A Tribute to William Krisel (1924 – 2017)

William Krisel

We lost a cultural icon last month. William Krisel passed away on June 5th 2017 at the age of 92. He is survived by his wife, daughter, and six grandchildren. His creative genius helped define and expand the concept of California modernism. Krisel helped define Californian style at a time when we needed it the most.

But first, a little history lesson. At the turn of the 20th century, the entire world was undergoing a seismic shift – industrialism, war, famine, depression, and outright nihilism had ravaged civilization on a global scale. The old ways of thinking weren’t simply failing – they were being violently overthrown. Modernism, though it had its roots in the late 19th century, was really taking hold as a predominant mindset – it represented a questioning of the old values. People wanted a return to stability and needed to sow the seeds of actual growth.

Cut to Palm Springs, post-WWII. How did a sleepy refuge for the Hollywood elite become the epicenter of a new movement and the heart of a cultural diaspora, in the desert of all places? Formerly untenable spaces, made available by modern technology (air conditioning), ensured that desert life would no longer be limited to the gilded or the rough-shod. It was something that anyone could enjoy and soon became a tourist mecca. But as those tourists wanted to take roots, William Krisel helped make that dream a reality.

Coming from a very unique beginning, William Krisel was born to American parents in Shanghai. His father was a distributor for United Artists and was the inspiration for Young William to explore his creative aspiration. He studied architecture at USC, where he met his future business partner, Dan Palmer. Soon after graduation, the two of them founded Palmer & Krisel Architects and frequently collaborated with Alexander Construction Company.

A fan of asymmetrical forms, Kreisel turned an obscure design trend – the butterfly roof – into an architectural zeitgeist. Like the name implies, the shape itself resembles a pair or butterfly wings; two sides of the roof extended, meeting in a downward slope in the middle resulting in an oblong construction. Far more from simply an aesthetic choice, butterfly roofs allow for water to run off at two points in the middle of the roof and also reduces wind resistance. also, it allows for the creation of larger windows allowing for more natural light to be used. But they also illustrated a sense of whimsy.

But what was most impressive about it all was that it worked. And what volume! Throughout the Desert, butterfly roofs became ubiquitous (and are still today). Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Palmer & Krisel designed and built over 30,000 homes in Southern California. What was unique was that Krisel designed a way to produce homes with similar floor plans that could express their own individuality on the outside. This concept made it easy to mass produce track homes and satisfy the overwhelming surge of demand, while at the same time allowed for a sense of individuality and style that contrasted with ranch-style houses that were also coming into vogue at the time.

Although Modernist artists like Picasso, Dali and Warhol may be more ‘household names’, it was Krisel who should be known for designing the Modernist household itself. His fecundity and inimitable style became synonymous with California design – proving that it was not only possible to survive, but to thrive…and with style.

In 2016, during one of his final interviews with NPR, he said: “I’ve achieved what I set out to do: create housing for the masses that they could afford and that would change their way of living and make life more enjoyable.”

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