Christian Musselman: Capturing Midcentury Architecture Through Design
For fans of midcentury architecture and design, they know the beauty of their beloved homes lies in the details—the angle of a room, the placement of a window, the color of a door. Artist Christian Musselman understands and appreciates the importance of these details, which he captures in his custom home portraits, including those he created for The Design Issue.
Here, Christian, whose portfolio includes homes from a variety of eras, shares how he creates his custom portraits and why he feels midcentury design has endured.
How did you become interested in architecture?
Always was, I just hadn’t put that interest to good use until about 10 years ago when I started creating backgrounds for Mattel, Barbie in particular (sort of an MCM icon in her own way). I created everything from her home to her school, gourmet kitchen, favorite café, pet spa, you name it. It has been a lot of fun and it reignited my interest in creating architectural environments.
What drew you to midcentury architecture in particular?
I grew up in the ‘70s and maybe midcentury was too recent to really appreciate at that time. For me, moving further away from that time period has brought a new awareness and interest in the architecture of that era. With distance, I’ve found how amazing it is to look at MCM structures and really see how revolutionary and forward-thinking their designs were.
How did you get the idea to create these custom portraits of people’s homes?
I moved to Denver a few years ago, smack dab in the middle of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. My daily dog walks take me by many incredible buildings in the area, both residential and commercial. It’s a great city for architecture and there is so much diversity of style. The structures really grabbed my attention and I started to get interested in capturing all that amazing architectural detail in my illustration work. From there, my interest grew rather organically. There are quite a few fantastic MCM neighborhoods throughout the Denver area that have exceptional merit and pedigree. As I started to see more of those homes and neighborhoods in this area, my interest in their midcentury style moved to the forefront.
Can you describe the process of creating a custom portrait?
I start by taking many photos, trying to capture as much detail as possible. The photos aren’t beauty shots, they are of things like how do the rooflines meet up, what do the window surrounds look like, how does the home meet the ground. It’s important to get as much visual information as possible. It’s amazing how many elements aren’t clear when I start working with the photo reference. It’s been a learning process over the last couple of years to help clients get photos of what I need so that I can accurately represent their homes. From those photos, I start blocking in the basic home shapes (placement of windows and door, rooflines, etc.). I show that image to the homeowner to get their feedback prior to working on all the details. I go so far as counting bricks to make sure I’m getting the proportions right. It’s a fun bit of problem solving, sort of like working on a puzzle and visually building the house. I really enjoy that part.
After the approval of the block-in, I move to the detail. That’s the part I can lose myself in, it’s a lot of fun. Once the detail has been completed, it’s off to the printer. I use an incredible art printer that prints on a beautiful cotton archival paper. For most clients, what they’ve seen up to this point has been an image on their computer screen, so when they get the final printed artwork I (literally) can tell how excited they are by how many exclamation points (!!!!!!!!) they use in their email. It’s funny how often it happens. At some point I’ll start counting them and awarding prizes for the “most exclamations points used.”
It’s great working with homeowners. I find they really have a great time with the process of creating their home portraits, sometimes they learn some new things about their homes that they hadn’t really noticed or hadn’t paid attention to prior to the portrait. It’s a lot of fun for both of us. I love hearing the stories of their homes. I find it interesting to learn what it was that drew them to their home and why they chose to live specifically in a Midcentury Modern home. Sometimes it’s a longtime family home, others a recent decision and desire to live the MCM lifestyle. Regardless, their excitement and interest is what really makes these portraits very personal. My goal is to provide a likeness of their home that captures accurately what makes their home unique and what decisions they’ve made to make the home their own.
Are there any specific challenges in capturing a midcentury home versus homes from other eras?
There are obviously many less details than, say, in a Victorian or Craftsman home, but that means that it’s all the more important to get the proportions and detail as accurate as possible. For me, it feels like midcentury homes have a very deliberate, distilled style. On many MCM homes, there’s very little “icing on the cake,” so, in that regard, the cake had better taste amazing without it, and I think MCM homes often fall into that category, distilled to their very essence and celebrating that. The homes were a pretty radical concept at the time.
What are some of your favorite midcentury design elements?
That’s easy—doors. So much is put into the doors, they are like exclamation points. Homeowners do an amazing job with choosing colors for their doors. The colors they choose enliven the homes and often give a good bit away about the kind of people who live inside. It feels to me like it’s their individual stamp on the home. Also, I have to say, Roman Brick is at the top of the list.
Why do you think homes from this era have retained their popularity?
I think some people have grown a bit tired of the cookie-cutter contemporary homes being built and they are looking for something unique, clean-lined and well designed. Also, I think many MCM’s fit into the small(er) house movement that’s taking place currently. The homes tend to be more compact and designed with open space that makes them feel larger. And, let’s face it, they are just cool. They are a reminder of a time when homes were created for middle class owners that wanted high-style and forward-thinking living, a style that looked more to the future than the past.
What were the inspirations for the portraits you created for the Design Issue?
I was asked to create homes that exemplify the four primary roof styles of Midcentury Modern homes: Low-Slung, Flat, Butterfly and A-Frame. I did a lot of (fun) research looking for home references that personify the four styles. I got to play architect for the four homes shown in the magazine. The homes don’t exist as shown; they are made from my favorite bits and pieces from the references I found.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your work or midcentury homes in general?
The beauty and simplicity of midcentury homes speak for themselves. For me the fun is to capture the essence of what makes each individual home unique. My goal is to provide a final illustration that the homeowner feels represents their home and showcases the things that make the home a unique expression of their design choices. They love their homes enough that they want to represent them with a custom piece of artwork —it’s important for me to capture their home in a way that reflects that, especially when it includes the family dog. I’m looking for those exclamation marks (!!!!!!!) to let me know I’ve given them what they were hoping for.
Want More Artful Architecture By Christian Musselman? Check Out His Story in The Design Issue!
Whether it’s for the low-down on your favorite iconic architecture to expert insight on furniture design, Atomic Ranch‘s second newsstand-only special issue, The Design Issue, is a must-have for your coffee table, bedside table or Tulip table! Find this extra-large issue today at your favorite newsstand or order online.
By Devlin Smith
Illustrations by Christian Musselman