Jerald Cooper’s career began in music, leading artists such as Young Guru (Jay-Z’s sound engineer) and Ama Lou, a British R&B singer-songwriter whom he eventually signed to Interscope. But after years of music production and creative direction for artists, Cincinnati-born Cooper felt creatively burned out, until a walk in his Midwestern hometown sparked an idea.
Frustrated by circular conversations about gentrification with no clear solutions, Cooper realized that many people in his community didn’t even know the architectural significance of the buildings around them. “You want to save the hood, but what are the basics you might know?” remembers the architecture enthusiast from what led to his launching his Instagram account @hoodmidcenturymodern, which documents mid-century modern architecture in Los Angeles and other cities for its 63,000 followers.
Online, Cooper’s tone is as jovial as it was during our interview (the account’s Instagram bio reads, “Yeah! There’s mid-century modern design in the hood!!”) but equally authoritative in its scope of research and knowledge about design . “I actually did a mid-century modern case study. Then, boom, the account was born,” he says.
The purpose of his digital archive, which he often refers to as a survey, is to create a location-based database of beautifully designed places for people to visit and learn about, in an effort to educate the public and inspire people to identify the threat. of dilapidated buildings and rapidly changing neighborhoods.
“If you’re a person who comes from a culture that usually just moves to places or doesn’t have many options for living somewhere, [those places don’t seem] so beautiful,” says Cooper. “I thought it would be very smart if we understood” [the history] in a way that is tasty and [accessible] so we can understand why we should keep it.”
His Instagram account is awash with photos he’s taken as a self-proclaimed “neighborhood explorer” of mid-century homes, churches, apartment complexes, and commercial buildings (motels with atomic starbursts on their plates, brilliantly painted liquor stores, Googie-esque diners, modernist laundromats) in areas such as South Los Angeles, Leimert Park, and Compton, discovered through diligent research or with the help of his followers.
Some of Cooper’s personal favorite modernist homes in LA include the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences in Silver Lake (in 2020, during the Los Angeles Design Festival, the studio’s director invited Cooper for a week-long stay at the estate), and a West Adams home inaugurated in 1954 by a prominent black physician, Dr. John Marshall Robinson and his wife, Doris. “[She] was essentially a Martha Stewart of her day, publishing cookbooks, making radio and television appearances,” says Cooper.
Sure, California modernism (which prioritizes glass and clean lines, in an effort to let the distinct Los Angeles quality of light and views of the city’s vistas shine through) is strong on the Instagram account, but Cooper gives just as much real estate to Chicago modern, Michigan modern and other variations on the ever popular style of this era.
“I feel like my performance art is seeing black people in spaces and having the confidence to say, ‘I want to live there because I feel like it suits me.’ I want to be able to translate the confidence we need to choose our spaces.”
An essential part of Cooper’s growing education and conservation movement is accessibility; in 2020, for example, he released a deck of Hood Century Flash Cards, which represent and define various architectural styles, including expressionism, streamlining, art nouveau, minimalism, constructivism, and postmodern. But he also uses the worlds of film and television to reach the audience.
“I really see pop culture as a way to make it tacky. So if I show you the house on Girlfriends which was mid-century modern, if I can name things that you actually look at, then maybe it can help you learn a little easier,” he says. “Marcel Breuer’s Cesca chair is the one Craig and Smokey sit in all the time Friday. I want us to at least know that exists as an intentional design. It’s there, it’s been there and it has a name.”
Lately, Cooper has worked as a location explorer, set design consultant and architectural historian for music videos and commercials. Rapper Earl Sweatshirt hired Cooper to find a location for his music video “2010,” released in 2021. “He wanted it to be indoors and out,” says Cooper, who found the perfect fit in a modernist home. friend in Sherman Oaks. “He needed a house that had nature, even when he was in the house. In the kitchen you look out over a Japanese garden.”
That opportunity led to another, this time designing a set for a 2022 Super Bowl ad for Crypto.com in which LeBron James has a conversation with his adolescent self in a bedroom designed to be the NBA’s actual nursery. star to mimic. “LeBron grew up in a mid-century apartment building in Akron, Ohio,” says Cooper, who pulled records of the actual shape and style of James’ room to make it accurate. “I went to the tee from what we know from the era, and [incorporated] it from the set design perspective.”
Cooper’s work is at once nostalgic for designs of yesteryear, present in his urgent desire to preserve them, and also Afrofuturistic in his mission to create a movement of especially young African Americans to take ownership of their neighborhoods. “I think one of the biggest issues we face right now is housing,” Cooper says with a political lilt. “Where do I live? Where do I stay? Where do I build community?”
These questions, along with what “African-American modernism” looks like, drive his research and his near-obsession with collecting and cataloging mid-century modern design in every city he visits.
“I think there’s a new black archive movement going on…these entities are the sum of their catalogs,” says Cooper, who has plans to conduct architecture tours. “Issa Rae’s dynamic run of Insecure is a black modernist story. I could show you black modernism in LA by only showing clips from her show.
This story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.