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The Art of Suburbia 

 

 

Suburbs are an onslaught of pavement and plastic. Drive on or near one of the increasing profusion of interstates, and you will see more driving lanes, exit ramps and parking lots, hacked mercilessly out of the landscape, all in service of the stiflingly monolithic lumps of big-box retailing. And the people who go to them invariably live in the residential equivalent ... bloated McMansions built of cheap materials to thoughtless, eerily homogenous designs.  

 


It wasn't always this way. It's true that early post-war developments such as Levittown guaranteed a high degree of conformity, but suburban living had at least the possibility of considered individuality: Some freedom of movement, and privacy with a natural backdrop, could lead to productive artistic expression more easily outside the city.


This was certainly true for Luke and Lucille McBeth, two artists who turned the wooded residential enclave of Bradford Woods into their headquarters for an entire career of design, architecture and art. Now an exhibition of their work is on display at Who New, in Lawrenceville, even as a house that they designed as a home and office is now for sale.


The McBeths both graduated from Carnegie Tech in the early 1950s with degrees in art. Both were especially talented. Even as a freshman, Luke "was a totally professional cartoonist," says former classmate Don Ervin. Lucille, a gifted painter, was also a precocious architect, who designed and built a house in Deep Creek, Md., as a junior. Both McBeths saw CMU's art program as a launching pad for numerous creative enterprises. "When we came out of there, we were just bursting to try everything, and we did," says Lucille.


The couple married in 1952 and set up a multi-faceted design practice. Luke produced logos, illustrations and cartoons for a variety of corporate clients such as U.S. Steel, Armstrong Cork and Stoney's beer. The work ranges from restrained modernistic letterhead designs to jaunty, Hanna-Barbera-like cartoons. Lucille, who collaborated on graphics, also painted extensively, developing a distinct style of brightly colored, yet cool and controlled hard-edged abstraction.


Their collaborative design practice turned increasingly to architecture, almost unintentionally. They built a house for themselves, a narrow but elegant box suggesting the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames. "It just sort of came naturally to us," Lucille explains. Subsequently, friends and neighbors increasingly approached them to design houses, until their practice was focused primarily on architecture. Remarkably, neither McBeth was ever trained in that profession; each had architects or engineers serve as consultants or advisers. Yet, they produced some 70 architectural projects in locations as distant as Colorado, Arizona and the Bahamas.


The house that is currently for sale is the second one they designed and built for themselves and their two daughters in 1968, "because we wanted to do it again," says Lucille. Almost hidden on a wooded hillside but not so far from I-79, this structure is a broad, square pavilion with a shallow gabled roof and a wrap-around deck. Materials are gray-stained cypress on a concrete block foundation. Entry is through glass doors on the lower level at the driveway and into an open stairway. The ground slopes so that the upper level is even with the ground on the back side of the house.


Inside, the lower level encloses the former design studio on one side and a garage on the other. The upper-floor spaces have an open progression from living to kitchen to dining areas, while bedrooms and a painting studio are arranged at the perimeter with access to the deck. "It was a great house for parties," says daughter Robin, now a practicing artist in Colorado.


The parties will have to be held by a new owner, though. Luke and Lucille have retired to North Carolina, to an apartment where 50 or so paintings on the walls represent only a fraction of their works. The show at Who New, which runs until July 22, is a charming selection of canvasses and silkscreens, as well as a smattering of cartoons and decorative objects from throughout their careers. Anyone interested in the new vogue for mid-century modernism would want to snap up these works.


These days, some observers blame conformity in suburbia on the phenomenon of "keeping up with the Joneses." But the suburbs would be much more exciting indeed if more people would try to keep up with the McBeths.

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