An interview with their daughter Pam Brown about this special couple and their Encino house — in the family for 50 years
Plus: 52 photos
We love the houses, but oh, how we love the stories. And today – a treasure, both: The 1962 house owned by Mel and Muriel (Mimi) Brown… Mel was “the Furniture King of Los Angeles” throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s… He was the furniture enthusiast, Mimi was the cool business head… They bought this magnificent home — designed by Don Park — in 1964… Inside, it was filled with high-end contemporary modern furniture and lighting. Outside, it is surrounded by spectacular garden views and an elegant, oversized swimming pool with lush gardens, all lovingly designed, built and planted by Mel and the family. Now, this home is on the market for sale for the first time since the Brown family moved in 50 years ago. They were the only family that ever lived there.
I am honored to have been able to talk at length with Pam Brown, Mel and Mimi Brown’s daughter, about this wonderful couple… their story… and the family home. It is a lovely tale indeed that, like so many of the houses we learn about, gives us a poignant slice-of-life look at Americans and their connection to the homes they so lovingly tended after World War II. Pam Brown and photographer Lin Cariffe also provided historic photography – which really bring this all to life.
Before I jump in: Sincere thanks to Sotheby’s Real Estate listing agents Brian Ades and Robert Kallick for alerting me to this house, and to Brian for connecting me with Pam Brown. Brian is a real lover of these midcentury Los Angeles treasures and seems to care just as much as we all do, to see that they pass to a next generation of owners with appreciation for their history and architectural significance. Brian’s first contribution to the blog was the spectacular Martin house that we looked at earlier this year.
Pam Brown on the Mel and Mimi Brown House and Mel Brown Furniture International
I tell Pam Brown — now, we are just “Pams” — that I want to hear all about her mom and her dad and their business and the house – all of it. Where to begin? How about – the Browns and Mel Brown Furniture.
“My mom and dad were soul mates and business partners,” she says. “The company was in business from 1947 until 1992 – 45 years. They were extremely well known in the Los Angeles area, California as a whole, all over the USA and internationally among clients, designers, architects and in the furniture industry.
“They started out with very little money. Right after World War II, when my dad was honorably discharged from the Army Air Corps, he met and fell hopelessly in love with my mother. They lived in a little tiny two-story house on the corner of Figueroa and Slauson in Los Angeles.
“We lived in that house for several years — the store was downstairs, we were upstairs. When I was an infant and toddler, my crib had a price tag on it — if someone wanted to purchase it, they’d pick me up, and sell them the crib. One time, when my grandparents were visiting from New York, they sold the bed they were sleeping in, right out from under them, as well. True stories.”
A Furniture World story from 1988 says that the Browns started their first furniture store with just $200 and some used furniture donated by Mel Brown’s mother. “When they first started, they’d get calls from people who needed to move immediately. They would buy all the contents for a song and then sell it,” Pam recalls.
Over time, the Browns acquired, one by one, approximately 12 lots adjoining the little house. By the mid 1950s, the family moved to Van Nuys. They tore down the little house – Pam still remembers watching the wrecking ball— so that the store could be enlarged.
Once the company had the cash flow to buy new furniture, it focused on chrome dinette sets. Yes, at first it was “Mel Brown the Chrome King.”
Next, the company got into Early American style maple furniture.
Pam says her father was “a guy full of ideas”. He then became very enthusiastic about his idea to go after the contemporary modern furniture market.
“My dad was one of the first in the U.S. – I can’t verify the first – that had the idea of getting into contemporary modern furniture,” she tells me.
“Around 1964 – I was about 10 years old — my parents had the courage to go to Europe and investigate the feasibility of this modern thing. My dad and mom pulled myself and my sister out of school for two months, to take us to Europe with them, because if the idea didn’t work out, this would be a once in a lifetime chance to have this experience. They had never been to Europe. We went to 13 countries — Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Italy…. My Dad started to make contacts and met with lots of furniture companies and built lifetime friendships and working relationships. From then on, my parents would make a few buying trips each year, combining business and pleasure. Eventually, he would share his ‘ideas’ – make a suggestion to the Danes, for example, to change a little something in their design that would help them in the American market. It became somewhat of a collaboration.”
Once the move to contemporary happened, Mel Brown Furniture was really off and running.
As the business grew, Mel Brown Furniture developed a celebrity clientele… They regularly advertised in the Los Angeles Times Home Section and Los Angeles Magazine. The advertising — which always had a distinctive graphical look — was also a family affair. Mel worked on the selection of items to be featured in each ad and worked on the conceptual layout of the ads with his long time advertising photographer Lin Cariffe, while Mimi wrote the copy for the ad. As Pam and her sister got older, they participated in maintaining the mailing list, addressing promotional materials to be mailed to established customers, making beds in the various vignettes set up in the store, plumping pillows, and generally doing what they could to contribute to the family business. Later, Pam graduated from Woodbury University with a degree in Interior Design. She worked in the store for some years, as did her sister. The business grew to include a wholesale lighting and furniture business via a subsidiary, Mel Brown International.
But there were serious troubles, too. The first store was heavily damaged by fire during the Watts riots in August 1965. Some of the furniture that had been set on fire during the riot was pulled out of the smoking building by a neighboring businessman — this prevented the building from burning completely. The family had not been able to insure the building, so they had to rebuild using their own money. “They were tenacious enough to build in the same spot,” Pam says. Like so many other Americans of the time, her father had come from a family with very little money. The fact that he and Mimi had worked so hard to acquire those 12 parcels of property – to own their own land – likely drove their insistence to stay at this location.
Sadly, history repeated itself, when, on the first night of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the store was set on fire again. This time, the store and all its contents burned to the ground. By this time, the Browns were in their 60s and after decades of working six days a week, they decided to retire. It took several years to wrap up and legally close the business.
A mid-century American success story
It seems to me that the story of Mel Brown Furniture is a prototypical American one and certainly, a prototypical midcentury American one. That is: Enterprising family starts with only a few dollars in their pockets — maybe it’s money left from fighting the war — and builds an enduring business — in this case, one that served the needs of legions of baby boom families in probably the fastest-growing market in the nation, Los Angeles. I asked Pam what she thought drove her mother and her father to keep going all those years. Where did the passion come from?
“My father really had his heart and soul in the business,” she said. “My mother knew my father needed help with the business and financial aspects, and she did all that she could to help.”
Her father, as a boy, had worked for two uncles who owned a furniture store, Pam said. Later, attending Washington High School in Los Angeles, he built a beautiful walnut desk in wood shop. “He got a letter of recommendation from his wood shop teacher that he was very industrious.” When the young married Browns were deciding what kind of business to start after World War II, these two experiences likely influenced their decision to go into home furnishings. Pam still has that walnut desk, by the way.
Pam believes that Mel’s desire to control his own destiny helped fuel his dream of having his own business, to become independent, and to allow his fascination with the furnishings industry to flourish. Subsequently, this same fascination grew to be expressed further through his own gem of a house.
The Don Park house…
The family’s Encino home was among the first built in the Lake Encino subdivision, which now numbers several thousand homes. “Don Park had built the house on spec,” Pam said. “They bought it in about 1964 or 1965. It was the fourth house in the whole development. There was no front or back yard, and my parents did not have enough money to buy drapes immediately. So, they put sheets on the windows for the first few years.”
Over the years, many beautiful furnishings, accessories and works of art found their way into the family’s home. (See the complete slide show, below)
There are a number of pieces of Milo Baughman furniture – a matching sofa and loveseat, a pair of occasional chairs, an end table, and the dining room set. Mel Brown had a great relationship with Thayer Coggin, and Pam believes some of the Baughman pieces may have been made especially for him, possibly with one-of-a-kind design tweaks. The upholstery on the sofa and loveseat: Belgian carved velvet never looked so delicious!
Other pieces also reflect Mel’s creative side: While on a visit to a metal sculptor’s shop, Mel had the vision to take one of the sculptures off of a wall, set it flat on the ground, and put a large piece of glass on top of it, thus creating a one of a kind coffee table. We are running out of time in our long discussion – there’s an open house to prepare for – but Pam also points me to the Moroccan rugs and one of those famous Arc Lamps.
I also ask her about the flower power coverlets on the two daybeds. Was one of them hers? “Yes!” she says. The blue one! Still there, after all these many years. Did you pick it out? “Yes!”she says. She thinks it’s Marimekko. Originally, the walls were lime green – a very vibrant lime green – almost glow-in-the-dark lime green. Oh, to be 10 years old in 1965 and permitted to decorate your own room in a swanky new family groove pad.
… And Mel Brown gardens…
The gardens are a whole ‘nother matter.
“This house is very much a garden home,” she points out, “with all the glass walls and windows it has a very integrated indoor-outdoor feeling.”
Mel Brown loved gardening. It was a passion of his, and over the years, he not only designed the gardens, exceptionally beautiful swimming pool, pergola, landscape and hardscape, but he and the family installed everything themselves. Pam recalls spending many hours working on the gardens at her father’s side. “I have the same passion for landscape design and gardening as a result of those experiences.”
“I remember dad placing chopsticks out in the dirt, where he wanted to put this or that…. He was friends with the manager of Marineland, and once we got a bunch of big boulders from them. He planted every plant, every tree, designed the wooden pergola across back of house, and placed every stepping stone, front and back.”
Hauling all those rocks sounds rough to me. Must be, as the business grew, Mel Brown could have afforded a landscaping crew to help. How about that? “It was an affluent area, but we did not live an affluent lifestyle…. I remember my sister and I in the back of one of the store’s old stake bed delivery trucks driving an hour and half with my dad to buy plants wholesale to save money.” At the same time, her father wanted the gardens just so — it was a labor of love.
“He was a gardening freak. That was his play, his hobby, his passion. He put a lot of energy into the gorgeous gardens, even until he was 90 years old — adding, revising. The garden was very important to him.”
Mel Brown died last December at age 91. Mimi Brown died in October of 2002 at the age of 76.
Of course, when she was growing up in the house, Pam didn’t fully realize just how swanky and groovy everything was, at first. She recalls that it was a great party house. “The entire back opens up. It’s the best party house in the universe, and my parents had a lot of parties – you could easily get 200 people into that house without it feeling crowded in the least.”
The next chapter
I always feel so bad asking the must-ask question at the end of these interviews: How does it feel letting the house go? We all know – it’s going to hurt.
“I’ve lived in a lot of places, but this has been the only place I feel in my heart has really been my home,” Pam says. 50 years is a long time to be connected to a single place. “I am really emotional about it… it’s going to be very hard to walk away, but I have a multitude of fond memories to take with me.”
I’m a Pam talking to a Pam and there aren’t that many of us and we two are close to the same age and we both grew up in Southern California and … this story! This house! Perhaps one consolation will be that: This is a great time to be selling a gem of a midcentury modern house, especially with provenance and gardens in a place like Los Angeles and all of it. Surely, a new family – very appreciative of the house and its history — will want to buy it and honor its many memories. Surely!
Thank you so much, Pam, for sharing these wonderful memories with us. Thanks also to Brian… Rob… Tom Queally… and Lin Cariffe. <3
- MLS listing to the house for sale
- Brian Ades website
- Rob Kallick website, takesunset.com
- Tom Queally Photography [link broken]
- Lin Cariffe photography — see some of his personal work here.
Tips to view slide show: Click on first image… it will enlarge and you can also read my captions… move forward or back via arrows on the right side of each photo… you can start or stop at any image: