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 reworked) by Morris Lapidus.
But did you know that Lapidus, the legendary architect of America's midcentury pleasure palaces, got his start as a storefront designer?
Trained at Columbia University (before Modernism), Morris Lapidus spent his early years as an architect working for Ross-Frankel, a firm that specialized in storefront design. At Ross-Frankel, Lapidus began to rethink traditional shop fronts, replacing the dark, flat, utilitarian spaces with light, color, and his own distinctive ornamentation ("cheeseholes" and "wobbles"). He manipulated modern architectural elements like enormous plate-glass windows and concrete walls and used theatrical lighting and staging techniques to draw customers to store interiors. By creating spatial suspense and spectacle, a technique the architect called "the moth complex," Lapidus revolutionized storefront design, introducing the dramatic displays that remain a cornerstone of contemporary retail.
As one of the hottest storefront designers, Lapidus left Ross-Frankel after fifteen years and started his own design firm. The architect continued to transform retail architecture until one of his clients introduced him to Ben Novack, a prominent real estate developer planning a hotel for Miami Beach. And with an introduction and a handshake, the architect's legacy was sealed. Lapidus 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 major architectural styles and trends (Miami Modernism and the follies of Las Vegas, just to name two). No matter how you feel about Lapidus' design aesthetic, the man is one of the most notable figures of twentieth-century architecture and a true American original. Although his career remains defined by his glamorous hotel designs and taste for gilded luxury, his carefully crafted modern retail spaces, all glittering lights, smooth glass, and swooping, dramatic forms, can tell us much about the early development of his daring, theatrical style. Stripped of some of the extreme extravagance of his later designs, the storefronts are still classic Lapidus, selling surprise, luxury, and glamour to the new American consumer.
Note- This set of photographs is 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.
You can see the full online collection here.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.