Capturing the Halcyon Days of SF's Design Scene

From 1946 to 1983, when photographer Fred Lyon was shooting the majority of the West Coast interiors appearing in national magazines, he didn’t realize he was recording history. “I was doing the work to keep from starving,” he says. “I had no idea that these people would become household names. To me, they were just people I worked with. We photographed projects together—and sweated and swore and beat the hell out of the shots until we got it right.” His client roster included Frances Elkins, Anthony Hail and Gardner A. Dailey, among others, and his photos appeared in such places as House & Garden, Vogue and Architectural Digest. “I’ve had many great opportunities,” Lyon says. “And I just backed into all of them.”

Some of the most vibrant work Lyon committed to film belonged to a trio of San Francisco designers who shared some remarkable commonalities. Michael Taylor, John Dickinson and Charles Pfister were all born in small Northern California towns and shot to design stardom in the 1970s and 1980s; they were fixtures in society; they shared a love of beauty and style and, by the dawn of 1990, they were all dead before the age of 65. Their legacies endure: Furniture that the trio created during their heydays is still produced, and books have been written about Taylor’s work.

Lyon, now 89, is still hard at work some 23 years after he last focused a camera on the interiors of Taylor, Dickinson or Pfister, but he’s also enjoying continued recognition. A documentary showing the scope of his career, Living Through the Lens, will be shown on KQED’s Truly CA in 2014, and he’s busy compiling his second solo photography book, this one for Princeton Architectural Press. He admits that having outlived many design greats puts him in an interesting position. “They are gone, and it seems I’m the one left to tell the stories,” he says. In the millions of words that have been written about the work of these SF designers, up-close-and-personal stories are few, far between and increasingly rare. Here, Lyon shares his firsthand accounts.

 

MICHAEL TAYLOR (1927–1986)

Michael Taylor started out in business with a designer named Francis Mihailoff. “But really, he was too outrageous to last in a partnership. He soon struck out on his own,” says Lyon. “By the time he did this Russian Hill interior, sometime in the early 1980s, he was very much the leader of the band, and everything he did was published.”

An Architectural Digest article penned 25 years after Taylor’s death describes his style as “a bold, if pale, aesthetic that made use of natural mater-
ials such as wicker, oversized furniture and large, sculptural plants.” Lyon documented it all, noting that “Michael was a man of great enthusiasms. He would fall in love with something and go crazy with it. There was his geode phase, his leather barrel-chair phase and his Indian pierced-panel phase. This photo shows a time when he was mad for tree stumps and Asian furniture.

“Frankly, he could be a real pain to work with,” Lyon recalls. “I liked to come in early, get done in a reasonable length of time and then collect my money. He was always late—one of the ways he built his business was by spending time gossiping on the phone each morning with his society clients—and he always seemed to show up midafternoon. But when he arrived, he had a wonderful ability to build a room in front of the camera. Once, we were shooting in Pebble Beach and, as usual, he showed up late. He had attended an art opening in SF the night before, and he realized he’d spied the perfect painting at the gallery to be the room’s focal point. He had his assistant drive it down while we waited. As we worked into the night, his creative juices were just getting going.” Lyon admits that although the process of committing a Taylor interior to film could be agony, it could also be enjoyable. “Michael was an incredible designer who was very hot when I worked with him,” Lyon says. “Time has proven he was an icon.”

 

JOHN DICKINSON (1919–1982)

“I found John Dickinson’s work very appealing,” says Lyon, noting that the designer’s own house, a converted fire station in Pacific Heights, might have been his best project. “He saw what could be done to the space, and he made it an impressive thing,” says Lyon. “In the living room, he left the plaster alone, repairing it where it had crumbled, but in the same patinaed style. The grand table you see was his desk and worktable. But he would clear it and pull the leather armchairs from around the room to make it a dining room table. Those huge busts are vintage phrenology heads. He mounted them on columns that were really cabinets. These kinds of things had never been seen before.

“John had an amazingly inventive mind,” says Lyon. “He would buy cheap, knock-off African sculptures at an airport souvenir shop and have them lacquered white, and they looked like a million bucks. He would use gray flannel suiting fabric as upholstery. He made a bed out of brass plumbing fixtures. He designed incredible metal tables where the sheet metal was draped like fabric. When I admired one, he said it was probably the last one that would ever be made, because the HVAC man who crafted them had to go back to the more lucrative process of installing heating ducts.

“When I met John, he was working for a really terrible designer. He had done a few rooms on his own, but they were scattered around houses in San Francisco and he had never had them photographed,” says Lyon. “He came to me and asked me how to pull it together in a portfolio. I told him to get the rooms ready—completely ready, so there would be no waiting around—and we would try to shoot them in a day. A year later, we did it, shooting seven rooms back-to-back in the course of several hours. Back then, with film photography, it was quite a stunt. From then on, I shot almost everything he did. “He was a quiet man, never imperious or pushy. He was a genuinely good guy,” says Lyon. “And the camera loved his work.”

CHARLES PFISTER (1940–1990)

Charles had a great talent for scale and theatricality,” Lyon says. “You can see it in this interior he did for Cyril Magnin, of I. Magnin department store fame, in Magnin’s penthouse at the top of the Mark Hopkins. I remember this being the only tiny, windowless room in an apartment that had otherwise astounding views. In it, Pfister hung this huge tapestry by Mark Adams, making the small space stunning and dramatic. That was Charles’ way: He was all about the drama.

“Charles was bouncy and bright, sharp and aggressive, very funny and totally social,” Lyon says. “He had delusions of grandeur, but in a nice way.” Perhaps it was Pfister’s work that fed his Champagne taste. The designer worked on high-end residential and commercial interiors around the world, and designed a line for Knoll that looks as fresh today as it did when he created it in the 1970s. “He was working at a large, respected firm, where he did brilliant work,” says Lyon. “When Charles didn’t make partner—I was told it was because he was gay—he started his own firm.

“He was a name-dropper when I photographed his work, and he counted Halston, Liza Minnelli and Yves Saint Laurent as pals,” says Lyon. “But at the end of his life, he got over all of that craziness and became a very real and soulful person.”

Originally published in the Winter '13 issue of California Home+Design Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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