How a San Diego native born in 1909 defined the way Californians live today.

Cliff May Great Room
Courtesy of Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty

On the long list of things one should not take for granted, access to nature hovers near the top. Opening a door from your living space to the outdoors, whether that’s a sprawling yard or a postage stamp deck, can be a daily exercise in gratitude. And if you opened up the back doors and enjoyed a cup of coffee or a visit with a friend on a patio recently, you largely have Cliff May to thank. 

The work of May, a San Diego native who created the modern California ranch house in the 1930s, is inextricably linked to the history of Sunset. May designed the magazine’s former Menlo Park headquarters in 1951, and many of his homes have been—and continue to be—featured on our pages. Maybe you’ve spotted his design for the Robert Mondavi winery on some of its labels? So many of the concepts he introduced as a young designer (with no formal architectural training) inspire our Idea Houses, and the way many people live today. 

Cliff May El Vuelo Courtyard
La Casa de Larga Jornada Courtyard

Courtesy of Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty

May built houses that had a conversation with their surroundings through plentiful outdoor spaces and interior courtyards, playing on the idea of placing a “garden in every room” with the placement of windows and exterior doors. “Patio” is a Spanish word and reflects the Mexican concept of outdoor living and dining that May helped to introduce to the American lexicon.

May grew up in a California heavily influenced by Mexican design, particularly hacienda-style houses with eaves that shaded walkways to keep interiors cool. A “U-” or “L-” shaped layout, with windows overlooking a landscaped yard that included fountains and olive or pepper trees, were his early signatures.                

By the 1950s, when May was designing entire neighborhoods of modest single-story houses with gently pitched roofs and exposed beams, the informal style of living and entertaining at home that he promoted was synonymous with California. 

Cliff May Indoor-Outdoor Pool
The Indoor/Outdoor Pool at La Casa de Larga Jornada

Courtesy of Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty

May died in 1989 at 80, when boxy modern design and grander, formal houses were stealing attention away from his more relaxed style. But houses like La Casa de Larga Jornada built in 1974 in Rancho Santa Fe, CA, are coveted. The Larga Jornada house even has an indoor/outdoor pool—and what’s more California than that?