Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

Capturing the Halcyon Days of SF's Design Scene

All photos by Fred Lyon

This article originally appeared in California Home + Design.

From 1946 to 1983, when photographer Fred Lyon was shooting the majority of the West Coast interiors appearing in national magazines, he didn’t realize he was recording history.

“I was doing the work to keep from starving,” he says. “I had no idea that these people would become household names. To me, they were just people I worked with. We photographed projects together—and sweated and swore and beat the hell out of the shots until we got it right.” His client roster included Frances Elkins, Anthony Hail and Gardner A. Dailey, among others, and his photos appeared in such places as House & Garden, Vogue and Architectural Digest. “I’ve had many great opportunities,” Lyon says. “And I just backed into all of them.”

Some of the most vibrant work Lyon committed to film belonged to a trio of San Francisco designers who shared some remarkable commonalities. Michael Taylor, John Dickinson and Charles Pfister were all born in small Northern California towns and shot to design stardom in the 1970s and 1980s; they were fixtures in society; they shared a love of beauty and style and, by the dawn of 1990, they were all dead before the age of 65. Their legacies endure: Furniture that the trio created during their heydays is still produced, and books have been written about Taylor’s work.

Lyon, now 89, is still hard at work some 23 years after he last focused a camera on the interiors of Taylor, Dickinson or Pfister, but he’s also enjoying continued recognition. A documentary showing the scope of his career, Living Through the Lens, will be shown on KQED’s Truly CA in 2014, and he’s busy compiling his second solo photography book, this one for Princeton Architectural Press. He admits that having outlived many design greats puts him in an interesting position. “They are gone, and it seems I’m the one left to tell the stories,” he says. In the millions of words that have been written about the work of these SF designers, up-close-and-personal stories are few, far between and increasingly rare. Here, Lyon shares his firsthand accounts.

Click here for Lyon's opinions and photos of Taylor, Dickinson and Pfister.