Ernest and Esther Born
Born to Design: A couple from the San Francisco Bay Area advanced the cause of modernism using architectural and graphic expertise.
Charles and Ray Eames may have been the most famous Midcentury Modern design pair in the Americas, but they were not the only professional couple who contributed to its development. Take Ernest and Esther Born, both from the San Francisco Bay Area. The two played an influential role at RECORD and other publications, as Nicholas Olsberg points out in Architects and Artists: The Work of Ernest and Esther Born (2015), which explores their graphic design, photography, exhibition work, typography, architecture, and planning. Yet while this beautifully produced and well-researched book does much to bring the Borns out of obscurity, it doesn’t quite explain why they’ve remained there for so long.
Ernest studied with (and later worked for) John Galen Howard, who, steeped in the Beaux Arts, had founded the architecture program at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1926, Esther also finished her architecture and engineering degree at the university. Although Ernest remained rooted in traditional design, he and Esther, who became a photographer, spent much of their careers spreading the word about Modernism.
After marrying and traveling in Europe, they settled in New York in 1929: Ernest soon joined Shreve Lamb & Harmon, and Esther did a stint at Wallace Harrison. He also got more involved in illustration, she in book design.
Owing to their extensive contacts with journals such as record, the Borns’ early independent work focused mostly on graphic design. RECORD, searching to express the magazine’s increasingly modernist approach, called upon Ernest to conceive a series of covers between September 1932 and December 1933. He designed a different cover for RECORD each month, using his own typography, playing with scale and configuration, and abstract elements, which “readily attracted attention on the newsstand,” Olsberg says. In 1934, Ernest developed a standard cover for the magazine on which only the color changed each month. The modern design was far bolder than the work he did for other magazines.
Throughout the 1930s, Ernest contributed regularly to RECORD with renderings, murals, interiors, and design proposals, even after the couple returned to San Francisco in 1936, where they opened an office. When Esther traveled throughout Mexico with Diego Rivera—she and Ernest had befriended Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, in New York—she recorded new modernist buildings there by noted architects such as Luis Barragán and Juan O’Gorman. Ernest edited these images and laid out a feature in the April 1937 issue of RECORD entitled “The New Architecture in Mexico,” and designed a cover that incorporated collage to herald this radical new work.
While World War II disrupted their careers, the Borns’ work was widely published afterward. Ernest’s organization of a seminal exhibition and catalog, Domestic Architecture of the San Francisco Bay Region, was presented in an extensive article in RECORD’s September 1949 issue. It codified the Bay Region’s approach to modernism using local materials and techniques, a trend pointed out by Lewis Mumford a few years earlier. Although Ernest would design a few distinguished houses in his career (which his wife documented), their curation and dissemination of work by others marked their most significant contribution to the design disciplines.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Borns continued with design: Ernest created the BART system’s graphics program and executed two of its best stations, Glen Park and Balboa Park, in the early ’70s, and featured in RECORD. By 1971, they closed the office, although Ernest joined up with historian and former house client Walter Horn to produce an epic scholarly publication of the plan of St. Gall abbey.
The question remains: why was this couple not better known? Despite their significant design accomplishments, the Borns did not focus on self-promotion. They were in love with the art of architecture.