Courtesy Elmhurst Art Museum

Read Beatriz Colomina’s essay, “The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism,” published in a collection she edited titled Sexuality and Space” (Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), and you might get the impression that early modernist architects like Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier were playing a highly abstract game of peek-a-boo. An architectural historian, Colomina did her best to tease out traces of carnality in the peculiar ways those architects arranged their interior perspectives. Le Corbusier didn’t give her a lot to work with, but Loos obliged Colomina with his famously unbuilt—and probably never actually commissioned—home for the chanteuse Josephine Baker. His design had a swimming pool at its center, with all the other rooms arranged around it, making views of the pool and its occupant, presumably Baker, “the focus of the visitors’ gaze.”

Given the limited rewards of basing any sexual theory on the work of those rather bloodless men, it’s no surprise that Colomina, a professor of architecture at Princeton University, would be swept away by the dazzling fecundity of Playboy magazine’s approach to modernist architecture and design. You want Sexuality and Space? Just take a look at any issue of Playboy from 1953, when the magazine was launched by Hugh Hefner, through the 1970s, when it hit its peak circulation of more than 7 million readers. Those years are the basis for an exhibition curated by Colomina (together with Pep Aviles, an architect and historian who’s a Princeton doctoral student), “Playboy Architecture 1953–1979,” on view at the Elmhurst Museum in suburban Chicago until Aug. 28.

A selection of Modern chairs on display at the exhibition
Courtesy Elmhurst Art Museum A selection of Modern chairs on display at the exhibition

During the postwar decades, the magazine presented an amazing cornucopia of high-quality, often radical, architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Ant Farm, Paolo Soleri, Charles Moore, and many others, plus furniture from midcentury standard-bearers such as George Nelson and Charles Eames (predictably minus Ray), and Italian designer Joe Colombo. Playboy’s style of presentation, naturally, differed from that of the architectural journals of the day. For starters, the magazine’s photographs and illustrations were in full color. More significantly, it featured homes and apartments that were brimming with life, generally populated with naked women. As Colomina framed it in a recent Graham Foundation lecture, Playboy was “bringing bodies to the space.”

The fact that Playboy was so crammed with architectural ideas in its early decades was once, apparently, common knowledge. In the introduction to the 1963 edition of his landmark tome, “Space Time and Architecture” (Harvard University Press), Siegfried Gideon went on a tear against “playboy-architecture,” which he defined as “architecture treated as playboys treat life, jumping from one sensation to another and quickly bored with everything.” The word “playboy” apparently meant to Gideon what the word “starchitect” means to us today. On the other hand, Reyner Banham applauded the magazine and its culture in a 1960 essay for The Architect’s Journal titled, “I’d Crawl a Mile for a Playboy.”

A spread from the July 1961 issue of Playboy
Courtesy Elmhurst Art Museum A spread from the July 1961 issue of Playboy

But in recent decades, Playboy left architecture behind, and the enthusiasm with which the magazine once covered the subject was forgotten. At least until Colomina and her students unearthed it. “I would invite surviving protagonists from that period like Chip Lord from Ant Farm to give a lecture at Princeton and he’d send a CV,” Colomina told me, explaining how she’d discovered this lost piece of architectural history. “I’d look at the CV and I’d realize, ‘Oh, he was published in Playboy.’ ”

A 1955 Playboy profile of Frank Lloyd Wright
A 1955 Playboy profile of Frank Lloyd Wright

She noticed that this was true of other architects. “So I realized there was a lot of architecture in Playboy, to make the story short. Of course, then I did a systematic study with the Media and Modernity students of Princeton in which basically I asked Princeton to buy all the Playboys.”

Why was Playboy was so focused on architecture? “They really felt that this was an important tool—actually crucial—for seduction,” Colomina told me. “The modern apartment is a necessity for the bachelor, who has to surround himself with all these gadgets and all this modern furniture, and eventually even the architecture, the Playboy Pad. These are the settings in which seduction happens.”

Hugh Hefner in his circular bed, 1966.
Burt Glinn/Magnum Hugh Hefner in his circular bed, 1966.

I put the same question to the magazine’s current editorial director, Jason Buhrmester, who’s been working for Playboy for a mere 15 years but says he has read every back issue. His answer parallels Colomina’s, but paints a bigger picture. “Playboy was created in that perfect storm after World War II which Hef was a part of,” Buhrmester explains. “This idea of taking all of these young men who were from small towns all over America and who were expected to marry the girl next door, and suddenly they go to war, and they come back, and they’re a generation that’s wildly different. So you have this kid from the middle of nowhere, and he’s been to Paris, and he’s been to Amsterdam, and he’s been through Hawaii. … It really is that ‘You can’t go home again, I’ve seen too much’ philosophy … which is exactly what happened to Hef. That really birthed the idea of the bachelor.”

From Buhrmester’s point of view, architecture was just one element in Hefner’s larger project, the reinvention of American manhood: “Architecture and design were a natural part of that, because a lot of it was Hef taking on what he perceived as these rigid pillars of what masculinity meant. In the first issue, in his editor’s letter, he talks about, ‘This isn’t Field and Stream. We aren’t interested in hunting. We aren’t interested in fishing. We would rather have a cocktail and talk about Nietzsche and listen to jazz.’ ”

A penthouse apartment, as featured in a 1956 issue of the magazine
A penthouse apartment, as featured in a 1956 issue of the magazine
John Lautner's Elrod House in Palm Springs, as featured in a 1971 issue
Courtesy Elmhurst Museum John Lautner's Elrod House in Palm Springs, as featured in a 1971 issue

Colomina, seduced by her discovery, contends that Playboy is the reason Modernism entered the American mainstream in the postwar decades. “Hefner made it mainstream,” she told me. “That’s the point of the exhibition, that Playboy did more for modern architecture and design than any architectural journal or even the Museum of Modern Art.”

Chrysalis' Pneudome, from a 1972 issue
Chrysalis' Pneudome, from a 1972 issue

It’s a difficult claim to prove. For one thing, it’s a chicken and egg question. Modern design had gained widespread notoriety well before Hefner launched Playboy. In 1949, for instance, Richard Neutra made the cover of Time, and Life ran a feature showing how photographer Julius Shulman “glamorized” modern houses. Moreover, Modernism had already become part of everyday life, widely used in corporate and institutional settings. Eames plywood chairs, for example, were found in churches and schools more than homes. So Playboy was really reflecting, and amplifying, a modernist upswing that had begun before its launch.

I think it’s safer to say that Playboy was a major player in the wholesale reinvention of American life that was happening then. Characters as disparate as Helen Gurley Brown (who turned Cosmopolitan magazine into a career girl bible in 1965) and Betty Friedan (whose 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique,” is one of the pillars of American feminism) were busy reimagining what it meant to be a woman. Hefner, whose magazine represented everything the women’s movement was against, was, in a way, a fellow-traveler, reimagining what it meant to be a man. Buhrmester points out that Playboy stood out in its early years in part because it was a men’s magazine with almost no sports coverage. Of Hefner, Buhrmester says, “He’s not a sports fan. He never has been.” He continues, “You take sports out and you put art and design in its place and you kind of understand what Hef was trying to do.”

An image from the exhibition
Courtesy Elmhurst Art Museum An image from the exhibition

The exhibition itself, while fascinating, is not very grand; Elmhurst is a small museum. The show mainly consists of thematic clusters of Playboy features, reproduced and mounted on easels, accompanied by examples of midcentury furniture like Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair or Harry Bertoia’s Diamond Chair. There are several dollhouse-scaled mock-ups of significant artifacts like the Big Bunny, as Hefner’s private jet was called, and his famous round bed, the place where he came to spend most of his waking and sleeping hours.

What’s extraordinary about the show, the thing that justifies the 30-minute train ride from central Chicago, is the fact that it’s set in a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed house, one of only three private homes the architect designed in this country. The Elmhurst Mies was built in 1952 for Robert Hall McCormick Jr., the son of the developer of the architect’s famous apartments at 860–880 Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. The house, with its two rectangular wings, was acquired by the museum in 1992, relocated, and eventually incorporated into a 1997 museum building. Oddly, with its quiet domesticity, the house undercuts one of Colomina’s central arguments. It’s lovely, but it lacks that seductive Playboy sheen.

Another detail from the exhibition
Courtesy Elmhurst Art Museum Another detail from the exhibition

For me, the greatest pleasure of this exhibition wasn’t the displays or even the landmark house, but the fact that many back issues of Playboy were sitting out in the open, available for perusing. I wound up sitting on the gallery floor going through the magazines like a little kid who’d just happened on her dad’s secret stash. Putting aside the centerfolds, the bawdy cartoons, and the stupid party jokes, the editorial content was so varied and smart that it puts today’s magazines to shame. You can interpret this one of two ways. Either Hefner’s new urban man was so sophisticated that he actually was looking to John Lautner or Moshe Safdie, FAIA, for new ideas about how to live, or because it was really the centerfolds that sold the magazine, Playboy’s editors had the freedom to be as outré as they wished in other arenas.

To be sure, the exhibition is an eye opener, an unexpected perspective on the social and cultural changes we associate with the Sixties. But the museum show is just an amuse-bouche. What’s really called for is a book, a thick one, with high-quality reproductions of Playboy’s architecture archives and thoughtful analysis of the issues this show raises about the surprisingly intertwined revolutions, architectural and sexual.