Jim Brown is the publisher and photographer at Atomic Ranch, a magazine celebrating midcentury houses, with an emphasis on affordable designs.
- So, here talking to Jim Brown, editor of Atomic Ranch magazine. Is that your job title?
- No, actually, I’m publisher/photographer.
- My wife is the editor.
- Excellent. You are coming up on your 10-year anniversary. Before we get to that though, I’m curious, where are you originally from?
- Originally Southern California.
- Okay. How did you end up in Oregon?
- We moved up in 2000 … Jesus Christ. 2006 is when we came up here. We had started the magazine. It was going successful, and Michelle had always wanted to leave Southern California, and I grew to agree with her.
- We were in basically Pasadena, which is the East Side of LA, and it gets terribly hot. It’s always smoggy. We’d been there all our lives. It’s crowded. Even though our families were there, we said, “Let’s get the heck out of here.” She wanted someplace green and wet and liberal, and we made it to Portland just in time.
- Rings a bell. You had started the magazine before moving here?
- Yeah. Southern California. It’s the hotbed of modernism. It’s got Palm Springs, and there’s just modern tracks all over the place. It’s an ideal place to start this magazine for subject matter, but then also, after a while, we realized, well, it’s a national magazine. We’re not tied into Southern California. In fact, readers want to see homes in other parts of the country, so through the magic of electronics, you can work anywhere.
Image on the left a ranch in Palm Springs. Image on the right a Richard Neutra in Philadelphia
- We decided, what the hell? We’re going to pull up stakes and go.
- It was at the height of the housing market. We could sell. Values were much greater here in Portland, and we couldn’t be happier to be here.
- Mmm-hmm. It sounds like it hasn’t been … That would’ve actually been my first question. Was it a challenge? It sounds like it wasn’t that difficult for what you do to be here?
- We weathered it.
- Do you do a lot of travel?
- I do some travel. Since I’m the publisher, I do all the covers.
- I could go out on a trip and shoot three or four houses and that we’re set for the whole year because it’s a quarterly.
- I’ve got a backlog now of five or six homes that are in the can ready to go, just in the schedule, and everything else is contributions from people around the country.
- They’re either interested homeowners or they’re architects or builders or developers that say, “Hey, look at my place? What do you think?” All you need is text and images and you’ve got a story.
- It’s pretty easy to do these days. In the old days, it would be impossible. You’d have to travel all over, but now people just send in stuff. It’s pretty easy to develop editorial content.
- It’s definitely … It sounds like the magazine is more of collaboration really with you and the readers to some extent.
Absolutely. A lot of the content is reader-generated. I mean, really reader-generated. It’s not just inspired by the readers, but they actually send in their stuff. “This is what I did to my bathroom,” or “I got historical status for my neighborhood. What do you think?” Okay, take some pictures, give us the bare bones idea, and we’ll work it into a story.
- Was it hard at first?
- Oh yes.
- At first, you kind of have to prove yourself, and I imagine you didn’t really have those contributions.
- No. The first issue, all the ads were free. We just tried to convince people to make it look nice in the magazine. Most of the content was generated by me and Michelle, all the product photography, all the reviews, and that kind of thing. Eventually, people started to contribute.
First contributions were what we call our home page, which is people take a snapshot of their house in Ohio and say, “I just moved here. I love it. Here’s the picture of my house.” You get three of those, and you’ve got to home page feature.
Then, “I’m a collector of Murano glass,” so okay, get some good pictures of Murano glass and write up your story, send it in, and there’s another story. It coalesced with us after a while. It was a struggle at first, but it has gained steam, and with distribution and readership, we get a lot of email contributions all the time.
- Yeah. Do you … Is it … How would you describe your audience, your target audience? You’re not like the type of magazine that would … You’re not telling people how to build things. It’s more kind of sharing inspiration?
- Yeah, reader’s stories, their travails of finding a house, fixing up a house, trying to convince a realtor that this is what I’m looking for. I don’t want this kind of thing. I want this kind of thing.
- Our readership is …
- I bet you get a lot of people showing realtors this magazine.
- Yeah, I think so.
- Something that could be hard to explain. I have a realtor in the family who is curious what an atomic ranch was. I was like, “How could you not know that? You’re a realtor.”
- They don’t. They don’t get the concept.
- She knows what a ranch is.
- Yeah, she knows what a ranch is …
- What would you tell her? What is an atomic ranch?
- The height of an atomic ranch design-wise is an Eichler, or up here it would be a Rummer. It’s got really thin walls, pitched roofs. It has clerestory windows. Those are the top things on your walls. Window on top of your walls. Those are clear stories. It’s got open floor plan. The front room and the dining room and the kitchen all kind of flow together.
It’s got … A huge characteristic of ranches is that the front face to the public is usually extremely modest. Sometimes you can’t even see where the front door is. It’s almost like a barricade, but then you get inside, and it’s all opened up, and from the inside, you go to the back outside, the back yard, and you have walls of sliding glass doors, and so you have flipped this concept around that it’s very private outside, and you save all your energy for inside or your back yard with your family. They’re built to house the GIs after the war, so it’s 1950 to 1970. Tracks, custom homes.
Image on the left, a Rummer located in Portland. Image on the right, one of Jim’s favorite ranches.
- Is it typically like a pragmatic aesthetic? When you’re talking about people post-war, was it something where they could build a lot of them cheaply at the time?
- Yes, a lot of them cheaply, and entrepreneur builders or builder-merchants is what the term is. They get at tract of land, get a bulldozer, and they’d start building houses, and some of the forward-thinking builders would go to architects and see what they were doing and incorporate architectural details into their tracts. Since they were repeating these floor plans all the time on their tract, they had to think of ways to make each home a little bit individual. They would flip them. They would reverse them. They would have five different designs.
- Some of these guys, for further individual, or to distinguish their tract from someone else, they went for these modern features that were coming out of California or back east from the universities and the architectural departments.
- These features were post and beam construction, walls of glass, open floor plan, clear-story windows, that kind of things. Those things, when they incorporated them into their homes, they made them distinctive from the competition. That today is the thing that we celebrate.
- Is Portland a good place to see atomic ranch housing?
It’s pretty good. It’s got a lot of good ranches on the west side. On the east side, you’ll find pockets of ranches, so you have to think of it as an historian that, okay, the Victorians laid down their houses, and then the arts and crafts people laid down their houses. That brings you up to the 50s. What land was open and available?
- You go into a ranch tract. This is obviously farmland until 1950, and someone came in and built it. Where I live, Eastmoreland, it’s predominantly arts and crafts homes from the 1920s, but in certain blocks, there will have been open pieces of land. In the 50s, a developer came in, and in these little plots of land, in between the arts and crafts homes, he would build a ranch. Other places, when they’re a tract, they’re all consistently ranches, and that’s when a developer came in and put down 200 homes in a plot.
- This is a good time for this interview, because I honestly wouldn’t have really been thinking about this, but as we mentioned before, we were talking, we just moved into a house just like this kind of in the same part of town.
- Yes, you’re very close to us.
- Yes. Can you tell us about your house? Is there anything really cool about the one that you’re in?
- We love it. We came up, we had a realtor, Alyssa Starelli, and she showed us … We came up for two or three days, saw a bunch of houses, and they’re all arts and crafts, and on the last day, we rolled up to this particular house. It was a ranch, and we walked in, and it’s always the same story we hear from people. You walk in. You talk one look and say, “Yeah, this is the house.”
- That’s exactly what it was for us. Big windows, great view, open floor plan. Our house, built in 1952, I would call it a transitional ranch. It has some of the elements of what you’d call a traditional ranch – clapboard siding, it has a brick façade, it has a hip roof – but also it has, making it transitional, it has an open floor plan, wood floors … The entire front end is huge panes of glass looking out on the street.
We’re really exposed. You see the kids go to school every day. The bus goes by our house every day, but it’s incredible views out there. If you get beyond the public nature of the place, it’s just a joy to live there. The sun comes out, and you’re looking down the street, and the trees are blooming or green, it’s just fabulous.
So a traditional kitchen, regular bathrooms and bedrooms. Nice basement, but I call it a transitional ranch. So in … If that’s a traditional ranch, then something like a Rummer would be the ultimate expression of a tract ranch house.
- Really wild architecture, very thin and spare, very clean lines.
- What do you … Do you tend to try to populate a mid-Century ranch with that kind of furniture that would’ve been contemporaneous, like …
- Eames chairs, yes.
- That’s kind of the … In the photos, you often see that type of stuff.
- It’s a cliché, but it sure works. You have to know historically that the people who originally occupied these homes did not probably, did not have the modern furniture that we love. They probably brought in their stuff from the 30s or the 20s, old antiques, or an Ethan Allen kind of thing, and they probably loved it, or Chinese or whatever, but to me, a ranch really sings when it has the furniture from the 50s and 60s.
It becomes a cliché. It’s almost you could order it out of a catalogue, but goddamn, it sure looks good.
- Very nice. What do you think caused the end of this type of housing, or was there an end, or was it just a demographic change or suburbs.
- They became so ubiquitous, and there are a lot of unremarkable ranches out there. I think the unremarkable ranches overwhelmed the really great ranches. Every style goes through a cycle that it’s really hot, then it’s really not, then it comes back and it’s hot again.
I think America and the builders moved on. They wanted to go bigger. They saw, they were distracted by other styles. People wanted a feeling of greater comfort or to show their well. Another thing for the unpopularity of classic ranch styles is that they take up a lot of land. They typically have a big back yard, and they kind of sprawl, and so land became more valuable. Ranches fell out of favor for all those reasons.
- Mmm-hmm. It sounds like … When I think of a magazine publisher, first the word mogul comes to mind, but also the bustling newsroom with the sound of teletypes in the background and so forth. I’m guess that’s not how atomic ranch has run.
- Yeah, I came from a magazine empire, Peterson Publishing, and Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Motorcycle Magazine, and I worked there for 17 years as a photographer. I got to see what the editors and publishers were like, and the art directors, and yeah, publishers in that environment are the top ad salesmen. They’re cigars, whiskey, take the guys out, travel, glad-hand the advertisers, make them happy, raise hell with the editor when the editor says something crappy about the product. That is the classic publisher.
That’s not me.
- That is not me. I am, at core, a photographer, and it’s just that when we started the business, Michelle was obviously going to be the editor. Well, okay, who’s going to be the publisher? Okay, I’ll be it. So publisher is next to my name, but I am not a … The concept of a publisher is not me.
- Yeah. That experience, I assume, helped …
- Helped you think about putting out a magazine of your own.
- Sure, that’s why we did it, because it was business that we knew. She worked at American Bungalow, and I worked at Peterson, so we knew people that we could ask questions. We could hire our art director from Peterson, and that kind of thing. When we had questions, we knew people to talk to, and it was business that we were familiar with. We didn’t know it as well as we do now, but it felt … Yeah, we can do this.
- All right. Do you have a preferred camera that you’re shooting with when you’re taking those?
- The Canon. I got a D5 and I got some perspective lenses.
- I got a kit that I go out, and a good tripod. Yes, I started … When we started it, I was shooting film, RB-67, two-and-a-quarter film, and then eventually, the digital became good enough that you could do a double-page spread on a digital frame, and then with that, keep the camera home because you’re just shooting so much to try to get your color balance and bracketing and all that kind of stuff. It’s a bigger camera, so it was nice to go digital.
- When people are submitting things for the magazine, do you put out advice on what they should shoot with, or is it just …
- Oh yeah. Part of … My job is turned into coaching amateur photographers.
- That makes sense.
- They’re enthusiastic, they have their house.
- They’ve got the subject matter.
- They got the subject matter, and I say, “Okay, this is what we need.” When they send you a picture, you can see what camera they have, and your exposures and F stop and all that kind of stuff, so then I look at that, I analyze it, and I go back to them, and I say:
“Okay, turn your camera to manual, turn off the flash. Do you know anyone that owns a tripod? If you don’t have a tripod, do you have a stepladder? Do you have a self-timer to put it on self-timer, walk away. It’ll take the picture. Look very carefully at the LCD. Is that a picture you really like? Then download it to your computer. Do not put it through any editing program because they will reduce it down to 72 dpi, and I want a full-size file. The biggest file you could possibly send me is what I want. Don’t mess with it. I’ll mess with it.” Yeah, I’m constantly coaching these amateur photographers.
- Yeah, I can see that.
- They’re really enthusiastic. They work they’re ass off on it. Some people work for like a year taking pictures of their house and sending it to us. We say, “Okay, move a little bit over here, try this, close the drapes, see what happens.” Eventually, they get something that is publishable. Our art director is really good at making silk purses out of sow’s ears.
- [Laughs] That’s a lovely turn of phrase. Oh, wait, this is the 10th anniversary right here?
- It is indeed.
- Just the cover.
- Just the cover.
- Is it going to be a double album.
- We tried … We had visions of a gatefold, but it wasn’t flying with the advertisers, so we just …
- We went to this.
- Is there anything you’re super excited about that’s coming up here in the …
- It’s a fabulous house. This cover house is an Eichler, which is my all-time favorite tract. He did a fabulous job of restoring it. A lot of people, they will gut an interior and put in all new stuff, but he spent a ton of money and time getting materials that are appropriate. He got burlap for the walls, like you have burlap on your walls right here, but Eichler have grass cloth or burlap covering some of their walls. He was trying to restore his Eichler, and you can’t get burlap anymore, or the right kind of burlap, so he had to get it from India.
- It’s probably cheap fabric, but he wanted this thing, or it has mahogany paneling, and Eichlers had Lauan paneling throughout their homes as a typical characteristic, but today, if you get Lauan, you have to get not the cheap stuff that they make boxes out of or not the really beautiful mahogany, but you have to get the mid-grade Lauan and you have to lightly sand it, and you have to lightly stain it, and sometimes it takes a stain, and sometimes it doesn’t, so these are all the trials that this guy went through to get this perfect, reconditioned Eichler.
He happens to also own … There’s a very famous house, a Neutra house in Palm Springs called the Kaufmann House. He’s the owner of that one also, so he had a lot of resources to do a really fabulous job.
- Like in the kitchen, the countertops are laminate, and most people today, if they’re redoing their kitchen or have a huge budget like he does, they’re going to go with granite or stainless or some beautiful stone, but he kept true to the Eichler ethos, and he sought out laminate, which is not hard to find. It’s a cheaper alternative, and it’s a correct material to use. He kept the integrity of his house, and I really admire that.
- Where is that house?
- It’s in Orange County, Southern California. It’s one of the last tracts of Eichlers down there. There are three tracts of Eichlers in Southern California and a whole bunch in Northern California, which is where Eichler originated, but the weird thing is, I flew down for this job to shoot the house, and I’m driving to it, and I turn the corner onto the tract, and I’m in my car, and I, “Oh, hey, look. There’s the house I shot in 2008 for the cover. Oh wait, that one over there, I did that one in 2000 … and look at that one. That’s so-and-so’s.”
They’re all within two blocks of each other, and this is the fourth one in that neighborhood that I’ve shot, and they’ve all attained cover status. That’s a hell of a development right there.
- Mmm-hmm. If someone is a … So you’re in Portland, I mean, Portland as an example because we are, and if you wanted to go around and see some of these houses firsthand, just get an idea of what you’re talking about, what you’re excited about, is there an event where you get to see those houses?
- There was …
- Maybe a neighborhood that would be good to start from?
- There are home tours that come. There’s a historical society, they do a home tour. Yeah, actually coming up … Geez, I wish I had the specific information, there is a home tour coming up of Piero Berlucchi’s homes. There’s four or five in this tour. Last time, they did a tour of Zeiss, some other architect. They find an architect, and they get homes by the architect, and they put on a tour, and they’re always sold out.
- That’s cool. Who does that?
- I wish I … I can’t get the name. It’s in the back of my head, but I can’t bring it up right now.
- I’ll put it in the show notes. That’s usually what we do with things we can’t remember.
- I’ll email it to you.
- Cool, that would be great.
- Yeah, so that would be a way to look at homes. Predominantly, I think they’re on the west side of Portland. There are Rummers, which are pretty much duplicates of Eichlers. They’re over in the Oak Mills area, Oak Hills … Cedar Hills, Cedar Mill, something like that. I don’t know Portland as well as I should, but there are Rummers out there. You’ll find a neighborhood, and there’ll be … Because he didn’t consistently build that style everywhere, he’d go into a tract, and there’d be a modernist Rummer, and then a regular-looking tract house, and then a modernist Rummer, and they’re all kind of interspersed together.
There’s a pretty good concentration out there. It’s just not … It’s house after house after house. They’re interspersed.
- I see.
- Actually, OPB Radio is doing a, next Thursday, they’re an interview with Mr. Rummer, Robert Rummer, who’s still alive.
- They’ve invited me to attend. I don’t know if they’re going to speak or not, but Rummer is going to be the featured guest. He’s still alive. He’s happy for the publicity, and it’s a tract that has just gained historical status by the work of a woman named Darla Castagna.
- That’s great.
- Yeah, she’s really enthusiastic.
- Does he live in Portland?
- Robert? Yeah. Portland? This area.
- This area, sure. So …
- So then … Here’s issue one.
- Oh wow, okay. That’s crazy.
- Here’s issue 40.
- What I brought today is a copy of our very first issue, number one, and the press proof of issue 41, which is our 10th anniversary. They’re right here …
- We’ll put a photo of those side-by-side in the show notes. That’s great. Wow.
- This was a house in our first cover. I got up in the morning, and my van had a flat tire. It was packed full of gear, and I had to put in the space-saver tire and then get out to the location to shoot it, so it’s kind of a hair-raising thing. You’re all psyched up to go do the shoot, and “Oh, I got a flat.”
First issue cover in 2004 and the current 10th anniversary cover.
- You think you’ve got another 10 years of this?
- Oh yeah, easy. There’s so much out there.
- Sounds like you’re lining up pretty well in advance.
- Yeah, we’re at least a year ahead, which is kind of tough for the homeowners, because you photograph their house, and they wait and wait and wait and wait.
- Right, they’re telling their friends. Their friends are like, “Nah, I don’t believe it’s going to be in the magazine.”
- A year later or two years later, “Oh, here they are.”
- I mean, you know, we record these ahead a little bit.
- So what advice would you give to someone who wanted to start a magazine of subject area like yours? What have you learned in 10 years about doing this? Is it worth it?
- Oh yeah. It’s really … It’s rejuvenated our marriage. It’s provided us with lots of fun and obviously employment, and it was a shelter from the recession for us. We no longer had to freelance. It was our occupation, so we made our own occupation, which is good. My advice?
It’s a love, but it’s also a business. Where’s your income going to come in? How are you going to print it? How are you going to get it out there? Are you going to go electronic? Are you going to go ink and paper? Are you going to do both? Basic questions of how are you going to get your little baby out there, and how are you going to sustain it?
Are you going to look for advertising? Are you going to be subscriber-based? Are you going to be newsstand? Where’s your money going to come in from? Those are the questions you have to ask, and are you regional or national? Are you local? What are your aims?
Then it’s hooking up with the right experts for the answers to all those questions. Certainly, if you wanted to homes, there’s always … Our basic thing was people are always going to be in their homes. They’re going to love their home. It’s their major investment. They will want to know about it. They’ll want to fix it up. It’s the category we called shelter magazines.
You go to a Powells, and there’s a whole thing of shelter magazines, and that’s what it is, from Architectural Digest to Atomic Ranch and in between. There’s log cabins, Victorians, all kinds of styles. Eventually, one of these days, there will be a magazine about McMansions. My marvelous McMansion.
- Twenty or 30 years, they’re going to be really desirable. Isn’t that weird?
- That’s probably so true.
- It’s true, because it’s a cycle.
- Yeah, so everyone wants, homes will be like tiny and weird, and it’ll be like, “Remember when our houses were huge.”
- “Gigantic, had a great room that we never used. It was two stories tall.”
- “And we had a kitchen that we never used. We worked on a hot plate, but we had this fabulous kitchen with eight burner stoves.”
- That’s funny. I would say, one of the biggest challenges, and this is kind of on a personal level, when you get a house like that, you know, it’s a personal choice, but where do you find the balance between really trying to go completely vintage and putting up a television on the wall? Maybe you want a fancy new Nest thermostat, but that is clearly not vintage.
- It’s tough. There’s a dilemma, and I think technically, one of these days, someone’s going to invent the invisible TV on the wall that when you’re not watching, it’s no longer …
- It disappears.
- Yeah, it disappears. Currently, I don’t know. You put it into a TV room. You don’t put it out in the front. You don’t make it the focus of your life. We resisted for a while, but we eventually got a big screen TV, and it’s wonderful. It’s really fun.
- Yeah, it can dominate the room, and it’s this big black rectangle somewhere.
- Pretty much.
- Like this guy, the Eichler for the 10th Anniversary, he hides it behind a cabinet.
- Then you’ve got this cabinet that’s just sticking there, kind of in a little family room.
- Yeah, the desire to get the nice new stuff, how does it fit into your mid-century home. It’s a dilemma.
- Maybe like a refrigerator.
- Refrigerators are easy. They’re expensive, but they’re easy. You can either get a refurbished old refrigerator – they’re still out there, they still work – or there are a couple companies that currently make brand new refrigerators in the mid-century style.
- Oh wow.
- If you have the bucks, you can do that, and I think it’s money well spent. There’s Big Chill. There’s Elmira. We have a thing called a Mueller. There’s a couple of refrigerators out there that are in that style. They just slip right in, and they look perfect, and they’re brand new modern. It’s a tough decision to make.
Image on the left a ranch in Denver. Center image an interior of a ranch used in a spread. Left Image a ranch in Fort Wayne Illinois