JIM ISERMANN/PALM SPRINGS –
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – MARK LUSCOMBE-WHYTE
As an artist, Jim Isermann has long enjoyed blurring the line between art and design. His work has included not just bold, bright geometric paintings but also bespoke furniture, stained glass and rugs which look just as natural in the living room as an art gallery. Isermann's installations, too, have been inspired by architecture and design and have formed temporary facades, false curtain walls and have even graced the Piccadilly Line. His mid-century Palm Springs home, then, where Isermann also has his studio, could also be seen as one of his most rewarding and accomplished projects.
"Because I am so interested in architecture and design, there are times when I wonder whether if I knew in school what I know now, would I have become an architect?" says Isermann, who has a London show opening this month [JUNE]. "But ultimately one of the things that I love about being an artist is having such diverse opportunities, being able to work with architects or designers or manufacturers, or being in my studio making a painting or a sculpture."
Isermann's house, within a revitalised and now highly fashionable Palm Springs, has been a true labour of love. Having grown up in Wisconsin, where his family owned a clothing store for generations, Isermann went on to study and live in Los Angeles and found his first studio in Santa Monica. But with a long held passion for mid-century modernism, Isermann found himself drawn to Palm Springs not just for its architecture but its wonderful thrift shop furniture.
"So many people used to come here to retire and when they died somehow all these amazing things showed up in the thrift shops – furniture and other pieces of design which I collected. I started coming out here fifteen years ago and Palm Springs was deserted. It was a modernist ruin, because all the development had moved further down the valley and Palm Springs was left behind. It was all here, but forgotten and run down. There were very few people who were really interested then...."
While on a visit to the city, Isermann was introduced to a small group of prefabricated, modular, steel framed houses from the 1950s, designed by Palm Springs modernist architect Donald Wexler. Having been shown around one of the houses, Isermann was fascinated. When one of the houses came on the market a few years later, in 1997, Isermann could not resist.
"Everything was still so inexpensive then and for someone like me, who loved the architecture but didn't have much money to spend, it was affordable," says Isermann. "Now it's totally different in Palm Springs, of course, and if I was looking now I couldn't afford to buy here. It really was a labour of love and you just couldn't have predicted what was going to happen to Palm Springs."
At first Isermann had assumed the house was abandoned, as the garden had been reclaimed by the desert, a window was boarded up and a broken down car was clogging up the drive. But the house was in good shape structurally and the owner ready to sell.
"When I came in to see the house there were three layers of drapes on the windows and none of them had been opened for so long that they had all seized up. I had no idea how much glass there really was in the house. If I hadn't been in one of the other Wexler houses already then it would have been very hard to know what the house was all about."
The Isermann house was one of seven completed modular houses, sitting side by side. Wexler had been working with developers George and Robert Alexander on a subdivision of nearly 40 houses, thinking that steel framed prefabs would be cheaper and longer lasting than traditional timber framed buildings. Wexler developed a flexible modular system, with the frame of the house arranged around a central core holding services – as well as the kitchen and bathroom – which was delivered as one ready assembled unit.
It was the kind of modular system that today's architects are still experimenting with but sixty years ago Wexler and the Alexanders were caught out by rising steel prices, which sent the developers back to timber. For Isermann, whose own work is partially inspired by ideas of modularity and repeating patterns, the house was an extraordinary and forward thinking example of architectural ingenuity.
"The houses came in just five or six major parts, including the core. Then each wall came as one piece and the roof came as a couple of pieces. Don Wexler said that it only took four hours to put the basic shell of each house together and then the finishing works could be done. It's pretty amazing."
Isermann spent much of the next two years restoring the house himself, stripping the house back to the steel and repainting inside and out. Over the years, Isermann has taught himself a number of techniques from furniture making to weaving, with a hands on, crafted approach to all his work, experience which came in useful as he applied himself to his Alexander home.
Working with David Blomster, Isermann also designed a swimming pool for the back garden and relandscaped. Later, he approached Donald Wexler about building a studio at the rear of the house but found he was on the verge of retiring and closing his practice. But Wexler teamed up with local architect Ana Escalante and the two collaborated on the studio design, using similar steel frame construction techniques to those which went into the original house.
Inside the house a simple, violet white backdrop creates a subtle canvas for Isermann's paintings and also a number of self-designed pieces of furniture. The super saturated colours of Isermann's work and furniture choices make for bold images within the restored Alexander house, with its flexible and simple layout.
Now Isermann is further exploring his adventures in architecture and modularity with a new collaboration with architects Taalman Koch, who have designed a new generation prefab home called the It House. The architects are working with Isermann and others to develop a choice of bespoke 'outfits' – consisting of large decals and sun shades – to personalise the houses, with the first now under construction.
"So many architects have these utopian dreams of creating mass produced houses and the Alexander development came as close as any in fulfilling that promise," Isermann says. "It's just too bad that the rest of the Alexander Houses weren't built."
Jim Isermann is exhibiting at the Corvi-Mora Gallery from June 27th to July 31st, www.corvi-mora.com, 0207 840 9111.