In any career, it’s important to find your niche—that one area in which you’re the ultimate expert. For architect William “Bill” Krisel, that niche is midcentury tract homes.
Krisel was born in China in 1924, and immigrated with his parents to the US in 1937, where he graduated from USC in ’49. He knew he wanted to do modernist design, so he formed an architecture firm with his business partner Dan Palmer.
“Neither of us knew anything about traditional architecture at all,” he told CA-Modern in a recent interview. “Didn’t like it, didn’t want to do it, had no feeling about it. It wasn’t part of our life.”
The very first project they did (a pergola and deck) appeared in the 1951 issue of Sunset Magazine, and soon new commissions came flooding in. One of Krisel’s friends was Bob Alexander, who’s father George owned Alexander Construction Company. When Bob took Krisel’s designs to his father, George thought they’d never sell.
“Bob persisted with his dad, and his dad thought he’d teach him a lesson,” Krisel says. “He said, ‘Okay, I have this piece of land that will take eight or ten houses. Why don’t you go and do your thing with Bill? Then you’ll know what I’m talking about.’ So I did these post-and-beam houses, and before they were finished, they were sold.”
This started a long and prosperous relationship with large construction companies. By the mid-1950s, Krisel & Palmer was working with seven of the 10 largest builders in the US.
“There were developers who came from all over America,” Krisel says. “They saw these houses, how unique they were, how well they sold, how much profit there was in them, how people liked them, how they were written up. And our practice flourished. I think we did 20,000 houses in about a five-year period of time.”
Over the course of his career, Krisel has designed over 30,000 homes, with the majority all over Southern California: Palm Springs, Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno Valley. Krisel & Palmer also designed tract homes in Arizona, Las Vegas and Florida.
Their contribution to Palm Springs made the most impact—they doubled the size of the city with 2,500 tract homes that still stand today.
Krisel’s signature designs include unique rooflines, such as flat, butterfly and folded-plate, clerestory windows and room dividers that can adapt the floor plan to the needs of the homeowner. He also designed his Palm Springs homes to be desert-friendly, with sheltered patios, pools and breezeways.
With a desire to make housing affordable, he standardized architectural elements so they were cheaper. “We had developed a system of post-and-beam houses,” he says. “We developed our own windows, our own walls. We found out what cost money in a home, and we figured out how to do it better and cheaper.”
Not only was architecture a job for Krisel, it’s his passion. “You’d meet people who lived in your houses and they said, ‘I bought one of your houses and I just love it.’ So there was a great satisfaction.” Even into his ’90s, Krisel continues to design homes, as both his work and his hobby.
To see a Palm Springs Krisel returned to its midcentury glory, check out this post.