Previous month:
December 2005
Next month:
February 2006

Two Bay Area Remodels

Sfcaremodel, the San Francisco Chronicle's electronic counterpart, recently ran a nice profile of two Bay Area families and the architect who, over the course of their remodels, took the best that modernism had to offer and tempered it with the original character of these homes. I myself am usually more drawn to restoration rather than the kind of updating that architect Sandra Vivanco espouses, but I have to admit that these projects turned out quite well, without the uncomfortable angles and agoraphobic spaces that the modernist aesthetic often introduces.

photograph by David Paul Morris for the SF Chronicle

If Walls Could Talk looks to Alabama, Connecticut

Each episode of HGTV's If Walls Could Talk profiles a particular family and the stories that their historic home has been witness to over the years. The motto of the half-hour program - "every home has a history" - is taken to heart in the 'house ethnographies' of properties ranging from turn-of-the-century Hollywood bungalows to a 1600s log home in Massachussetts.

HGTV is based in Tennessee, but has investigated houses in all corners of the country pretty even-handedly - in more than 150 episodes since 1998. Right now, however, they are looking for stories in Alabama and Connecticut. If you have a home with an interesting history, or one that's been witness to any particularly interesting events or host to any especially interesting characters, do get in touch with the research coordinators as soon as possible.

Alabama: Jaime Levi (303.712.3106 or email); Connecticut: Keri Grogan (303.712.3110 or email).

Karl Schmidt Painting Goes for $120,000

Reader Tamera Herrod recently sent me a recap of December's Treadway- Toomey 20th Century Art & Design auction. This beautiful Karl Schmidt landscape was the surprise big-ticket item at this auction:

The catalog cover for the year-ending Treadway-Toomey Galleries' 20th Century Art & Design Auction showcased what was believed to be the sale's most valuable piece, an illustrious Tiffany Studios Memorial landscape window estimated at $90,000 to $120,000. And on Dec. 4 in Oak Park, Ill., the Tiffany masterpiece did realize $114,000. But it ranked second among top sellers. In a surprising twist, a Karl Schmidt triptych estimated at $6,000 to $8,000 stole the show when bidding escalated to achieve $120,000, a record price for this American painter's work.

A dreamy landscape with billowing, saffron-toned clouds and splashes of aquamarine sky, Schmidt's "Tall Trees of California" was implemented in oil on board in 1915. Hinged together in original frames, the three-panel painting was 30 inches wide by 14 inches high. A native of Worcester, Mass., who spent much of his life in California, Schmidt (1890-1962) was known for his landscape and marine paintings.

International Arts & Crafts Comes to San Francisco


C.F.A. Voysey, clock.
Mahogany, painted and gilded, brass and steel. 50.8 x 27.1 x 17.2 cm.
Britain , 1895-1896.
Mahogany case made by Frederick Coote; movement made by Camerer, Cuss and Co.
V&A: W.5-1998 © Victoria & Albert Museum/V&A Images

The de Young in San Francisco was my favorite museum growing up - true, it's right across from the Academy of Sciences, which has its own allure to a 12 year old boy. But the de Young, with its dark nooks and crannies, sarcophagi and urns, and menacing statuary, was especially attractive. I was especially entranced with the wonderful reflecting pool outside the front door, full of koi and turtles and other waterlife. Egrets and herons liked it, too - probably for the small feeder fish - and were frequently found there.

That de Young is gone, replaced with something larger and more earthquake-resistant, and the new rusty monolith in its place is very different but beautiful in its own asymmetrical way. So far I've only seen it from the outside, but I will soon have the opportunity to visit the interior as well, and not just for their excellent regular collection: the Victoria & Albert Museum's traveling International Arts & Crafts exhibit, moving slowly across the country, will be opening in less than two months. Most recently in Indianapolis, the show opens here in California on March 18 2006 and runs for three months, through June 18.

The show itself doesn't need much of an introduction or explanation; its long title, "International Arts and Crafts: William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright" pretty much covers it: the whole shebang, the entire foundation of the movement, from the UK, the US and various international outposts of the movement (yes, even India). This is an absolute cannot-miss for anyone with even slight interest in the movement; if you are in Northern California, go to the show! We'll have a complete review after the opening, as well as more details and photos between now and the opening date. Hope to see you there!

Roycroft Pottery on Ebay, update

E4_1 An update to our Roycroft Pottery thread the other day - it seems that Ebay seller (redacted) is now offering a 9-inch dragonfly vase, available from the artist herself for $100, for a buy-it-now price of $250. This is not illegal or even a violation of Ebay rules, but certainly seems unethical to me - not the selling of something for more than it costs or is available elsewhere, of course, but specifically withholding the fact that it could be bought directly from the artist for far less. I have tried to have some sort of dialogue with this person, and got back a reply that I thought seemed to sidestep the issue and simply noted that 'this is my vase and I will sell it for whatever I want' - certainly true, and the dealer certainly does have that right. But with every right comes a responsibility: in this case to educate would-be buyers a bit in this forum or in ebay descriptions. This particular seller was responsible, though, and updated the auction description quite substantially to give credit to the creator. However, other sellers - and even some legitimate antique dealers - misrepresent the provenance of items, and continue to withhold information about items which they should share with prospective buyers, in spite of explicit professional guidelines to be completely forthright. Buyer beware!

[note: article edited 04.03.06]

book review: Building with Nature: Inspiration for the Arts & Crafts Home

Buildingwithnaturesmall Leslie M. Freudenheim, Building with Nature: Inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Home, Gibbs Smith, 2005.

Leslie M. Freudenheim’s Building with Nature: Inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Home, is a reworking of her earlier (1974) Building with Nature, Roots of the San Francisco Bay Region Tradition, written with Elizabeth Sussman. Her new book has two objectives - one descriptive, one argumentative.  Freudenheim, first, presents a thorough overview of the first three decades (1880-1910) of the California Arts and Crafts movement, especially in terms of its architecture. Second, she argues a thesis - that the Reverend Joseph Worcester, known best as the leader and first minister of San Francisco’s famous Swendenborgian church, was the central instigator, advocate, and proponent of the movement.

The book excels as a general introduction to the Bay Area’s pioneering Arts and Crafts community - its practitioners, its theory, its practice, and its influence.  With an engaging and conversational tone, Freudenheim traces the work and interactions of the movement’s founders - Bernard Maybeck, Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk, John Hudson Thomas, John  Galen Howard, and others who created the Craftsman aesthetic - simple structures, unpainted shingles, wood interiors with furniture built in, overhanging eves, and (relative) affordability. The text is wonderfully supplemented with sepia photographs.

The less successful element of Freudenheim’s book is her thesis giving Joseph Worcester central position as inventor of the Bay Area style. Speculating broadly from private correspondence and scrapbooks, she portrays Worcester not only as the most influential advocate and disseminator of the arts and crafts philosophy but also as the hidden intelligence behind much of its noteworthy architecture.

The 1976 Piedmont bungalow Worcester designed for himself,  for example, she anoints as the Ur-cottage, the shingled bungalow prototype for all that was to come. His rustic cottage, she posits, so impressed his young neighbor, Bernard Maybeck, that Maybeck emulated its principles in his own Berkeley buildings. The Worcester designed homes on San Francisco’s Russian Hill, build some 10 years later, brought Arts and Crafts across the Bay, establishing a model that then spread through California, and beyond.

Similarly, she credits Worcester with inspiring the famous “mission” styled chair built for the Swendenborgian church, and with working behind the scenes to bring John Galen Howard to Berkeley as campus architect. According to Freudenheim, Worcester felt that Howard was likely to be far more sympathetic to the Arts and Crafts orientation than the Beaux Arts architect who actually prevailed in Phoebe Apperson Hearst’s famous campus design competition of 1899. “Worcester engineered Howard’s selection,” she writes, implying that he also powerfully influenced Howard’s own plans for campus buildings.

As history, Freudenheim’s speculations concerning Worcester’s preeminence rarely rise beyond the level of conjecture, and Freudenheim does hedge her thesis with myriad “we can speculate’s,”  “it is likely’s,” and “perhaps’s.”  While her hypothesis remains shaky, the book as a whole provides a refreshing retelling of Bay Area architectural history, and the valuable contributions of one of its lesser-known participants.

Taimi Barty, furnituremaker

Taimi3 Swedish-born Taimi Barty's style is spare, a sort of modernist and Asian- and Nordic-inflused Shaker. A recent desk and chair set (here's another similar desk by Barty, with interesting inlay) of hers has elements of classic Swedish design in the organic and slightly bowed legs and arms of the chair, and the flare in the legs of the desk - as well as an asymmetrical shape to the desk that is both Victorian and modern at the same time. Her Pillar of Drawers is as much sculpture as it is a well-designed use of vertical space, and items such as her deceptively simple wine rack show that her mind is as much on practicality as it is on aesthetic. She is part of the Mendocino Coast Furnituremakers guild/organization, and with woodworker Robert Sanderson, owner of Fort Bragg's Sanderson Hardware, produces furniture as Wood Joint Studio.

Taimi studied engineering at Harcard and Radcliffe, and after a few years "cleaning up petroleum hydrocarbons" in San Francisco, she began a course of study in the Fine Woodworking Program at the College of the Redwoods. She and Sanderson both studied there under the great James Krenov.

Becoming Julia Morgan

Boutelle_201_castle_julia__elephant_sm The world premiere of Belinda Taylor's Becoming Julia Morgan, a dramatic production about California's most famous architect and the United States' most famous woman architect, opens January 14, 2006 at the California Stage in Sacramento. From the press release:

BECOMING JULIA MORGAN is a two-act play for four actors. The role of Julia will be portrayed by highly regarded Equity actress Janis Stevens, who recently performed in an acclaimed run in New York City of VIVIEN (about the life of actress Vivien Leigh). William Randolph Hearst will be played by Equity actor James C. Anderson, who recently returned for a tour with the Nevada Shakespeare Company. Grace Crow, a California Stage company member will play Marion Davies and Peter Playdon who recently starred in Carry the Tiger to the Mountain with InterAct Theater Company will play many of the famous people known by the reclusive architect brought to life in Ms. Taylor’s play.

The play chronicles the life and career of eminent California architect Julia Morgan. Julia Morgan was an artist of great originality and acknowledged integrity. She was an enigmatic woman with an elusive and fascinating personality who pursued her career goals at a time when architecture was exclusively a man’s profession. She worked 25 years with William Randolph Hearst, designing and building the magnificent Hearst Castle at San Simeon and built over 8oo public buildings and homes throughout California. However this true master architect battled ailments, and sexism in the early 1900s that could have sidelined her career. See how she overcame these barriers in this first full-length play on her life.

pictured: Julia Morgan with a baby elephant; my favorite photograph of her, and a scene not likely to be reproduced in the play.


Roycroft Misrepresentation on Ebay

Bj_product_page David Mathias wrote on the Greene Style Furniture mailing list recently that he had seen a number of items of "Roycroft pottery" for sale on Ebay. As many collectors know, aside from a small amount of china used on the campus and produced by Buffalo China, the Roycroft mark never appeared on any commercially-produced pottery until the current resurgence of the movement, and to this day nobody knows what the original experiments looked like as none survived.

David did a little investigation and noticed the vase for sale was a beautiful trapezoidal dragonfly design by potter Janice McDuffie, part of the current Roycroft Renaissance, who has been selling her work under the apt name Roycroft Pottery since the late 1970s. It certainly is Roycroft pottery - but it is not a rare antique, and the seller was allowing the price to climb far above the actual cost of buying such an item new - and they certainly are available! So rather than the money going to the artist who made them, an Ebay seller was withholding information about the item and allowing the price to be inflated for their own personal gain. Certainly they have that right, this behavior is frowned upon in the antique business and the buyers should be made aware of whole truth about the items they are bidding on, especially when it comes to handicraft items. David did contact all of them - and none responded. It seems they enjoy being taken to the cleaners, and if so, then let them get what they want.

Example: Ebay user (deleted) (whom I have communicated with, and whom understands the problem - (s)he has contacted Ebay to change the description and make clear that this item is neither antique nor hard to acquire new) has this item, which costs $100 new, up on Ebay now; the reserve has not yet been met even at a current bid of $152! Janice would be glad to sell anyone who asked for $100, and then you'd be dealing with the artist herself. So - please bid responsibly, and don't support unscrupulous dealers.

Fire Destroys Frank Lloyd Wright Prefab

Flw_prefabfrom Archinect, via the always interesting Treehugger:

In 1911 Frank Lloyd Wright worked with the Richards Company to develop the American System of Housing, based on ideas he learned in Japan. "Wright further innovated the A.S.B. line through the use of pre-milled, machine made materials. The pre-cut materials, such as framing, joists, millwork, cabinets, and doors, were of a "standardized" character which literally permitted the use of these items throughout the A.S.B. line. In addition, as being made by machine, the pre-milled materials were insured to possess an overall consistency, quality, and longevity that on-site carpentry could not achieve." Not many were built; World War One interfered. Today one of the very few remaining, the Wynant house, burned down.

Help me find this table...

L3050800830 Can anyone name a cabinetmaker / woodworker / furniture seller who makes & sells something like this small endtable? I like the design an awful lot and could really use something like this, but I also know that Home Decorators Collection sell mostly junk, and their idea of "hardwood construction" is often fruitwood with an oak veneer. I'd much rather buy from the maker or at least someone a bit closer to the maker, anyway.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Only Skyscraper

Pricetoweratnight from the press release:

BARTLESVILLE, OK – Described by its creator as “The Tree that Escaped the Crowded Forest,” the Price Tower (click link for a selection of images from Flickr) was visionary in its time - and remains relevant today - as Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper.

First imagined in the 1920s for a New York site, St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie, then redesigned and built on the Oklahoma prairie for the H. C. Price Company, the Price Tower realized one of Wright’s cherished ideals: integrating office, commercial and residential space within a tall, richly decorative structure whose cantilevered floors “broke the box” of conventional construction. Since completion in early 1956, the Price Tower has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, praised by architect Tadao Ando as “one of the most important buildings of the 20th century” and transformed into the home of Price Tower Arts Center as the centerpiece of the museum’s permanent collection.

Now, to mark the building’s 50th anniversary, the Arts Center will present a major exhibition, Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower. With an  installation designed  by  the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid,  the exhibition will be on view at the Arts Center from October 14, 2005 to January 15, 2006, followed by a two-city tour. (emphasis added - JLT)
photograph by Christian M. Korab

Continue reading "Frank Lloyd Wright's Only Skyscraper" »

Does your home fit your community?

Jim Muir is the chief building official in Clark County, Washington (which stretches from the Oregon Border - and the county seat in Vancouver - up along the western border of Washington north of Amboy, Yacolt and Chelatchie Prairie). Obviously, issues of permitting and compliance with local ordinance take up a lot of his time. But Clark County, like some other enlightened municipalities around the country, is especially sensitive to preserving the aesthetic character of its neighborhoods - both new and historical. Thus, Mr. Muir wrote the following article for The Columbian, Vancouver's newspaper, and was very happy to share it with us. I hope you find it as useful and interesting as I did:

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
    — Architect Eliel Saarinen

It is very easy to watch a community develop with no noticeable connection to its surroundings or history. Many of us yearn for a greater sense of place in modern life, but we often do not take the time to truly consider contributing to that cause. One way to create a greater sense of place is to consider “fit” in the remodeling, design, and furnishing of your own home. You can influence visitors, neighborhoods, and, ultimately, the community.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright said it this way: “True ornament is not a matter of prettifying externals. It is organic with the structure, it adorns whether a person, a building, or a park.”

Wright also preached about the beauty of native materials and insisted that buildings grow naturally from their surroundings. “Whether people are fully conscious or not, they actually derive countenance and sustenance from the ‘atmosphere’ of things they live in or with,” he said. “They are rooted in them just as a plant is in the soil in which it is planted.”

We thrive in the uniqueness of our locale.
There are building techniques and materials that reflect the environmental conditions and history of the Northwest. Your home may have cedar siding and cedar fences designed to resist the wet weather, but those materials blend (are organic) to the surroundings as well.

The Academy building in Vancouver was built with bricks from the locally famous brickyards of Lowell Hidden. Local parks often feature Basalt stones from nearby quarries. Fir floors and Hidden bricks were used in many local homes, and some have plaster walls made with the hair of horses and other animals dating back to Clark County’s rich agricultural heritage. The La Center library is housed in an old hospital building, which was strengthened to support the weight of the books by huge beams made from fir trees felled on site.

Interior design can also include elements of regional significance. Distinctive designs of the Northwest Native Americans can be found in fabrics, carvings, and paintings. The Pendleton Woolen Mills produces many items incorporating these themes. Art that captures the Northwest spirit is used widely by local and regional artists.

Vintage houses are a reflection of varied influences
Trends in fashion, industry, and politics become embodied in our homes. Many of Clark County’s vintage homes reflect elements of the Craftsman style of architecture that puts an emphasis on personal craftsmanship and natural, local materials. The Craftsman movement was a reaction to the industrialism and mass production of many Victorian styles with their abundant use of mass-produced ornamentation.

Vancouver has a few houses built in the Second Empire Style such as the Charles Brown House at 400 W 11th Street and a couple along Officers Row. In 1851, French Emperor Charles Louis Napoleon and his wife, Eugenie, had a sense of flair that spread through Europe and, later, the world. The flair of this Second Empire French style thus reached houses built in Clark County.

It is important to recognize the original design integrity of your house when undertaking any rehabilitation. Modern appliances, a safe electrical system, and other fire and life safety elements are necessary. However, there are architectural elements of a house that, when altered without due consideration, may compromise the home’s style. 

Wright declared. “Consistency from first to last, will give you the result you seek and consistency alone.” Wright was, however, a proponent of newness and use of technology and felt that by itself, consistency would kill creativity.

The responsibility then appears to be to understand what you have and creatively incorporate change to maintain a proper fit and feel. A lesson would be the ill-conceived installation of wall-to-wall shag carpeting over beautiful hardwood floors in the 1970s. This goes back to the advice by Saarinen that each part of our community, including our homes, should be considered in the proper context.

2006 Bloggies

Hello. It would be really terrific for our traffic and would be a great late holiday gift to me if you, dear regular readers, would take 2 or 3 minutes and nominate us for a Bloggie Award - that is, if you think we deserve one. I assume we would fit into the craft or topical subject categories, although I'm unsure of which of those best applies.

book reviews: Rustic Arts & Crafts, part I


One of my favorite publishers, Gibbs Smith, has put out number of books on Arts & Crafts cabins and associated styles of rustic homes in the last few years and I've had a few weeks to read through all of them. They're all by two people, both of whom must be especially attached to this particular style of home, and here in part 1 I'll write a little bit about the two books by Robbin Obomsawin, a general contractor and the construction manager at Beaver Creek Log Homes in Oneida, who has 20+ years of log-joinery experience.

My favorite of the bunch is Robbin Obomsawin's The Arts & Crafts Cabin, which is jam-packed with Roger Wade's photographs of high-style rustic cabins. Unlike so many architecture picturebooks that I've been unhappy with this past year, here most of the photos are cropped to give you the context of a full room or larger space which makes the details pictured make a lot more sense. A lot of these homes really stretch the definition of "cabin" - these are big, beautiful Arts & Crafts homes that happen to be in (mostly) rural areas and make use of lots of rough-hewn exposed wood, earthtones and hammered metal. As the owner of a 1920s California bungalow myself, I tend to look at books like these as idea sources for my own endless remodeling and restoration projects, and just because these homes are more ultimate cabins than classic bungalows, there's still plenty useful here.

The author's attention to cabin-specific features - components like outdoor fireplaces, overhanging eaves, exposed beams, etcetera - will be useful for those building one of these moutain castles. One section on space-saving techniques is slightly laughable, given the immense square footage of most of these places, although I suppose its lessons extend to smaller homes. Overall, I found it an interesting and useful introduction to the style, and it certainly bridges the gap between city bungalow and the rustic aspects of the early Arts & Crafts movement.

Obomsawin also wrote The Adirondack Cabin (with photographs by Nancie Battaglia), which is a gallery of much smaller homes - definitely more in the direction of what you'd imagine a cabin is, and many of which are what a cabin was well over 100 years ago. These modest homes dot the crests and valleys of the Adirondacks; some are lakefront vacation retreats, others simple small-town homes, and a few are true mountain-man retreats, deep in the woods. All have a tremendous amount of character - less evocative of a philosophy or movement, as the homes in the former book did, and more a reminder of the survival needs of the settlers of this beautiful but hard region; Obomsawin pays a lot of attention to this history, though, and much of the book is about the evolution of the Adirondack style (or anti-style) and the common features of these structures.

Battaglia's photography is attractive and there are plenty of shots of exteriors, although i do wish that the author and photographer had included more interior shots. One particularly nice feature are the simple line drawings showing different design motifs - various types of rails; door, window and shutter designs, and types of trusses and rooflines. The author's experience and profession comes out in the clear and well-illustrated section of sample plans and a discussion of building materials and wall construction which rounds out the book.

Greene House in Phoenix

This is still confusing me. Sam Fox, a seemingly-misguided but otherwise quite succesful restauranteur in Phoenix, has opened the Greene House at that city's Kierland Commons mall. The restaurant serves food somehow influenced by the Craftsman ideal, and I would hope & expect that the interior lives up to its name. Due to its location in a mall, however nice that mall may be, I have doubts that it could possibly be anything that wouldn't bemuse the Greenes themselves. Certainly the food is not something that the brothers would have had access to - green papaya chilled pink snapper, curried pistachios with goat cheese and beets, and mini Kobe beef sliders weren't very popular in Pasadena in the '20s, I don't think, although perhaps they would have been, had they been available.

I can't criticise the food - in fact, I don't have any reason to think that it's anything but excellent (even given the mall location), but I can criticise the logo. A late '90s modernist typeface and a logotype more reminiscent of a poor understanding of late-period Frank Lloyd Wright stained-glass design and Seccessionist typography is not necessarily the best signifier for a restaurant offering a paean to Greene & Greene. I'm a graphic designer and I would never, ever expect a client to accept something as shoddy as that, but again, this is no reflection on the food.