David Ko spent hours in the library studying old, dusty copies of Architectural Digest. He would take the bus to Hancock Park or Pasadena to visit some of the mansions featured in the magazine, but most of the homes were hidden behind gates or hedges.
What Ko couldn't see from the sidewalk, he could visit by wandering the pages of his cherished periodicals. The 42-year-old residential designer still hunts down vintage magazines — for his collection of 450 issues of Architectural Digest, which date back to the 1920s.
Home magazines have always been wish books, showcasing the newest and most innovative homes by architects, designers and landscapers. Publications on trend-setting architecture have been a particular favorite of collectors because the best illustrators and photographers of their day captured details and images of houses that have become classics in American architecture.
"These magazines are the eyes for me to see inside houses that inspire my designs," says Ko, of Santa Ana, who specializes in custom homes.
"Magazines are affordable to everyone, whereas the lifestyle they represent is a rich man's sport," says Richard West of Periodyssey, an Easthampton, Mass., store and website that sells pre-1950 magazines. "Few us of can buy $100,000 antique chairs or Art Deco posters, so magazines are a fallback to the people who appreciate the flavor and beauty of that time."
Architectural Digest was launched in 1920 as a discriminating trade "quarterly" that was published whenever the publisher found enough quality estates in Southern California worthy of displaying, according to the magazine. Sometimes, that happened only twice a year. The 80 to 100 exteriors and interiors were spread across the 12-by-15-inch pages of the magazine, which sold for a then-pricey $3 an issue.
When West can find Architectural Digests from the 1920s and 1930s that are in great condition — no tears, tape or stains that impede reading — he can sell them for $75 each. Those from the '40s and '50s sell for $25 to $45.
Collectors have to work hard to find these publications. Of the 70,000 magazines for sale on any day on EBay, it's rare to see architectural ones from the coveted period before 1950, says Richard Clear, author of the book "Old Magazines: Identification & Value Guide." He spends a few hours each day searching the Internet and calling dealers to find the issues on his wish list.
Home restorers value the magazines as reference guides. Architectural Record, which began publishing in 1891, is helpful for floor plans from the late 19th century on. American Builder, which was started in 1869, has details on cabins and bungalows, and Arts & Architecture is a source for modern homes.
Joe Molloy, a Brentwood graphic designer and educator, astounds his students at UCLA and Otis College of Art and Design with his collection of 50-year-old issues of Arts & Architecture, which began in 1929 as California Arts & Architecture. Its name was shortened and its influence expanded in 1944 under the reign of editor John Entenza, who conceived the experimental Case Study House projects.
"Students are amazed at how contemporary these old magazines look," says Molloy of the publication, which had become a bimonthly when it first sunseted in 1967. It revived briefly as a quarterly in 1981. "They can't believe that the level of color and design could have been produced without a personal computer, Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop."
Molloy appreciates the magazine's "simplicity, clarity and old-fashioned modernism." Cover contributors included designers Ray Eames and Paul Rand and artist Alvin Lustig, who created covers and the masthead. Architectural critic Esther McCoy wrote brilliant articles, he says.
"Arts & Architecture provides an experience where you get a particular point of view that is seamless and has integrity: from cover design to editorial content to writing to photographic imagery to advertising to printing to production values," says Molloy, who was given a four-year set of vintage Arts & Architecture magazines in the 1980s, about the same time he moved into a midcentury modern house designed by A. Quincy Jones, who was featured in the magazine.
Molloy recently found an old issue at Hennessey + Ingalls bookstore in Santa Monica. "When I was a kid in the 1950s, I would look at the magazine on the news rack but I couldn't afford the 50-cent price," Molloy says. "And now I paid $40 for a January 1947 issue because the cover was designed by Herbert Matter," photographer and graphic artist.
Molloy hasn't calculated the value of his collection because, he says, "I don't imagine parting with it. I enjoy browsing through them too much."
Bret Parsons, a residential mortgage broker in Century City, also won't part with his collection of 50 Architectural Digests from 1925 to 1945. "I've always been a house fanatic," says Parsons, 40, who picked up his first copy of Architectural Digest when he was 10. Knowing how rare they are, he makes copies of pages and gives them as gifts to homeowners and restorers.
"People are really starting to understand the value of these magazines," says Parsons, who lives in a 1922 Colonial Revival in Hancock Park. "We're losing the quality of construction and craftsmanship that these homes represent and the magazines have captured."
A few years ago, he lent 10 copies of Architectural Digest and House & Garden from the 1950s and '60s to a design exhibition as part of a charity fundraiser. A $1-million painting on display was returned to the gallery without incident, but his magazines were stolen.
Ko, whose collection is valued at $60,000, found his Architectural Digests one at a time in used bookstores, in antique shops and on EBay. He flew across the country to examine firsthand before buying a copy once owned — according to the ex libris label inside — by George Washington Smith, who designed Spanish Revival homes in Southern California. ("How did George Washington Smith's magazines get to Rhode Island?" Ko wonders aloud.) Another magazine has an inside label indicating it was once in the library of architect-to-the-stars Paul Williams.
Ko spent more than $2,000 for one issue, but mostly he has paid about $100 each. He says the cost doesn't matter. "I'd move a nuclear bomb to get one," he says.
He has every issue from the most desired years of 1921 to 1967, as well as monthly editions from the 1980s to the present. "The middle periods were not noteworthy, in my opinion," he says.
The collection takes him back years to when he studied the old copies in the remote rooms of the labyrinthine Los Angeles Central Library. "I would page through these issues carefully while dreaming of one day designing a classic community," Ko says.
The outings and magazines became his textbooks on traditional styles, which he says he wasn't assigned to study while attending Cal Poly Pomona, where he received a degree in architecture in 1985.
"I feel a calling when I look at these magazines," he says. "They have been passed on to me from famous architects of the period who specialized in what is now my specialty of design. These magazines are my destiny and my fate."
Janet Eastman can be reached at email@example.com.
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Getting it on paper
Although many libraries have given away or sold old magazines after recording the pages on microfilm, several have kept their paper versions. Here's a sampling:
The Getty Research Library: Architectural Digest from 1925. (310) 440-7390. http://www.getty.edu/research/conducting_research/library/ .
Los Angeles Central Library: California Architect and Building News from 1882 to 1887. (213) 228-7225. http://www.lapl.org .
Los Angeles Conservancy: California Arts & Architecture and its later title Arts & Architecture from 1940 to 1962. (213) 623-2489. http://www.laconservancy.org .
UCLA: Various campus libraries have architecture and design periodicals, some dating to the 1870s, including American Builder. (310) 825-1323. http://www.library.ucla.edu .
UC Santa Barbara: The Arts Library has Architecture (formerly American Institute of Architects Journal) from 1927, the Architect (formerly Pacific Coast Architect) from 1915 to 1928, and Italian architecture and design magazines Domus from 1950 and Abitare from 1971. (805) 893-2850. http://www.library.ucsb.edu .
USC: The Helen Topping Architecture & Fine Arts Library has Architectural Record from 1891, most issues of the Craftsman from 1901 to 1916, and most of Western Architect from 1905 to 1931. (213) 740-1956. library.usc.edu.