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Gilbert Allen 'Gil' Watrous (1918-1991)

Gil Watrous and Russell Forester on the site of Forester Residence #2 (ca. 1951).

Gilbert Allen Watrous was born to parents Gilbert Watrous and Elsie Fuller in Tulare, California on November 18, 1919. His brother James Wesley Watrous was born the year prior in San Francisco.

Having graduated from the Illinois Institute of Design in January 1951, the school took pride in celebrating the success of his lighting design by sending out the following press release:

March 28, 1951

FOR RELEASE: Immediate    

CHICAGO-- Gilbert A, Watrous, 2956 H. Clark St., has been awarded a  special prize for his design of a floor lamp in a recent competition sponsored by the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Heifetz Manufacturing  Co. Watrous graduated from the Institute of Design of Illinois Institute of  Technology in January.   His lamp, along with nine other prize winning designs, has been manufactured by the Heifetz Co. They will be on exhibit at the Institute's auditorium at 632 N. Dearborn St. during April, and may be purchased at  Carson Pirie Scott & Co.

Watrous' lamp won a “Good Design” award for an intriguing low-cost light fixture featuring a pivot comprised of a magnetized steel ball residing comfortably inside a concave socket. The Museum of Modern Art Low Cost Lighting Competition awardee was referred to as “Model No.  F-1-W Floor Light” while the table version was simply referred to as “table light” in Heifetz materials. The original pre-production version was described as “…long arm balances on a magnetic ball perched on a singular rod mounted in walnut. The lamp can be rotated 360 degrees and can be used as a table or floor lamp.” The “Good Design” show was open to the public between November 27, 1951 and January 27, 1952.

MoMA's Good Design exhibition circa 1951

Yasha Heifetz is perhaps best known today for manufacturing lamps designed for the Museum of Modern Art lighting design competition. Heifetz opened his shop, The Heifetz Company, in Manhattan in the late 1940’s with a focus on modern decorative objects & lighting. He would go on to sell small hand crafted pieces of furniture as well.

(L-R) Russell Forester, Eleanor Forester, Gil Watrous)

Russell and Eleanor Forester met Watrous, in 1950, while visiting the Institute of Design in Chicago. In his patent application of September 1951 he claimed San Diego as his address. Watrous filed for at least four patents (see below) for his lighting, a table, and structural systems for furniture - the latter being a collaboration with Frederic A. Roberton.

Gil became friendly with the local design community. Reportely friends with with fellow La Jollans like architects Robert Mosher and Russell Forester, Watrous “…ran a tasteful retail store on Prospect Street in downtown La Jolla selling folk art and Mexican furnishings with his first wife Madge…,” according to Eleanor Forester. Despite his success with his lighting design, he continued his interests in contemporary design, and his love for ‘older things’, through his store’s inventory, rather than continuing on as a designer. Other than crafting a stove-top splash guard out of stainless steel it is thought that he never returned to design after the early ‘50s.

Image of Gil Watrous taken circa 1965 taken by John Waggaman

Jim Britton's caption alongside the above photograph described Watrous as "...a designer easily conversant with modern idioms who has chosen to make a happy business (in La Jolla) of Mexican antiques and folk art, or reproductions thereof." Spending a great deal of time in Rosarito and Ensenada in a house he owned near the ocean, Watrous would become a specialist in Mexican handicrafts and known regionally for his efforts to sell them in his local storefront.

Gil divorced Madge, and married Lucinda R. Bray (1941 - 2008) in 1971.

In addition to friendships in La Jolla Gil Watrous was supportive of local institutions like the San Diego Zoo. He was one of the designers of a "magic stage" at the Children’s Zoo alongside Lloyd and Ilse Ruocco, Charles Faust, John H. Dirks, William Noonan, Jean Swiggett, and Barbara Wand.

Model No.  F-1-W Floor Light

According to “1000 Lights: 1878 – 1959”, “Inspired by Marcel Breur’s comment that he could not find a well-designed modern light that he would put into his own home, the Museum of Modern Art sponsored a low-cost lighting design competition in 1951. The response was phenomenal  - over 3,000 entries were received. Gilbert Watrous’s floor light, with its tripod base and magnetized steel ball element that allowed secure multi-positioning, was selected as the overall winner. Heifitz subsequently put this light and a number of variations of the design, including table models, into production.”