Gilbert Watrous / LAMA

Lot 160 Gilbert Watrous Table Lamp

Gilbert Watrous 

by Dave Hampton

A few design treasures connected to San Diego, the Esoteric Survey base of operations, can be found rather discreetly embedded within the one hundred and twenty-three lots Steve has selected/approved for the November 15th Design auction at LAMA. They almost all come from the hands of Allied Craftsmen* members and date from the 1960s and 1970s, with the notable exception of a table lamp made by the Heifetz Co. of New York that derives from Gilbert Watrous' celebrated contribution to the 1950 MOMA lighting competition

A San Diego-based designer, who grew up in Escondido and attended San Diego State College (now University), the 31-year old Watrous was completing a course of study at the Chicago Institute of Design when the contest was announced. The museum quickly received more than 600 entries from 43 states of which just eight table lamps and two floor lamps were selected and made ready for production through cooperative teamwork among the designers, manufacturer (Yasha Heifetz) and museum staff. 

Watrous received the $500 "Special Prize for floor lamps" that came with a small future royalty percentage on sales of his design. That was like First Place or Best in its class but curiously the whole program was geared to produce table lamps, offering more prizes (worth twice as much money) for designs in that category "...because of greater demand."

All ten of the award winning lamps and sixteen of the design competition drawings went on display in the New Lamps exhibition at MOMA March 27, 1951 and the exhibition press release described Watrous' design: 

"The base of this lamp is a small metal tripod on top of which rests a metal ball held in its socket by magnetism. The main stem of the lamp, with a counterweighted handle at the low end, passes through this metal ball at an angle; since the ball revolves in the socket, it is possible to adjust the lamp to almost any position."

As the only floor-standing exhibits, the Watrous model and AW and Marion Geller's honorable mention-winning design certainly stood out. Watrous' floor lamp became part of the 1951 Good Design show and was accessioned into MOMA's collection the same year. 

But after the Heifetz Co. got hold of his magnetized-ball-in-a-socket-on-a-counterweighted-stem solution (patented in 1951), it seems they had a good time using it to connect various shades and bases which are visibly distinct from the original "prize-winning" design, and which are mostly, yep... table lamps.

Mage Watrous "of Mexico City and La Jolla" sunbathes at La Misión, c. 1962

Presumably, Heifetz royalties helped Watrous get by in the tony San Diego suburb of La Jolla, where he kept a fairly low profile for the rest of the decade. He spent time with his friend, the noted architect Russell Forester, taught an 8-session design course at the Art Center in La Jolla (now Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego) and built a rustic modern beach house at La Misión, a low-key getaway spot forty miles south of the border. 

After a few years Watrous decided to combine his cross-border lifestyle and appreciation for Mexican material culture with his design background in a 1962 retail venture called La Piña. With a good location on Prospect Street, his shop offered "the best in traditional and contemporary design from Mexico." In addition to art and objects, decorative accessories and gifts, clothes and linens, Watrous provided interior design services and designed Spanish colonial furniture and carved wood doors, produced in Mexico to his specification. 

"Have you talked to Gil Watrous about his quality Spanish and Colonial furniture and doors for La Pina?"
Even as his design efforts evolved into something very different from the postwar Good Design aesthetic, he continued to collaborate with modern design associates in Mexico and California, such as Maurice Martine, and in March 1963 Watrous mounted a landmark exhibition at La Piña of weaving in the round, made in Mexico by renowned fiber artist Sheila Hicks.

*For more on the Allied Craftsmen, see: