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Helen Liu Fong, 78; Architect Created Futuristic Designs for Coffee Shops

Times Staff Writer

Helen Liu Fong, a commercial architect who helped create icons of style in the futuristic coffee shops that sprouted in Southern California in the 1950s and ‘60s, died of cancer April 17 at a Glendora hospice. She was 78.

A UC Berkeley graduate who was born in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Fong was a key member of the architecture firm Armet & Davis when it translated post-World War II optimism into distinctive designs for such restaurant chains as Denny’s, Bob’s Big Boy and Norms.

As a leading practitioner of the Googie style, named after an eye-catching West Hollywood cafe designed by modernist architect John Lautner in 1949, Fong helped make upswept roofs, boomerang angles and attention-grabbing neon beacons emblems of an era.

Among her major contributions were Johnie’s coffee shop at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, the Holiday Bowl on Crenshaw Boulevard, Pann’s coffee shop near Westchester and the first Norms restaurant, on Figueroa Street. Of these, Pann’s, Johnie’s and a small part of the Holiday Bowl are still standing.

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Fong was most associated with the interior design of the restaurants, which she imbued with a coziness surprising in buildings meant to evoke a vision of the future.

“She had a real sense of creating a place for people,” said historian Alan Hess, author of “Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture,” the 1986 book that became the bible of the coffee shop preservation movement. “The scale of the interiors, the arrangements of counters and overhead soffits, the banquettes and tables, and the indoor-outdoor planting ... were a big part of making those ultra-modern shops really human and really popular.”

Fong was known for her attention to color and detail, from the shape of the light fixtures and furniture (she favored Herman Miller chairs) to the cut of the employees’ uniforms and the glaze on the china.

“Everything had to be totally coordinated,” Victor Newlove, the principal architect at the firm now known as Armet Davis Newlove, said of her rigorous approach to design.

Few details escaped her scrutiny. Colleagues often tell the story of Fong’s last-minute alteration of a back wall at Pann’s just before the restaurant opened in 1958. The wall had been covered in small white tiles, and the overall effect struck the designer as too bland.

“She felt it needed more color,” Newlove recalled. “So she personally went in there with nail polish and put red nail polish on some of the mosaic tiles, to give them more of an accent. She just felt something was missing.”

The nail-polish highlights lasted three decades, until the early 1990s, when the restaurant was renovated and restored.

Another distinctive feature of Pann’s is an outdoor tropical garden, an element Fong introduced in many restaurants. The garden could be seen through the coffee shop’s expanses of glass, which gave customers a sense of the indoors and outdoors merging. Large glass doors also helped provide a connection to the street, so important in the burgeoning car culture of ‘50s L.A.

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She also commissioned artists such as Betsy Hancock and Hans Werner, who left their imprint on clocks, murals, screens and other objects for many Armet & Davis-designed restaurants.

The Holiday Bowl’s interior featured white George Nelson lamps and fiberglass Eames chairs wrapped in orange vinyl. Outside, the 1958 bowling alley and adjoining coffee shop was a Space Age vision, with a zigzag roofline and shocking orange-and-white facade. A hub of the Japanese American and black communities that burgeoned in the Crenshaw district after World War II, it had a Japanese modern theme, which extended to a cocktail lounge called Saki-Ba (for sake bar) and a ceiling inspired by Japanese folk woodwork.

Despite the protests of a multicultural band of loyal customers, the bowling alley closed in 2000 and was demolished three years later. Its coffee shop, however, was declared a historic cultural monument and will be incorporated into a new development on the site.

“We all knew that commercial architecture would come and go based on the forces of commerce,” Fong told Los Angeles magazine in 2000. “It wasn’t our function to think in the long term. If we could make restaurants appealing, make you feel good when you’re in them, then we’d done our job.”

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Fong earned a degree in city planning from UC Berkeley in 1949 and returned to Los Angeles, where she was hired by architect Eugene Choy. She began as a secretary, learning about the business by typing contracts, handling payments and organizing catalogs of building materials.

When Choy downsized in 1951, she found another job in the same building, at the offices of Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, both USC graduates, who had opened their firm in 1947 and were just beginning to design coffee shops alluring enough to get customers out of their cars. They assembled a culturally diverse staff, and Fong -- described by colleagues as opinionated, disciplined and commanding -- was a standout who soon became what Newlove called “the guiding influence who kept the firm going.”

“She ran the drafting, the interior design, made sure people were paid. I don’t know how Armet & Davis would have survived without her.”

Newlove recalled one of his first days in the office as a summer intern in the early 1960s. He was whistling at the drafting table when suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Fong. “She said, ‘We don’t whistle while we work here.’ I knew it wasn’t Snow White,” Newlove said. “I knew immediately it was the boss.”

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Fong retired in the late 1970s, but to this day, Newlove said, employees still adhere to the no-whistling rule. And the only background music allowed is classical because Fong, an opera lover, would permit no other kind.

Fong, who never married, is survived by a sister, Betty Woo; two brothers, Hayward Fong and Citron Toy; and many nieces and nephews.


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