Design Spotlight: Photographing the Classics

By Diane Dorrans Saeks

Photo courtesy of Fred Lyon.

In a new book, vivid images by Fred Lyon capture the best of 20th-century California design

“Welcome to my studio, please come in,” says Fred Lyon, who at 97 has spent some seven decades capturing iconic California interiors with his fine-tuned technical skills and an artist’s intuition. We enter the San Francisco photographer’s all-white workplace/gallery/ archive near the Presidio, where the walls are adorned with large black-and-white prints of his most memorable images from the ’50s and ’60s. Above his desk hangs a late-night jam session at the Monterey Jazz Festival; over his computer hovers a foggy night scene at Lands End; and a ballgowned opera gala guest poses in the soaring atrium of the San Francisco Opera House. Travel scenes of Lake Como and the many-splendored Villa d’Este also contrast with the rugged beauty of Big Sur.

Lyon is celebrating the arrival of an advance copy of Inventing the California Look: Through the Lens of Fred Lyon, written by Philip E. Meza, which comes out April 5 from Rizzoli. Vividly illustrated and comprehensive, the elegant tome documents the work of some of the great California interior designers: Frances Elkins, Michael Taylor, John Dickinson, Anthony Hail, Charles Pfister and Penelope Rozis.

Fred Lyon. | Photo courtesy of Stephen Frisch.

“Fred’s photography is an ode to the visual power of classic California design, its timeless beauty, its optimism and freshness,” says Los Angeles photography gallerist Peter Fetterman, who represents Lyon’s extensive archive of images. In the book, an all-white bedroom by Taylor from the early ’60s, for example, still feels pertinent.

Today, the lensman — dashing in his signature round black eyeglasses, dark denim shirt by J.Crew, chino pants and Cole- Haan loafers — scrutinizes each page. “I’m full of wonder for this long life I’m enjoying, and my unexpected decades of photography,” he says. “This new Rizzoli book is a complete surprise. I thought it was going to be a biography, but instead we are paying homage to rooms of great beauty in Pacific Heights, to Pebble Beach mansions and light-filled interiors that influenced designers around the world.”

Far from retired, Lyon’s art photography is in high demand, adds Fetterman, and the photographer is planning three additional books documenting scenes in San Francisco, where he grew up and returned to from Washington, D.C., in 1947 after wartime duty in the U.S. Navy. Armed with just one camera, an all-purpose Linhof Technika, Lyon began his career photographing city exteriors and interiors. In New York, he turned his attention to fashion with the first American supermodels, including the superstylish Dorian Leigh.

“We are paying homage to rooms of great beauty … that influenced designers around the world.” — Fred Lyon

In the ’50s and ’60s, Lyon taught himself how to shoot in color. He became a contract photographer for the best titles of the magazine age, including Life, Holiday, Fortune and Vogue, and shot for influential shelter magazines like House & Garden and House Beautiful. He captured cosmopolitan decor for the admired editor Fleur Cowles’ highly influential Flair magazine. He has also published books on his black-and-white photography, volumes about vineyards around the world, and even a glittering book devoted to the Fabergé collection of John Traina.

Thanks to his lifelong work ethic (“My father told me when I was young I could do anything I wanted, as long as I worked hard,” he says), Lyon has continued to be popular through his 70s and 80s, and now as he approaches a new honorific of centenarian. And his fame follows. A series of Lyon’s city scenes are currently on view in a new large-format Taschen book, San Francisco: Portrait of a City. In September, Scott Powell’s first book, Frances Elkins: Visionary American Designer, will also be released by Rizzoli, featuring many of Lyon’s previously unpublished images.

Lyon captured unforgettable interiors in time, such as San Francisco designer John Dickinson’s famous Washington Street firehouse, a social and style center in the 1970s. | Photo courtesy of Fred Lyon.

“It is clear that the ‘California Look’ owes much to Lyon and his lens, including Elkins’ Casa Amesti, Hail’s de Guigné pool house, and the fame of Dickinson’s firehouse,” Jared Goss writes in the book’s erudite foreword. “Without Lyon’s images there might never have been a ‘California Look’ in the first place.”

Inventing the California Look: Through the Lens of Fred Lyon, out this month from Rizzoli, depicts highlights of the photographer’s seven-decade career.

My recent afternoon interview with Lyon continued on into the evening, as he regaled me as well as his adoring wife, Penny, with vivid memories of working with a few legends: Michael Taylor (“a design despot”), John Dickinson (“a true original”) and Frances Elkins (“a genius at mixing fine antiques with modern styles”).

He shot many houses designed by Elkins, including the towering residence of architect Whitney Warren atop Telegraph Hill. “Frances wore chic Chanel couture and walked around barefoot, styling and arranging. She had the good grace to let me do my work, undisturbed,” says Lyon.

It must be said that Lyon, the droll raconteur, has a photographic memory of every shoot, all perfectly in focus. “I’m having a great time and I don’t want to leave,” says Lyon, gesturing toward new framed photography; stacks of his 2021 book, San Francisco Noir; and portfolios of midcentury street scenes of Paris, all in black-and-white. “I plan to keep working. It gives me great pleasure,” he continues. “I’m obsessed with photography. Now with my wonderful new book, I’m more motivated than ever.”

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