First and foremost, Cliff May homes are unique in their relationship to the outdoors. They are Californian, built for individuals who want to erase the lines between indoors and outdoors and embrace the spectacular Southern California climate. And in an environment where the sun shines 300 plus days a year and the average high temperature is 75 degrees, why would anyone want to live differently?
It is not uncommon in Cliff May homes to find that every room in the house has a connection to the outdoors. Floor-to-ceiling glass takes the place of walls to bring light and nature in, creating a relationship to the outdoors that is as much a part of the home as the decor. Perhaps the San Diego Union put it best when it featured an original Cliff May design under the heading: “Home with a Garden in Every Room.”
Builder and Pioneer
In the early 1930s Cliff May was designing homes in San Diego and Los Angeles. Then, and throughout his career, he was building homes for the Southern California climate and for people who wanted to enjoy it. He was a builder and a promoter and he pioneered a style—the California ranch house. In an interview in 1936, May explained: “ The early Californians had the right idea. They built for the seclusion and comfort of their families, for the enjoyment of relaxation in their homes. We want to perpetuate these ideas of home building.”
What made Cliff May exciting to anyone interested in home design was his drive to perpetuate ideas of livability rather than façade. His passion was designing homes that were in harmony with the way people wanted to live. He watched families use his houses—watched them give parties, prepare meals, use the patio for entertaining . Each idea that brought pleasure to home owners was worked over and improved in the next house he built. No new idea in planning, no new material, escaped May’s attention. Large expanses of glass and sliding glass doors, for example, came into his designs the month they were available.
The Father of the California Ranch Home
May loved wide open spaces. No wonder. A descendant of an early California Spanish family, he was raised on a San Diego ranch. Considered by many to be the father of the California ranch-style house, May is noted for combining the western ranch house and Hispanic hacienda styles with elements of modernism. His approach called for houses to be built out instead of up, with the continual goal of bringing the outdoors in.
May studied business and accounting at San Diego State for a couple of years but left school around the time the stock market crashed in 1929. While still a student he made furniture, which he sold in a model home. That led him to home building after leaving school, and he built and designed his first house in San Diego when he was just 23.
Still, May never became a member of the American Institute of Architects with the designation of AIA, but rather, spent most of his career as a licensed building designer. “I was proud that I got where I did and wasn’t an architect,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times at the age of 79. Cliff May was ultimately given the designation of licensed architect when the State of California, under Governor George Deukmejian, did away with the agency overseeing building designers.