In the annals of Los Angeles midcentury modernism, Paul Tuttle may not loom nearly as large as Charles Eames and Pierre Koenig, but he should. That said, he achieved international recognition as a designer best known for his modern, elegant furniture.
Tuttle was born in Springfield, Mo., and lived in St. Louis until World War II. As an Air Force cartographer, he was stationed in India, where the architecture and landscape influenced his pursuit of a design career. Tuttle was educated at the Chouinard Art Institute in Southern California and studied architecture at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Arizona. He worked for Architects Thornton Ladd and Welton Becket, designer of Hollywood landmarks such as the Capitol Records building and the Cinerama Dome. In the 1960s, Tuttle designed houses in the Santa Barbara area but earned his greatest acclaim for furniture designs in sculpted wood and geometric stainless steel.
One of his signature pieces was the 1964 “Z” chair, which combined wood and metal in a streamlined Z form, and illustrated his affinity for combining materials such as wood, metal and glass into sleek, sculpted designs.
His custom work resulted in about 200 furniture pieces. Paul Tuttle was a pure California modernist designer but also had a strong connection to the international style of Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. He wasn’t as well known as other California designers like Eames because very few of his designs were mass manufactured. Tuttle was a bespoke furniture designer for architects and many of his tables and chairs were handmade custom pieces.
His work was the subject of a number of one-man shows: in 1966 at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon); an exhibition titled “Paul Tuttle, Designer” at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1978 and a retrospective titled “Paul Tuttle Designs,” at the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara in 2001.
“I think his work is unique because it doesn’t show a lot of jumping all over the place in terms of changing styles or being trendy,” said Marla C. Berns, former director of the University Art Museum, who curated the show. His consistency was exemplified in how “the early pieces related to the later pieces,” Berns said.
In addition to producing furniture, Berns said, Tuttle focused on “certain design problems that he worked on over and over again, taking them to what he called the essence of his design. He worked on a three-legged chair over a number of years, exposing more or less of the steel supports, working on details of how the steel penetrated the wood, until he came up with the final chair years later. When he came up with something that people liked, he’d still continue to play with it, to get it to what he thought was the perfect resolution that resulted from his own internal motivations.”
Those motivations, said Berns, who is now director of the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and is working on the designer’s monograph, weren’t propelled by self-doubt, but “by the fact that he always thought he could do more. He kept pushing until he reached a certain level of perfection. It was his own rigorous standards. His big goal was not to see something go into mass production and make him a whole lot of money, but he struggled as a lot of artists struggle, to keep working until he made something that was pleasing to him.”
Perhaps no one was more familiar with Tuttle’s perfectionist streak than Bud Tullis, the Solvang-based master craftsman woodworker with whom Tuttle had collaborated on custom pieces since 1982.
“Sometimes we’d move a leg of a chair a quarter of an inch, or an arm a half an inch, and I’d pull my hair out,” said Tullis with a laugh. “But I learned from him that you never stop looking at design. The more I worked with him on the custom pieces the more excited he got because he was in total control. With his design work with manufacturers there were always compromises, and they don’t like to.