Krisel (pronounced KRYE’-sel) died Monday at his condominium in Beverly Hills, part of a complex he designed, said Chris Menrad, a longtime friend and president of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving desert modern architecture.
Krisel’s work includes the Palm Springs “House of Tomorrow,” a three-story estate built in concentric circles, where Elvis and Priscilla Presley honeymooned in 1967.
He and his longtime business partner, the late Dan Palmer, also designed dozens of custom homes in the wealthy Bel Air and Brentwood neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
But it was tract homes that made Krisel’s name in the post-World War II housing boom.
During the 1950s and 1960s he and Palmer worked with developers in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley and elsewhere, creating homes that were cheap to build yet elegant.
“One of his gifts was that he could do very great, wonderful design (and) he could present it and sell it to developers…such that they would make money,” Menrad said.
He would present one or two basic floor plans, often built around a square “which is the cheapest thing to build,” Menrad said.
The homes were open-plan, full of light and simple styling.
“Before that, affordable tract houses were tacky, low-ceiling cracker boxes with holes poked out for windows,” Krisel told the Los Angeles Times in 2008.
Krisel’s work had modernist and elegant touches such as brick fireplaces; patterned concrete block walls; post and beam construction; clerestory windows for light; big panes of glass to bring the outdoors closer to the inside — especially in the dramatic, mountain-backed deserts of Palm Springs where homes also had palm trees, air conditioning and swimming pools.
The roof was a crucial part of each design: flat, gabled or sweeping up like angular butterfly wings.
“It sort of floats over the base of the house,” Menrad said. “It’s always a prominent part of the house, either super-delicate or in your face.”
In order to avoid blocks of drab, lookalike homes, Krisel altered the rooflines and setbacks, the landscaping and the color schemes.
“He never called it a style,” Menrad said. “He always called modernism a language that he spoke to people in.”
He spoke to thousands.
“At one point in my practice, of the 10 largest homebuilders in the United States, seven of the 10 were my clients,” Krisel told National Public Radio last year. “And I have had built, from my designs, over 40,000 living units, and that’s more than any other architect that I know of.”
Krisel and his partner “brought excellent and elegant modern design to mass-produced housing,” architecture critic Alan Hess told the Times in 2008. “That’s significant because every big name in modern architecture at midcentury tried to crack into the mass-produced housing market. And they all failed. Palmer and Krisel, who weren’t at all well-known, solved the problem.”
Many of his homes remain, including entire neighborhoods of them in Palm Springs. Buyers there have been restoring them and new homes have been built based on the original plans.
Krisel was born in Shanghai in 1924. His parents worked for the U.S. State Department. His family returned to the states when he was 13, where he was inspired to become an architect after reading about Frank Lloyd Wright in a magazine. He studied architecture and landscape design, graduating from the University of Southern California.
Krisel is survived by his wife, Corinne, and two children.