How “Playboy” Magazine Helped Make Eames And Mies Famous

Between 1953 and 1979, the men’s mag not only featured nude women but some of the greatest architects and designers of the day.

If you’re the type who reads Playboy for the articles–and of course you are–then this may not come as news to you: The rag, which Hugh Hefner founded back in 1953, not only had a hand in shaping the heterosexuality of the American male; it taught him how he could leverage architecture and design to bag a babe.


That’s the thesis of Architecture in Playboy, 1953–1979, an exhibition at the NAiM/Bureau Europa, in the Netherlands, that explores how the magazine depicted the major design players of the time. And it’s actually not too much of a stretch. Almost from its very start, Playboy made a point of featuring architect’s big shots, from Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe to Buckminster Fuller and John Lautner. And who can forget the famous (and downright respectable) spread featuring the midcentury design greats George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, and Jens Risom with their respective chairs? (See image below.)

The message here: Architecture and design are major forces influencing the world, and if you’re not familiar with the heavy hitters, perhaps you’re not a Playboy. Which isn’t to say that the magazine always upheld good taste–plenty of Playboy Pads in the ’60s and ’70s feature mega beds, replete with such essentials as a vibrator system, hi-fi stereo, humidor, and cocktail bar. But it did hold a mirror–even if that mirror was mounted onto the ceiling–to the design trends of the day, from midcentury modernism to inflatable architecture (headline: “The Bubble House: A Rising Market”).

“Everything that happened in architectural discourse is presented in the magazine but it’s sexualized,” Beatriz Colomina, the exhibition’s curator, told The Architectural Review in January 2011. “They started featuring Mies and Frank Lloyd Wright, and then in the ’60s and ’70s they started Playboy Pads, a series that reshot existing buildings—such as the House of the Century by Ant Farm and the apartment of Charles Moore; at the time he was the Dean of the School of Architecture at Yale, which could not be more stuffy, and to have his home presented as a Playpad is perverse as he was gay.”

In 1961, Playboy assembled some of the greatest designers in America for this spread. From left to right: George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, and Jens Risom.

So should one divorce Playboy’s design coverage from its context? That would be like separating the bachelor pad from its objective–the conquest. Still, the show makes a case for Playboy being about more than objectifying women, though it certainly does do that. “It also embraced liberation, too,” Colomina insists. “It’s more complicated than you’d think.” Those design articles also include the few photos that are OK to ogle.

Architecture in Playboy is on view through February 9. Take a peek into the research of the exhibition here.

[Top image: Playboy Club Bunnies, 1963 © Bruce Davidson:Magnum:HH.jpg]


About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.