You know the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc. You might even know the Algiers, the DiLido, or Biltmore Terrace. All are MiMo icons. And all were designed (or at least reworked) by Morris Lapidus. But did you know that the legendary architect of America's midcentury pleasure palaces actually got his start as a storefront designer? To celebrate his birthday, let's take a look back at the storefront king.
Born on November 25, 1902, in Odessa, Russia, and immigrating to the United States as an infant, Morris Lapidus' life begins as any great tale of the "American Dream" should. He grew up in New York City (lower Manhattan, then Brooklyn), where his love of architecture supposedly began with a trip to Coney Island (a place of populist fantasy, if there ever was one). After pursuing drama at New York University, he transferred to Columbia's architecture school (intending to be a stage designer), graduating in 1927. After short stints in the offices of Block and Hess and Arthur Weiser, Lapidus spent the formative years of his career working for Ross-Frankel, a firm that specialized in storefront design. With a flair for the extravagant, designing innovative retail spaces turned out to his big break. In the years to come, Lapidus would remake the American storefront into something distinctively modern, forever changing the way customers would shop.
Reimagining traditional retail, Lapidus replaced the typically dark, flat, utilitarian spaces with light, color, and his own idiosyncratic ornamentation (think "cheeseholes" and "wobbles"). He manipulated modern materials like plate glass windows and concrete walls, created theatrical lighting, and devised new approaches to staging, all effects that would draw people to store interiors. By producing spatial suspense and spectacle, a technique the architect would call "the moth complex", Lapidus revolutionized storefront design, introducing dramatic displays that remain (even to this day) a cornerstone of the retail experience.
As one of the most in-demand storefront designers of the time, Lapidus left Ross-Frankel after fifteen years to start his own firm. The architect continued to create retail spaces until one of his clients introduced him to Ben Novack, a prominent real estate developer with plans for a new hotel in Miami Beach- and with this introduction and a handshake, Lapidus' legacy was sealed. He would go on to an unrivaled career, designing some of America's most famous hotels and shopping centers and playing a seminal role in the development of the era's most iconic styles and trends (Miami Modernism (MiMo) and the follies of Las Vegas, just to name two). And though his career remains synonymous with glamorous hotels and his (often controversial) penchant for gilded luxury, his carefully crafted retail spaces, all glittering lights, smooth glass, and swooping, over-the-top forms, can tell us much about his theatrical approach to modernism. Stripped of some of the extreme extravagance of his later designs, the storefronts, in classic Lapidus fashion, sell surprise, luxury, and glamour to the American consumer.
You can read more about Lapidus here and here.
I'll be back after the holiday, but until then, safe travels everyone.
All photographs are part of the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection available at the Library of Congress. Photographer Samuel Gottscho (along with his son-in-law William Schleisner) specialized in architecture and landscape photography and produced a large volume of work published in high-profile publications, including Architectural Record, House Beautiful, and The New York Times.
Image at top: Crystal Motors in 1950, 5901 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn, New York.
An earlier version of this post was published on June 28, 2017.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.