The man who roped the ranch

Cliff MAY isn’t a household name even in Southern California, where he designed about 1,000 homes and developed the signature suburban style that influenced an entire generation of post-World War II home builders.

At midcentury in America, many thousands of May’s designs were copied across the country; they epitomized the ideal of lush California and ranch-style Western living.

His designs were practical, yet romantic. They celebrated nature by connecting with it. They had movement, vitality, a kind of cinematic drama that came from soaring spaces, open floor plans and glass walls. Yet they also offered a kind of homespun coziness and informality -- a result of May’s penchant for broad, sheltering eaves, hand-split shingle roofs and an abundant use of wood and natural materials.

Although he wasn’t the only ranch house designer of his era, he was the most influential, the author asserts.


His homes were often U-shapes, planned so every room opened onto a private garden or patio. Each had outdoor access through sliding glass walls, which May was among the first to use. He also advanced the use of slab foundations, which he felt allowed the closest connection to the earth.

Gregory writes each May design “is like a well thrown lariat, seemingly casual but carefully controlled, deftly tying structure to site.”

May’s client list included winemaker Robert Mondavi, Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli, Shirley Temple Black and Lear jet inventor William Lear, for whom he built a ranch house in Switzerland.

But May’s rustic style was a nonstarter among academics, who preferred the purity of the Modernists. This book proves there is enough reason to appreciate them all.


-- Bettijane Levine