California design's legendary photographer for six decades
Since the forties, San Francisco photographer Fred Lyon has shot (and made famous) California’s greatest designers, from Michael Taylor and John Dickinson to Anthony Hail, Frances Elkins and Suzanne Tucker. He is California’s Horst, recording top designers, their stylish clients, and all the houses that matter. Come with me to meet the Great Fred and see the images he crafted for John Dickinson and Michael Taylor.
Fred Lyon is talented, charming and ineffably elegant. He defines dapper. When he walks into a party, the whole room lights up. Think strobe lights!
He is also the most talented classic photographer—with a lifetime of magazine covers, books, and designer portfolios in his San Francisco studio. He’s California’s Horst and Irving Penn with a touch of Bruce Weber.
A San Francisco native, he left in his teen years for war and a stint in New York, and returned home in 1947 armed with a single camera. Vogue and House & Garden quickly found him.
Fred, now in his eighties, creates black and white and color photographs of quiet, classic beauty. His design images for the last sixty years have been naturally lit with no artificial or over-lit effects.
“The architects and designs have put all their talent and style and taste into the rooms I’m shooting, so I never want to impose a “look”, Fred said. “That’s too gimmicky for me. I want a harmonious composition. Working with designers like Michael Taylor or John Dickinson, I did not have to go into a trance or torture it. My job was and is to show the design and tell the story—not to make a design statement of my own.”
Fred Lyon: “On the face of it, photography is a rude process, freezing motion, sometimes straining out color, squashing the subject flat, and imprisoning it in a rectangle, so it’s already at a disadvantage. Architectural/interior photography then is unique in that, while it benefits from a warm, sympathetic eye, its chief requirements are painstaking craftsmanship, patience, a strong back, and comfortable shoes.”
Michael Taylor photographed by Fred Lyon
Above, Fred Lyon’s images of Michael Taylor’s designs, spanning three decades, include Michael Taylor in his studio; master mix of textures and materials at a house on the Peninsula include gilded girandoles, zebra-skin covered occasional chairs, and a Greek flokati run (combed sheepskin) that was fashionable at the time; a sunroom on the Peninsula (just south of San Francisco) has all the Michael Taylor elements including white slipcovers, dramatic plants in pots, versatile occasional chairs and lots of fresh air; Michael Taylor studio/shop setting in downtown San Francisco shows the white paint he threw around with abandon; perhaps his most famous bedroom, from the fifties, included the mix of baroque and simple that he carried through his design career.
Fred Lyon shot Michael Taylor’s interiors from the beginning of Taylor’s long career.
“We shot everything Michael did, for House & Garden and Vogue, and in the sixties and seventies and into the eighties he had an enormous amount of work,” said Lyon. “Those were the days of the decorator-as-despot. Michael was bold and terribly outspoken and his clients were completely in awe of everything he said and did. But his rooms for each client were elegant, sometimes eccentric, and always highly individual.”
The rooms Michael designed for his clients were full of possibility, waiting for the flourish he would add for the camera, said the photographer.
“We were once faced with a “nothing” corner at a beach house in Pebble Beach that we were shooting for House & Garden,” recalled Lyon. “I told Michael it was lacking pizzazz and had no focal point. He immediately got on the phone to John Berggruen’s gallery in San Francisco, a two-hour drive away. Michael had been to an opening at his gallery the night before. He asked John to send down the centrepiece of the entire show right away. Three hours later, a truck arrived and the large abstract canvas was hung on the wall. The photo made the cover of the magazine, and the client bought the painting.”
Taylor worked on the fly, improvising as the photo shoot went from room to room, said Lyon.
“In the middle of a long day of shooting, the early sixties, we were debating photographing a small room in the attic of a Pacific Heights mansion,” said the photographer. “Michael draped it in white linen, arranged a pair of French painted chairs and an antique desk, and brought in masses of terra cotta pots of white hydrangeas. It was great decor for the camera.”
To the chagrin of the grande dame that lived in the mansion, her maid’s room soon appeared in full glory on the cover of House & Garden.
“I started shooting Michael Taylor’s work in 1954 when he was in partnership with Frances Mihailoff, and the first thing he ever had published was the Christmas tree in their studio,” Lyon said. Michael Taylor started his own firm in 1956, and opened his famous studio on Sutter Street in 1960.
Fred Lyon on Michael Taylor:
“Michael was obstreperous, gossipy, opinionated, moody and a lot of trouble to work with—and a pure genius. His decor was worldly, bold, trend-setting, and still looks great today.” “It was always a battle to get him to complete houses, but when he was involved and engaged in photography, he was a totally passionate designer. He’s do anything to make a great picture—include practically redecorate a house on the spot, borrow antiques and art from his own house, bring in truckloads of flowers and trees, and borrow paintings and accessories from other clients.”
“He was the hottest thing in California, and enormously influential in decorating then and now,” said Lyon. “I always knew he was one of the first superstar decorators, restless, imposing, always exploring new design ideas.
Lyon is certain that Taylor was dyslexic. One reason was that Taylor could not pronounce ‘hydrangea’.
“He called them hydraneas,” recalled Lyon. “He used white hydrangeas a lot, so the word came up often.”
A typical day photographing Michael Taylor's décor...
Fred Lyon recalls: “A typical day with Michael started with the challenge of getting him to the location at a reasonable hour. That was tough. He’d sit in bed with his breakfast tray and gossip by phone with his favorite clients and editors. But he’d have a truck deliver a dozen fan palms or pots of white azaleas or the season’s first white hyacinths or lilies of the valley. His assistants would move the huge sofas this way and that, hang heroic-scale paintings, iron linen slipcovers, bring in charming $10 tin trays from Cost Plus, and generally spare no expense to create a fresh, lively, and dramatic picture. Homeowners were delighted. They saw their rooms finished, finally, and everything looked its best. The day ended in triumph.”
Frances Elkins photographed by Fred Lyon
Above, a Frances Elkins portrait; Frances Elkins (spit curls in place) with a client in the fifties; the flower-filled historic Monterey adobe house where Frances Elkins lived (note the fireplace surround faked with fretwork and painted wood); the lovely dining room in the adobe with the table set with her collection of Venetian glass; a game room in a Pacific Heights mansion in San Francisco with Elkins’ Georgian-inspired chairs, which are all still at the house now owned by art collectors.
Taylor was not the only dictatorial decorator Lyon photographed.
“Frances Elkins made charts for the maids of her clients, showing where to place ashtrays and which flowers were to be arranged on tables,’ Lyon commented. “She had keys to every house, and would sweep in unannounced, spit curls aquiver, saying, “Those cushions look tired. They must be replaced” or “That wall needs repainting” and it would be done without a whimper. People were so pleased and impressed to be working with her that they would turn over their lives to her.”
Fred Lyon on Frances Elkins:
“Frances was a dictator and rather scary. She had her couture wardrobe crafted by Mainbocher, was pals with Coco Chanel, and had a serious collection of fine jewelry, which I photographed for Vogue. She waltzed around Europe with her brother David, with spots of rouge on her cheeks and black spit curls marching in rows across her forehead.”
Frances Elkins, like most women at the time, did not drive. She had a car and driver and would head from Monterey to San Francisco for client meetings.
“Frances bought a black Packard convertible,” recalled Lyon. “Her maid in Monterey would pack her a hamper for the three-hour trip—a bottle of chilled Champagne, nothing else.”
Fred had a specific approach to photography, absolutely in contrast to most other photographers of the time who blasted rooms with lights. “I liked to work fast and take lots of pictures in natural light,” said Lyon. “You take a great opener and a lot of great shots that tell the story, no fluff, no weak shots with nothing in them. That’s what professionals do.”Fred Lyon and his elegant blonde wife, Anne Murray Lyon were fixtures on the social scene and regulars on Herb Caen’s column for decades. Anne, who died thirteen years ago, had been one of Richard Avedon’s favorite models.
Fred Lyon today is in demand to shoot interiors for top designers, and wineries around the world for leading magazines.
“My friends still call me a Young Turk,” he said. “I spent all those years learning how to be a photographer. Now I have to put my experience into practice for many more years.”
The Style Saloniste Chats with Fred Lyon:
DDS: Favorite room?
FL: Whitney Warren’s Telegraph Hill house was my first assignment for House & Garden, in 1948. Whitney was heir to a large fortune and a noted bon vivant. Impressive for its sheer opulence and the Gardner Dailey designed space, the house had a very dramatic library. House & Garden ran my picture of the classical French-inspired library as a full color page. Footnote to this shoot: The magazine had advised me that a woman would be on hand to be sure that everything looked right. We didn’t talk much and only later did I learn of the legendary stature of Frances Elkins.
DDS: What was the craziest thing a House & Garden in the golden era Editor ever did to get great pictures?
FL: They would badger and boss their targets. But in1967, House & Garden’s San Francisco editor, Dorothea Walker, approached Dorothy Fay, a social figure, for a third time about scheduling photography of her Aptos beach house. Mrs. Fay protested, “The house isn’t ready. I’ve been begging Michael Taylor for over two years to finish it, but you know how Michael is.” Dorothea thought for a moment, then, “Do you really want it done?” Dorothy: “Of course!” Dorothea: “Then you just tell Michael that Fred Lyon is coming to photograph—and he will finish it.” In total disbelief Dorothy Fay tried it. Michael put the final touches on it, right in front of my camera. Another homeowner astounded at the power of photography.
DDS: What camera did you use to capture these wonderful images before digital?
FL: Sometimes I worked with the small Rolleiflex and Hasselblads, but primarily the 4 x 5 Linhof and Sinar. Sometimes I shot 5 x 7, but now I can’t remember why.
Let me say this about photography: I’ve always been a photojournalist, a storyteller. So shooting interiors has been about explaining how the room works with its key components, well composed, but without any photo artifice. The architect, the owner, the interior designer have all visited their creative efforts on the space. Unlike any of my other work, this seemed to be the last place to impress my personality. On the face of it, photography is a rude process, freezing motion, sometimes straining out color, squashing the subject flat, and imprisoning it in a rectangle, so it’s already at a disadvantage. Architectural/interior photography then is unique in that, while it benefits from a warm, sympathetic eye, its chief requirements are painstaking craftsmanship, patience, a strong back, and comfortable shoes.
DDS: Michael Taylor was great.
FL: In 1970, we labored for three days in the Diana and Gorham Knowles house in San Francisco.
It had everything, no holds barred. Great spaces, endless marble and crystal chandeliers, paintings of fine provenance. Michael and his colleague Mimi London were at the time orgasmic over their giant geodes and orchids.
Finally, having exhausted all the obvious rooms, my camera was set up on the twisty attic stairs, looking into a tiny maid’s room with little to recommend it. Michael, in one of his unstoppable bursts of inspiration, wrestled planks and supports up the stairs and behind the sofa. He positioned a dozen large white potted hydrangeas to emerge over the back of the sofa. A few months later it appeared on the cover of House & Garden, the only image they ever used from that shoot.
DDS: John Dickinson was so discreet and private. But for the famous House & Garden shoot of the Firehouse, he allowed H&G editors to turn his work table into a dining table. How many days were you shooting at the Firehouse and how was it to shoot with John Dickinson?
FL: We were there probably three or four days over a period of time and it was all fun. My camera loved John’s work, and his wry wit was a continuing delight. He complained that none of the many magazine pages we’d crafted had ever brought him a single client. When I joked that he should add printed chintz and swagged draperies to his rooms, he greeted the idea with a snort. But he created such ingenious--and irreverent—designs that all the efforts we shared seemed a joy.
DDS: Frances Elkins was the first to import Jean-Michel Frank furniture. She palled around with Christian Berard. She was the first to bring Jean-Michel Frank to California. What was her mystique with clients?
FL: She was simply brilliant, confident, with ballast from her brother David Adler. She anchored the unbeatable triumvirate of that era—architect Gardner Dailey, landscape designer Thomas Church, and Frances. Certainly she was authoritative, ready to do battle with wealthy clients over points of taste. But if they were eager to learn, she told me the famous rows with clients resulted in some of her best solutions. Her rooms were so good that I could point my camera in any direction with no need for tweaking furniture or accessories. Her rooms that exist today are fresh and timeless, a lesson in great design.
DDS: Your career has been a fabulous one. Today you travel around the world shooting wineries and wine country landscapes, you are one of the great social figures, and beloved by all. What is the secret of your success?
FL: Well, thank you, but I’m not that good.
My life thus far has been a series of glorious mistakes where I innocently backed into opportunities with delicious results. And then, hard work helps. But my greatest good fortune has been working with a nonstop parade of extraordinary people. They are constant inspiration, making me try harder.
And now I have come full circle: A collection of my black-and-white pictures from the 1940s and 50s is being beautifully reproduced in a new book. SAN FRANCISCO THEN, available in January, boasts an introduction by ex-mayor Willie Brown. A show of the prints is planned for next year at Modernbook Gallery in Palo Alto, home of the publisher, Modernbook Editions.
Fred Lyon on Charles Pfister:John Dickinson photographed by Fred Lyon
“He worked with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for years, then started his own very successful design firm, the Pfister Partnership. He was an ebullient young man from Santa Rosa who became very successful in the design world, designing for Baker, Knoll, and I. Magnin. One day I was out working in my vineyard in the Napa Valley when the phone rang. I dropped my shovel and raced up the hill to the house, with my heart leaping out of my ribcage. It was Charlie calling to tell me that he had just purchased his first whole, fresh truffle. I said, “I suppose you are calling to invite me to share it”. There was silence. He was simply calling to gloat.”
Fred Lyon on John Dickinson:
”He was the best, and he was heaven to work with. I first met him when he was working as a designer for the E. Coleman Dick studio on Sutter Street in the fifties. E. Coleman Dick was a horrible man and John left to set up his own studio in the sixties. I photographed his Firehouse in 1972 for House & Garden when the publication was large-format. John always said I put him on the map. He put himself on the map with extraordinarily elegant and refined work. He was such a gentleman, with a marvelously swift sense of humor.”
Above, John Dickinson’s legendary Firehouse in San Francisco, photographed by Fred Lyon. The bathroom, with horsehair walls, had a series of ornate gilded antique pub mirrors which were torn out by a subsequent owner because he said they were ‘too gay’; the high-ceilinged bedroom, formerly the firemen’s dorm, had a custom faux bamboo bed and new/antiqued wainscot; white wardrobe doors were custom crafted to look like Victorian house facades; the studio/living room with the John Dickinson-designed African-inspired tables, industrial grey carpet and leather-upholstered Victorian chairs; the carved faux narwhal tusk was a John Dickinson design; the Viennese art nouveau table with the House & Garden improvised dining setting.
How to Be Chic, Effortlessly
At gala openings, museum gatherings, and vernissages, Fred Lyon is the man with the sparkling eyes and superbly draped jacket who looks like Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday”.
“The truth is that I have just one navy cashmere jacket, one gray flannel suit, and a small assortment of slacks and sport coats, and white or blue Oxford shirts from places like Brooks Brothers or Bloomingdale’s,” he said. “I wear Sperry Topsider “boat” shoes or black laceups.”
Fred Lyon’s first rule of fashion is not to offend the eye or be gaudy. Second rule: Keep it simple.
“I wear dark colors, and when I want to add a splash of color, I do it with a paisley or knit silk tie,” he said. “The secret of looking chic is to have a very good-looking woman on my arm. That’s called Accessorizing, with a capital A.”
All photographs here are copyright Fred Lyon. No images may be used without express written permission of the photographer.
Fred Lyon Pictures
3609 Buchanan Street
San Francisco CA 94123