Hefner and his bunnies at the original Playboy Mansion, Chicago, 1966. Photograph by Burt Glinn/MagnumPhoto
Editor's note: News that the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills is on the block for $200 million reminded us of this essay from Man of the World No. 11, in which Steve Garbarino assesses the architectural legacy of the original swinging bachelor ...
When Hugh Hefner was drafting the image of his ideal Playboy reader—a literate and liberated sort, who also enjoyed a nice set of cans—his ideas went far beyond silk bedsheets, martini shakers, and one-night stands with stewardesses, a dog-eared copy of the latest Kinsey Report laid conspicuously on the nightstand.
In fact, one of his most lasting contributions to Western culture might be in the realms of architecture and design, areas of interest that allowed him to round out his readers’ world. After inventing the Playboy bunny, he laid the floor plans for another cultural icon: the bachelor pad. Raised in Chicago amid the buildings of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, Hefner was an early champion of midcentury modern. He was also a student of human nature, having earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Hefner’s erudite interiors were fully automated, streamlined machines for high-end living, with doorless quarters to encourage debauchery. In contrast to today’s man caves and the musty drawing rooms of yore (where men lounged in cracked leather chairs and harrumphed into their cognac snifters), Hefner’s renderings were chockablock with gizmos and designed to seduce, with linear open plans so a man could smoke his pipe anywhere he damn well pleased.
Remote control in hand, he could also draw the curtains, open the garage door, pop open the wet bar, or click on the hooded fireplace, all from the comfort of his two-piece Eames lounge. You could say Hefner saw his reader, a sort of 007 with a license to lady kill, as the future of American manhood. His reasoning was sound: After surviving the horrors of WWII and Korea, didn’t every guy deserve a castle all his own?
These renderings, featuring recognizable midcentury furnishings and the entertainment console gadgets of the day, were often accompanied by profiles of the great modern minimalists. His interest in residential architecture for the upscale single male culminated in the Playboy Penthouse Apartment (designed by Chrysalis architects and featured in a 1956 issue), with its echoes of Neutra and the Eames Case Study House. But it wasn't until May of 1962, when the magazine published its ambitious pictorial, “Posh Plans for Exciting Urban Living!” that the design world took notice.
The master bedroom of the Playboy Penthouse Apartment designed by Chrysalis architects, 1956. Courtesy of Playboy.
The renderings of the so-called Playboy Town House, drawn up by architect and designer R. Donald Jaye and overseen by Hefner, envisioned a three-level luxury spread, which the magazine described as a “modishly swinging manor” for an “unattached, affluent young man, happily wedded to the infinite advantages of urbia.”
Amid the open-plan sprawl—paneled with enough teak to build a second Honey Fitz, and dotted with curvy furnishings by Knoll, Herman Miller, Laverne, and George Nelson—there were show-stopping amenities like an indoor swimming pool, a remote-controlled skylight, a “kitchen-less kitchen” (where drawers and panels hid any evidence of food prep), a twelve-foot upholstered wet bar (because, of course), and the pièce de résistance, a rotating bed, patented by Playboy Enterprises, for work and play. Half a century before the Internet of Things, a man could control his home's sound and lighting, open and shut curtains, and even pop the toaster from the comfort of his circular sex bed. (Later, Hefner would equip the “Big Bunny,” his converted DC-30 jet, with a similar model, which had become something of a trademark.) “The gadgetry helped give it a James Bond mystique,” he told the Times.
The Playboy Town House predicted many common twenty-first century residential features, with its sprawling open plan and built-in hi-fi system, variously dubbed a “media wall,” “Electronic Entertainment Wall,” and “Wonder Wall.” Inspired by van der Rohe, the house concealed all its internal wiring, and anything else that might disrupt the streamlined effect. This was a place in which you didn’t trip over clutter. To paraphrase Hefner, a civilized man doesn’t leave his dirty socks scattered about.
“Wonder Wall” concept drawing by Syd Mead, 1971. Courtesy of Playboy.
Truth be told, Hefner was never all that removed from his readership. A fantasist who enjoyed vicarious thrills, he lived for a time in his own office, sleeping on a pull-out cot after his wife tossed him out, and spending most of his days in pajamas. And his own homes—both his limestone-and-brick behemoth on Chicago’s Gold Coast and the more infamous digs in Holmby Hills, California, currently the most expensive house for sale in the the United States, furniture included—were hardly the stuff of modernist dreams. A fan of dorm-style living and outré touches (his Chicago house bore a plaque on the front door that read, “If you don’t swing, don’t ring,” in Latin), Hef rarely followed his own blueprints.
But others certainly have, and still can. In 2014, the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt featured an exhibition of all things architecture published in Playboy from 1953 to 1979. (Hefner actually donated the original mansion to the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1974; it is now luxury condos.) And in 2011, to coincide with Playboy’s fiftieth anniversary, legendary architect Frank Gehry was asked to draw up his own plans for the modern bachelor pad.
While spectacular, like most reboots, it just wasn't the same.
written by STEVE GARBARINO
From Man of the World No. 11. Click here to purchase.