Tommy Tomson: The Works of a Modern Master

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Tile Tommy Thomson

The works of seminal landscape architect, civic planner and swimming pool pioneer Tommy Tomson will be exhibited at Modernism Week 2019, Feb. 14-24 at the Palm Springs Cultural Center in Palm Springs, Calif.

Tomson rose to prominence in 1920s Los Angeles, and worked with some of the most famous architects of the time including Gordon Kaufmann, Roland Coate, Wallace Neff, Paul Williams, Cliff May and Welton Becket.

According to landscape historian Steven Keylon, who has written extensively about Tomson and will be giving a presentation at Modernism Week, “He shaped his exquisite landscape design aesthetic by reinterpreting his love of the romantic past within the context of contemporary and livable landscapes, ones that showcased his scrupulous attention to detail and provided ample opportunities for recreation, socializing and outdoor living.

“He helped shape our image of Southern California as a relaxed, seductive, sun-soaked Eden.”

Keylon further explained that leisure in California has always been defined the swimming pool, and Tomson designed some of the most luxurious resort and residential pools in the Southwest, including the innovative figure eight-shaped pool of the Shadow Mountain Club in Palm Desert, and the piano-shaped pool for Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms home. Tomson created one of the first kidney-shaped pools featuring a palm tree-planted island setting off the familiar trend that defines the outdoor spaces of mid-century, “Martini Modern” residential architecture.

Tomson first came to California a surveyor after completing a correspondence course in civil engineering as a teenager. When he arrived in Hollywood, he thought he might become a movie actor. Instead, he serendipitously ended up creating the glamorous surroundings the people in the movie business would enjoy in their own backyards.

His obvious talent at land planning afforded him opportunities to work with the social elite of Southern California. Talented, charming, handsome and stylish, Tomson would inevitably have a clientele to match.

Tomson’s influence grew in the post-WWII era as the suburbs expanded with middle-class people seeking their own versions of the good life. As a result, Tomson’s designs became a template for the modern backyard. He died in 1986, but his influence is still being felt today.

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