California Dreaming: Stephanie Kloss photographs iconic mid-century homes

Photo essay: German photographer Stephanie Kloss visited some of California's iconic Mid-Century Modern homes to create this series of 1940s-inspired images (+ slideshow).

The abundance of film stars and warm weather made California a "hot-spot for architectural experimentation" by prolific west-coast architects including Richard Neutra, John Lautner, E Stewart Williams and Albert Frey during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

Kloss wanted to capture the spirit of the era in her photographs, so she shot them using on a medium-format analogue camera and staged the scenes with a model in retro attire to give the pictures a vintage quality.

She then pared down more than 500 photographs to just seven to create the California Dreaming series. In this essay, she describes her approach.


I have always been interested in Mid-Century design, so naturally I was pulled towards the one place where the very best examples can be found – California. The wealth and tastes of Hollywood's Golden Era stars, combined with the warm climate, made LA the hot-spot for architectural experimentation.

California Dreaming Photo Essay by Stephanie Kloss
Palm Springs City Hall (1952) by Albert Frey. Image courtesy of Lumas

California is known as the city of dreams, and it was my dream too: I've always wanted to photograph the Mid-Century Modern houses there, selected icons of Modernity, I was particularly interested in the residential buildings by Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and Albert Frey.

Fortunately, most of the homeowners were happy for me to enter their properties, though it wasn't all plain-sailing. I would have loved to get inside Richard Neutra's Lovell House and Kaufmann House, but I couldn't get in contact with the owners.

The Stahl House in LA only wanted to sell their own photos, and in Palm Springs, there were buildings I would have liked to photograph but didn't have an opportunity to get permission. Not everybody was quite so secretive however. Mr Goldstein was present during our shoot, but was as relaxed as if he didn't even see us. He just made some popcorn and watched a baseball game on his giant flatscreen TV.

The model in the pictures is my very good friend, and collaborator, Anne Retzlaff, a Berlin-based choreographer and dancer. I met her while I was editing RP Kahl's arthouse film Bedways and she was dancing in one of the scenes. We've been friends ever since and have collaborated on various projects.

California Dreaming Photo Essay by Stephanie Kloss
The Sheats Goldstein Residence (1963) by John Lautner. Image courtesy of Lumas

In her dance pieces, she likes to search for the connection between body and architecture, as she did in her solo performance Abandon Window at the opening of the Neue Meisterhäuser at Bauhaus Dessau. That's why she is in these pictures as a 'living sculpture', a little bit like a ghost of old times.

Most photographs of Mid-Century Modern homes from the 1950s and 1960s picture the typical American family whose image was so popular at the time, but I just couldn't resist the idea of featuring a solitary women prancing about the otherwise empty residences. Anne, wearing the fashion of the era, becomes not only our guide but in some ways the personification of our collective nostalgia for the day. She, unlike the rest of us, will stay forever fixed in time.

My aim was to capture the charm and sophistication of these luxury homes, shooting them all with a Linhof medium format analogue camera, which I hoped would give the pictures a vintage grainy and washed feel – making them seem as if they were straight off the pages of a 1940s magazine.

It wasn't just the architecture that appealed to me though. In the large windows, clean lines, and thoughtfully placed palm trees, I feel like you can almost see the ghosts of glamorous figures and their parties. The memories of Frank Sinatra, John F Kennedy, and Marilyn Monroe linger.

California Dreaming Photo Essay by Stephanie Kloss
Twin Palms (1947) by E Stewart Williams, once home to Frank Sinatra. Image courtesy of Lumas

I think that is why my favourite from the California Dreaming series is the Goldstein residence, shot at night. I love the way that Anne really does appear as a ghost of times gone by, but also how her reflection in the water mirrors the symmetry of the architecture in the property.

The Goldstein residence was built in 1963 by architect John Lautner and renovated in 1988. The house has a very striking triangular roof. One can immediately sense the aura of the building, which has served as a backdrop for multiple Hollywood films, including The Big Lebowski and Charlie's Angels.

The Case Study House is in Pasadena and was built to accommodate the masses of soldiers coming back after the Second World War. The house I photographed belongs to a married couple – friends of friends from Germany – who have lovingly renovated it. The building is located on a hillside on a sloping corner lot. Its lines follow the slope while also creating lots of space.

California Dreaming Photo Essay by Stephanie Kloss
The Sheats Goldstein Residence (1963) by John Lautner. Image courtesy of Lumas

After shooting this we then moved on to Frank Sinatra's holiday house, Twin Palms. This is where Sinatra welcomed many celebrities, including Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe and JFK. Excitingly this house can now be rented, though for a very large sum of money! Other houses I shot whilst out in California include Richard Neutra's VDL House in Silverlake and Lovell House.

The shooting took 21 days and I had to process over 500 photos. It was an experience I will never forget and I hope that other people find the properties as awe-inspiring as I did.