In 1949 W. Clinton Backus and his wife hired a 43-year-old designer named Greta Magnusson Grossman to build a house in the hills of Bel Air. The Los Angeles community was well-to-do even then, but it wasn’t particularly ostentatious. Grossman, a Swedish émigré, had achieved some renown as a purveyor of modern design; her furniture was often mentioned in the same breath and sold at the same stores as Charles Eames’s, George Nelson’s, and Eero Saarinen’s—a rare distinction, at the time, for a woman.
For the Backuses, Grossman designed an understated two-story modernist home perched on a secluded slope, with sharp lines, walls of glass, and panoramic views. It was 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and 1,800 square feet—500 square feet smaller than today’s average American home—and it fit right in.
Not anymore. The Backus House still hovers on the same Bel Air hillside where Grossman built it. But because of the sprawling megamansions that have sprung up around the property, and because of the increasingly overheated state of the Southern California real estate market, Grossman’s elegant modernist creation—one of the few surviving examples of residential architecture by a groundbreaking woman now ranked among the finest designers of her era—may not survive much longer.