Photo by James BunoanFor a guy who designed buildings that look like they came from outer space, Eldon Davis is pretty down-to-earth. The architecture firm he opened with partner Louis Armét in 1947 was supposed to do industrial structures, but their first customer was Clock's Coffeeshop.
Thus, as they say, was history made. Armét and Davis quickly became the leaders of California Coffeeshop Modern. Other architects had experimented with the tropes of what would come to be called googie—indeed, a Hollywood coffeeshop called Googie's designed by John Lautner in 1949 gave the genre its name. But it was Armét and Davis (whose firm later became known as "Armét and Davis and Newlove" after they added architect Victor Newlove and—fun fact!—went on to design Taco Bells) who popularized the sweeping roofs, wide windows, streamlined interiors and intensely distinctive signs that really defined googie. They designed hundreds of Denny's and Bob's Big Boys, one of which survives as a Coco's on Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove.
"Other architects would point it out as 'bizarre'—that was a word they liked!" says Davis, relaxing in the Newport Beach Country Club, which his firm designed. "But we didn't consider it bizarre—it was free expression. The whole idea was not to have any style, as such; it was just to design something that would serve as a good family-type restaurant."
They took their assignments very seriously, Davis emphasizes, but they also had unparalleled freedom. Clients didn't care what sort of outlandish designs the architects came up with, as long as it flew with the customers.
There's an elegance to the best googie that came from this freedom, from the architects' opportunity to tackle construction problems with imaginative but still effective solutions. All those swiss-cheesed steel beams and glowing lights might look a little funny, but they'd get your attention: "I always thought the theory of architecture should be 'form follows function,'" says Davis. "You do what you can to make the form interesting, but the function comes first."
He's not surprised that some of his buildings survive and even thrive today—the best designs still "stand on their own two feet," he smiles—but he's a little bemused by contemporary efforts to save the coffeeshops he helped design. Flattered, maybe, but still bemused. "I never thought of a restaurant as being a building for posterity. It's a building for 'now,' and 50 years from 'now,' there's another 'now,"" he says. "Restoring and keeping temporary buildings for what? One hundred years? Two hundred years? It doesn't make sense."