Mad For Mid-Century - An Interview With John Bertram - Part 1

Mad for Midcentury: John Bertram

The Rat Pack is back? For some architects—like John Bertram—the form of modernism once immortalized by Ol’ Blue Eyes and Dean Martin never really left. His namesake firm is best known for restoring homes from the midcentury period, including those designed by Richard Neutra (1892-1970), whom many consider to be one of the founding fathers of California Modernism.

Credit Phillip Graybill

John Bertram. Photo by Phillip Graybill.

To date, Bertram has applied his hand to five historic Neutra residences, including the Brown and Hammerman houses in Bel-Air, as well as his own—the 1939 McIntosh house in Los Angeles. (One of Neutra’s most famous and most photographed homes was the 1946 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, a frequent stop onModernism Week tours.) The clean lines, smooth surfaces and indoor-outdoor connection were all hallmarks of Neutra, and have since been adapted by Bertram and a newer generation of architects. The draw to the midcentury is natural, says Bertram, because “these homes are very livable, flexible and less fussy.” They’re also understated.

“If my obituary included the words ‘understated architect,’ I think I would die a happy man,” proclaims Bertram, if not a little a facetiously. “Most of my work I’d characterize as subtle and discreet.”

For the 10-year anniversary of Modernism Week, we sat down with the modest architect to ask him about the modernist legends who have gone before him and how he finds beauty in the everyday—in the tiny yet meaningful connections built between the house and the humans living in it.


Previews Inside Out Why does modernism speak to you as an architect?


John Bertram I’m drawn to the rational and the pragmatic in modernism. For me, purity of line and clarity of detail have always carried an inescapable allure. That certain purposeful lack of fuss and inherent restraint that characterizes much of the architecture from the period is, for various reasons, difficult to achieve nowadays, and that only makes it more appealing.

hammerman Credit Don Lewis_HEADER 765x510

Hammerman House, 1954. Photo by Don Lewis.


Previews Inside Out You’ve restored five Neutra homes in your lifetime. What was the most significant thing you learned from those experiences? 


John Bertram Neutra was a great architect, and he was also remarkably consistent. He had a trove of details and an almost standardized kit of parts to which he turned again and again. Yet, instead of remaining static, these details evolved and improved over time, and, as a result, it’s been interesting to see firsthand how certain details were executed on different projects. Likewise, I also find myself using some of the same details from project to project, refining them a bit each time to make them look and function better.

Neutra was also an undisputed master of siting his houses, and he is celebrated for his almost magical ability to work with problematic lots. A case in point: a few years ago I spent several months exploring ways to expand one of his houses, which proved incredibly difficult because, although it appeared effortlessly and casually situated, it was very cleverly shoehorned into the lot.


Previews Inside Out Why do you think Neutra has remained so revered in the design world?


John Bertram On a purely pragmatic level, Neutra had all the hallmarks of what we’d now consider a very successful brand. Supremely talented, charismatic, ambitious and a relentless champion of his own work, perhaps most importantly he was also extremely prolific and had a clearly identifiable aesthetic throughout his entire 40-year career. The designer Paul Laszlo, a near contemporary, said that Neutra’s style was his personal religion. To be sure, there is as much of the evangelist and proselytizer in him as there was in his former employer Frank Lloyd Wright. But it’s the planarity and the slenderness of structure in Neutra’s work (which Wright derided as looking “thin and cheap”) that still seems radical today.


Miradero. Photo by Richard Horn.


Previews Inside Out In what ways have Neutra and other architects of his era inspired your work? 


John Bertram Outwardly, most of my work clearly owes a great debt to Neutra among others, but let me provide a less obvious example. Neutra was certainly not alone in his use of wood elements such as built-in seating, casework and walls to unify his interiors. In most of my projects, these tend to be functional and integral to the overall design. I find they help to activate the space and act as mediators between the architecture and the furnishings, not to mention the fact that I love wood and I absolutely adore designing and detailing cabinetry and built-ins.


Previews Inside Out You live in a Neutra house—what’s it like? 


John Bertram The size and layout of the McIntosh house actively encourages us to embrace austerity, since there just isn’t enough room to have too much of anything. It definitely discourages collecting. The happy result of this is twofold: we focus on the exterior, our backyard garden and the surrounding view, and we focus on the house itself, which, when properly appreciated, has all of the serenity and jewel-like quality of a Japanese tea house. It is supremely functional in the sense that we are able to focus with gratitude on the abundance elsewhere in our lives: health, friends, each other. Of course, I’ve always been attracted to smaller, more intimate spaces, and two favorite projects of mine are very small: a writer’s studio nestled up against Griffith Park and a hillside studio for a fashion photographer (unfortunately unbuilt).

Green Oak 4_BLOG

Green Oak. Photo by Richard Horn.


Content courtesy of