For some, architecture has a unique ability to transpose fantasies into reality. And if you were an urbane heterosexual male in the last half of the 20th century, there weren’t many better fantasy generators than Playboy. In its pages, this debonair lifestyle was told and sold through Modern architecture and design: swinging glass and steel bachelor pads as naked of ornament as female models were of clothing. Playboy published articles on titans such as Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as iconoclastic oddballs such as Buckminster Fuller and Ant Farm.
Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979 puts this history on display at the Elmhurst Art Museum in suburban Chicago. In the magazine’s pages, Modernism became an aesthetic platform for a sexually-liberated lifestyle. Says exhibition curator and Princeton architecture professor Beatriz Colomina, “You couldn’t have sex, apparently, in a traditional home.”
The exhibition aims to establish Playboy as a mainstream media outlet that did an unparalleled (and understudied) amount of proselytizing for Modern design and architecture.
The show begins with renderings and models of speculative bachelor pads filled with high-fi gadgetry. The next section showcases Playboy’s love for mid-century furniture design, its object fetishization, and its consumerist orientation. A line-up of Mid-Century Modern furniture’s greatest hits are buttressed throughout the rest of the show by imagery of nude women lounging on them. A section on “Playboy Pads,” documenting real-life residences, features inflatable pneumatic pleasure domes and a portable UFO-shaped domicile that can relocate when the party begins to dwindle.
As Colomina points out, everyone and everything is objectified. But Eero Saarinen, photographed with other designers in 1961, gets to keep his jacket on while he sits in his Womb Chair.
Playboy Architecture is housed in Mies van der Rohe’s 1952 McCormick House on the museum’s campus. The space’s domestic scale is an intuitive fit for a show driven by Hefner’s radically domesticized sensibility. He was, after all, a man who vowed to never change out of his pajamas and ran a magazine about the connoisseurship of fashion, furniture, decoration, and design. Here, the playboy is more at home in a Knoll furniture showroom than taming a frontier or even a drill press.
All the elegantly crafted spaces, objects, and bodies are stunning and the exhibition makes a convincing case for Playboy as a venue for architectural discourse. The show has some cynical moments, but at other times, it’s nostalgic. There is an inherent skepticism to an exhibition that showcases architecture’s use in a soft-core porn publication, yet the exhibition puts on display the heedless, naiveté of postwar America, an America that was willing to buy its way out of any lingering dread at the prospect of Cold War nuclear annihilation.
But the exhibition remains largely content to ogle the imagery without questioning where it’s coming from and why it’s being presented this way. It’s apparent that these are intensely gendered environments, where men have a level of control and agency that women don’t. It’s ripe for skewering, but Playboy Architecture holds back.
Colomina says the show “comments on this reality by making it so obvious.” But the exhibition sells short the power of the image in a way Hefner never would. Hefner and his editors knew how to craft imagery that spoke to conscious and subconscious desires, and used it to sell a lifestyle, from the slippers in the closet, to the record on the turntable. But the exhibition isn’t nearly so original and nuanced, largely adopting the magazine’s outlook and putting it on stagedisplay. When the curves of a BFK Butterfly Chair aligns with that of a naked woman’s shoulder, the combined effect can overwhelm our own critical reserve.
Playboy Architecture could have found new ground to cover if it had taken a moment to break this spell.
Past iterations of the exhibit did this. At Bureau Europa in Maastricht, an entire section of Colomina’s exhibit was dedicated to the undercurrents of surveillance in the Playboy world, featuring photographs of Hefner at the helm of a backstage control room, hovering over monitors relaying what’s happening in bunny dormitories. (In Elmhurst, Colomina was forced to shoehorn the show into a much smaller space, cutting out several sections of the original exhibit.)
Anything that questioned the worldview and retrograde gender dynamics of Playboy (like finding ways to simply point out the contrast between go-go consumerism and today’s design ethos of sustainability) would have enriched the exhibition. But Playboy Architecture exists in its own world.