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September 2007
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November 2007

design, context & politics - could the Arts & Crafts Movement save us?

I know - "get a blog." Well, I have one, and this is it. For the most part, I try to keep the content here useful and interesting to everyone with tastes in art and design similar to my own. Now, though, I'm going to use it as a place to think a little bit, and I welcome your own opinions on this, and responses to my not-very-well articulated questions.

As a born-and-raised Californian, most of my contact with Arts & Crafts architecture and design has been with two specific variants of the style: the western (and specifically Latin and Italian inspired) Revival styles - with plenty of rough-hewn beams and natural stone - and the very strongly Japanese-influenced Craftsman forms so popular in portions of Southern California, with their emphasis on fine-grained dark wood, lustrous copper and ceramic tile.

My father's house in Berkeley is a very simple Western Stick variant, one of the area's numerous brown shingles, and he's furnished it with Japanese tansu and prints. My mother's house, a traditional Mission Revival one-story stucco bungalow, is also decorated with a lot of Asian art and craft. After visiting their homes recently I was thinking about how well these two styles complement their location, how they complement and maybe even, to some extent, help define the lives of their occupants.

Certainly part of the reason is the philosophical similarity of the Movement and its precursors. Arts & Crafts in the United States - especially the revival of the style in the Western US - takes a lot from Japanese and Chinese carpentry and woodwork both stylistically and philosophically. It tries hard to be as honest as possible about who / how / where it was conceived and built. The mark of the craftsman is everywhere, unlike in a contemporary tract home, which usually shows absolutely no mark of its designers or builders (although I suppose you could say that the substandard materials and poor technique used to construct most of today's overpriced McMansions are a designer's mark of a sort). Toolmarks, human scale and a more ergonomic design are central to both the Arts & Crafts movement and traditional craftsmanship in Japan and other parts of Asia.

The situation of a structure within its landscape is also important, as the Greene brothers learned at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Architects in Northern California had several unique environments to work within, and some of them gave rise to really unique and interesting styles - the coastal bluffs of Big Sur, for instance, and the redwood and oak forests of the Bay Area hills were each perfect incubators for a specific and very unique style of home.

But at what point does style stop being an organic reflection of the outside world and a synthesis of social and aesthetic philosophy, and start being a pretty picture (or a not-so-pretty picture) without any content? If you took one of these pretty Maybeck homes and rebuilt it with new materials in a flat suburban lot, would it still be pretty, or would it be an abomination? Can art or meaningful design exist without its context? What do you think? And how unhealthy is it for your spirit to live in a place where that context is divorced from the thing itself? I'm not sure how long I'd last in a pretty, clean, fancy, pricey suburban mansion. Obviously I can't afford it, but if I could, I wonder what it would do to me, how it would change the way I see the outside world. Would I be so insulated that my politics and ethics would change?

It's an enormous simplification (and not even 100% correct) to say that our self-exile from the natural is the cause for our national malady - the fact that we disagree so strongly, that we can't see eye to eye, that we hate so many for so little - but perhaps it's part of the cause, and one of the symptoms. I'm not sure.

Los Gatos historic homes tour

We are reminded that this year's Los Gatos historic homes tour is coming up this weekend (Nov 3 & 4, 2007). A $30 ticket (a tax deductible donation to the History Museum of Los Gatos) gets you an all-day (10 am - 4 pm) tour of six outstanding historic houses in Los Gatos' historic district. If you live in the Bay Area, this is quite a treat; the small and very well maintained historic community may not be well-known outside of the Peninsula, but it should be - this neighborhood has some of the prettiest historic homes in Northern California.

Greene & Greene properties: a spreadsheet

I've been moving most of my text documents and spreadsheets over to the very helpful Google Docs (which also lets you create powerpoint-compatible presentations) - a great app that basically lets you have access to and share all your documents from wherever you are in the world - and just moved this database over. It's a list of all still-extant Greene & Greene properties, including some civic non-residential structures (walls, etc.); this is the same list I made this Platial map from. I hope it's useful to you ... If anyone is interested in helping me make a similar database/map for Maybeck, Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects of the movement, let me know.

Lavello Sinks - big, beautiful, stainless - and affordable


I'm in the process of remodeling my own kitchen, and found an enormous variety of prices for very similar items. Some sinks - European brands, mostly - were ridiculously expensive, when the exact same sink (in this case, an enormous 36" stainless steel apron-fron) was 1/2 the price or less from an American vendor. I took a closer look - the metal looked the same, it was the same weight and construction, and was probably built at the same factory by the same people!

You really do need to shop around, and don't let your contractor suggest an expensive item when you can find the exact same thing for a fraction of the price. I found my beautiful sink from Matt Roberts' Lavello Sinks and really couldn't be happier with the sink or the service. Matt is a commercial contractor and property manager who found a great source for sinks that would otherwise go for $1500; he realized that there was a huge need for affordable but good quality stainless sinks, and I'm sure that his business will thrive. His prices are far better than anything else I've found elsewhere, and the shipping was super-fast and very affordable. If every transaction and interaction I had to engage with over the course of this remodel was as pleasant, painless (and, again, affordable) as my interaction with Matt, it sure would make the whole process a lot easier!

Once my kitchen is done - I'm thinking we're about eight weeks away - I'll post pictures of the sink installation and the finished project. Until then, if you're looking for a pretty and modern stainless sink that works very well with an historic kitchen, check him out, and tell him I sent you!

What do you do when your house blows up?

33277844 You rebuild, of course. Dave Premer, of Huntington NY, rebuilt his 1830s farmhouse - leveled by a gas explosion and fire caused by a contractor who severed a gas line - as a very attractive Craftsman bungalow. Energy efficiency and other modern touches were important to Premer, whose 4 bed / 3 bath home should be ready next month, just about one month after the blast.

The story itself is not especially noteworthy, although we certainly wish Mr. Premer the best. It is interesting to note, though, that he was able to cut the energy footprint of this rather large house - at 2,600 square feet, it's almost double the side of my perfectly livable Mission Revival bungalow here in Sacramento - by half, without going over budget. You can indeed build "green" - as long as you have some sort of focus - without breaking the bank.

The bungalow concept with energy-saving features began to take shape in late February, after his insurance company, Allstate, referred several contractors for the project. Armed with a set of plans from a local architect, Premer selected a project bid from a national firm with a franchise in Brentwood. Mark Gunthner, owner of Paul Davis Restoration & Remodeling of Long Island, Huntington architect Pete Smith and Premer worked together to revise the original house plans.

The result will be a residence using about 50 percent less energy than a traditional home its size, about 2,600 square feet.

read the full article at Newsday

book review: Icons of 20th-Century Landscape Design

Ar070301099l2 My colleague Jay Dickenson was kind enough to review Katie Campbell's new book for Hewn & Hammered:

Katie Campbell, Icons of Twentieth-Century Landscape Design, Frances Lincoln Limited, Publisher, 2006

In her new work, Icons of Twentieth-Century Landscape Design, Katie Campbell presents significant landscape designs created during the past century that, she believes, challenged the accepted form, use, and meaning of created landscapes. Campbell describes traditional attitudes toward landscape design, at least before the twentieth century, as alternating between the poles of classical formality and romantic naturalism. Fittingly, each of the twenty-nine sites featured in Icons eschews this rigid classical/romantic dialectic.

As a whole, Campbell’s subjects share neither style, nor location, nor philosophy (though each of the works in Icons emerges from the Western tradition of landscape design). However, Campbell is able to group the sites found in Icons according to broad and sometimes overlapping themes, such as nature worship (Stockholm’s Woodland Cemetery, Wright’s Falling Water, or Portland’s Lovejoy Plaza) and environmentalism (Eggborough power plant); nationalism and anticolonialism (Brazil’s Ministry of Education and Mexican designer Luis Barragán’s Las Arboledas); artistic (the Barcelona Pavilion, Park Guëll, and Bentley Woods); and allegorical (the Kennedy Memorial and Salt Lake’s Spiral Jetty).

Yet the thrust of the book is not thematic. Campbell addresses each site individually through both written description and analysis and through visual imagery. Campbell’s writing is lively an accessible. And, in keeping with Icons’ “coffee table” format, the photographs and illustrations are colorful and, for the most part illustrative. My only complaint is that, in some instances, Icon lacks images sufficiently detailed to match Campbell’s precise analysis. For example, in describing Gaudí’s use of allegorical and ethnocentric imagery at Park Guëll, Campbell references “large stone spheres, suggestive of rosary beads,” and “a red and white band ... which suggests a cigar band — a whimsical reference to Guëll’s interests in the tobacco industry.” Yet, in scanning the full-page prints and inset photos that accompany the essay, one unfortunately finds neither cigar band nor rosary beads.

Campbell acknowledges that her selection of sites to include in Icons was necessarily idiosyncratic, and, certainly, Icons excludes other twentieth-century works that deserve to be called “icons” of landscape design. For this reason, the book is sure to provide grist for the expert to grind. Yet, Campbell’s writing is accessible and oftentimes general. The novice reader, unschooled in modern or contemporary art, philosophy, or design, will surely find Icons a richly educational read.

Detroit's Pewabic Pottery on Model D TV

Detroit's Model D TV aired this episode on this past September 25:

Pewabic Pottery is a living Detroit treasure and offers visitors a glimpse of a little known part of American history.

Founded in 1903 during the Arts & Crafts Movement, Pewabic is nationally renowned for its tile and pottery in unique glazes. Today it is a non-profit ceramic art education center, welcoming 70,000 visitors annually to its building on E. Jefferson in the Villages.

Producer-director Tom Hendrickson takes us on a visual tour in this week's episode of Model D TV. Watch it here or go to YouTube.

Ebay roundup, October 2007, part 1

This month, there are more knicknacks than you can shake even the fanciest stick at over on the mother of all online auction sites. The following aren't necessarily excellent deals, but everything here is at least interesting.

As usual, I'm avoiding everything labeled misleadingly (i.e., "Roycroft era," "Stickley style," "maybe Stickley?," etc. ... I'll have plenty more up next week and the week after.

EcoTop: a truly green countertop material that you can afford

Picture_2 Regular readers know that I'm not a fan of modern architecture, but that I love modern materials - especially those that aren't visibly avant-garde and can work in old homes just as well as new. That is, green materials - not just greenwashed products, but truly enviro-neutral or -friendly materials. One of my pet peeves is building materials that are recycled or recyclable - one or the other - but not both; many of these materials are lauded in the popular press for being "ecological," but aren't really.

Joel Klippert, a young man living just outside of Seattle, has really turned this specific market around. With a little help from some very talented research chemists and materials scientists, he's created the very  first recycled, renewable and fully-recyclable countertop material. EcoTop, a successor to his extremely successful PaperStone product, is 50% pulped bamboo paper fiber and 50% recycled wood - sometimes called "urban timber," the structural wood salvaged from demolished buildings. He's worked for years to find a non-petroleum resin that was UV resistant, so that he could avoid using only dark colors (the resin used in earlier materials had to be dark to avoid the yellowish cast that would develop over years of sun exposure). Now that he's found that and reliable sources for his two structural ingredients, EcoTop can hit the market - in a range of colors ranging from white to black, with an enormous range of shades of green, tan, red, brown and gray in between. In fact, Joel says he can match any PMS (Pantone Matching System) shade that a client can specify, if the order is large enough.

EcoTop is not only a beautiful, extremely durable and truly green material - right at home in any kitchen or bath, new or old - it's also really affordable and easy to install, competitive with natural stone and significantly less expensive than concrete installations. If anything, I think that materials like this are even more apropos in an Arts & Crafts home than stone or tile: their makers take their responsibility to the outside environment just as seriously as their responsibility to the inside of your home, something that is much more in line with the tenets of the movement than nonrecyclable materials which, no matter how green their production process, end up filling a landfill when you (or, in the case of something like EcoTop, which will last generations, when some far off future owners of your home) are done with them.

Note that this material is also available as an exterior cladding for large residential and commercial / industrial applications.

preservation status debated in Decatur

Paul Donsky has an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the seemingly endless conflict between preservationists and those who fear that historic status will restrict their ability to alter their own property:

Residents in the Oakhurst section of Decatur are proud of the tidy bungalows that line the neighborhood's streets.

Run-down homes, many dating to the early 20th century, have been painstakingly restored, preserving the clean lines and sturdy porches that typify the Craftsman bungalow style.

Some residents say the modest, boxy houses are such an integral part of the neighborhood's character that they must be protected, particularly at a time when "teardowns" and "McMansions" have become part of the real estate lexicon.

Now, three residents have filed papers asking Decatur's Historic Preservation Commission to make part of Oakhurst a historic district, which would prevent most of the older homes in the area from being knocked down. Several old homes have already been bulldozed, they say, and many others are at risk.

But others in the neighborhood say the protection would come at too high a price. They worry that new rules might prevent them from expanding their homes as their families grow, and they grouse about the prospect of having to get approval for run-of-the-mill home improvement projects.

read the entire article

recent Craftsman kitchen remodels on Flickr

My constant urging to check Flickr out for design ideas is probably getting pretty old at this point - sorry about that. Here are three attractive working kitchens, wholly or partially documented in photographs on Flickr:

Payson Denny Architects in Santa Monica, CA


Ken Payson is an architect in the Santa Monica area (his firm, Payson Denny, also has an office in Santa Fe NM) who mainly works on residential projects. While Payson Denny do build many modern / modernist homes, they have sometimes produced very attractive and historically-accurate Craftsman structures; they've also been responsible for some really stunning restorations and remodels of historic structures throughout the Los Angeles area.

We've created a small Flickr set with a few high-res images of these recent projects.

Home repairs: should you do them yourself, or get help?

504144683_622f84f514 reader Scott Gray sends in the following:

Tackling home repairs and improvements begins with making a very personal decision. Are you capable of doing the job, or do you need help? How much help do you need? Maybe another experienced do-it-yourselfer can provide assistance, or perhaps you can take a course at your a local college or night school and learn how to do the work. Or maybe not. Professional help is expensive, but in some cases, you have no choice but to suck it up and call a repairperson.

These are the things to consider:

  • Most repair work and maintenance jobs are a matter of understanding how things work and having the right tools to fix them.
  • Anyone can learn basic painting, plumbing, masonry, electrical or construction work, but for complex tasks, consider the specialized knowledge, testing equipment, and tools that might be needed. If it's a radio, television, photographic equipment, camera, computer, or the oil burner in your furnace that's on the fritz, you should call a qualified repairperson. Even if you have the courage to try and do the work, the cost of the testing equipment and specialized tools are probably prohibitive. If you want to rewire the house, there are safety issues involved and you really should consult a professional.
  • How accessible is the item to be repaired? If it's something that is built into the house and you have to tear the wall apart to get at it, you had better know exactly what you are going to do when you get there; otherwise call a professional right away. It's probably less expensive in the long run.

Home Repairs – How to Get Started
Can you really save money after laying down what seems like a fortune for tools and materials? Yes, you can.

  • Find a safe, protected work area, such as the garage, the basement, or an insulated and well-lit shed. You need to store tools and supplies and keep them dry and safe; and you need a place to saw, sand, and basically make a mess that won't interfere with the daily lives of those who share your home.
  • Begin by stocking your work area and tool kit with the basics: You need a hammer, various sizes and styles of screwdrivers (at least four or five), an adjustable wrench, a crosscut saw, a measuring tape, two or three sizes of paint brushes, spackle paste or fill, duct tape, silicone caulking, penetrating oil and machine oil, glue, sandpaper, electrical tape, masking tape, and an assortment of screws, anchors, nails, washers, and o-rings. And that's just the start. You will need to add other items as repair jobs and home improvement projects crop up.
  • Start with the easy stuff: replace the socket on that flickering lamp; paint a small room, replace the washer and the o-ring on that dripping tap; put together an easy-to-assemble doll house. Once you master simple repair tasks, you will have the confidence to try more complex jobs.

The Sky is the Limit

  • As you become familiar with hand tools and simple home repairs and improvements, you will develop a taste for more complex do-it-yourself projects and hunger after speed and efficiency. You'll realize that it's easy to improve the resale value of your home by adding a deck, but first, you need to add power tools to your tool arsenal. And you can afford them now because you no longer throw out things that don't work and don't have to pay for professional repairs.
  • Check out Bosch cordless drills for drilling holes and driving in screws, and do some comparison shopping like reading reviews and reports on models by Hitachi, Makita, Delta, DeWalt, Ridgid, Ryobi, etc.
  • Don't think about adding crown molding to your house without investing in a sliding miter saw, and again, check major brands and read reviews before you buy.

For almost every hand tool there is a power tool, and you will love them all. And before you know it, you'll be able to assemble a doll house in no time at all.

Scott Gray is currently a home improvement handyman enthusiast and freelance writer who enjoys providing tips to consumers who are in the market for hand and power tools like compound miter saws.

photo by Andrew Johnson

Lead-based paint and real estate: how does it affect you?

Tip7 Reader and regular contributor Joel McDonald - a real estate professional who frequently writes on issues important to those considering buying, remodeling or restoring an older home - submits the following:

Even though lead-based paint has been outlawed for a long time, it is still a very real issue for both homeowners and real estate agents. In 1992, the Housing and Community Development Act made it so that seller of real estate had to disclose potential lead-based paint hazards to the purchaser at the time of sale.  Lead was used as a paint additive for nearly 125 years before it was linked to health problems around 1978.  That year, it was determined that lead would not be added to paint as an additive any longer. Any home that was built prior to 1978 could potentially have a lead-based paint problem.

The Hazards of Lead-Based Paint
The presence of lead-based paint in a home environment can lead to lead poisoning.  Children under the age of six run the greatest risk of developing lead poisoning from lead-based paint because young, growing bodies absorb many of the minerals that they come into contact with, whether it is much needed calcium or very dangerous lead.  Continuously high levels of lead in the body can lead to brain damage, behavior problems, hearing problems, and damage to the nervous system.  These problems can occur in both adults and children, and additionally in children, normal growth can be impaired.

Any home built prior to 1978 that has cracked, peeling, or chipping paint should be treated as a potential hazard and should be repaired immediately. If paint containing lead was used around the window or door frames in the home, the process of opening and closing these items may be creating a surprisingly large amount of dust containing lead. This dust is potentially hazardous and can be difficult to get rid of.  Vacuuming, sweeping, and dusting can cause the lead dust to reenter the air and dust will be kicked up every time you take a step within the home. The dust can also be tracked outside where it will contaminate the soil around the home.

Does Your Home Have a Lead-Based Paint Problem?
In order to discover whether your home has a lead-based paint problem, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that every home built prior to 1978 receive a paint inspection conducted by a trained professional. A paint inspection will let the homeowner know the lead content of every painted surface in the home and will uncover any areas or sources of serious lead exposure.

Although there are kits available commercially that allow the homeowner to conduct the testing on their own, the EPA recommends an inspection conducted by a professional inspector to uncover any dangerous areas that may be overlooked by the untrained eye. Some states have very specific rules and regulations dealing with the discovery and remedy of a lead-based paint issue, and the professional inspectors will be able to advise the homeowner of these rules and let them know the next step in the process of removing lead-based paint from their home.

Article contributed by Colorado's Fort Collins real estate service, Automated Homefinder.

image courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

a visit to the Lodge at Torrey Pines

Given that the New York Times recently opened up their archives, I've been spending lots of time looking for interesting A&C related articles. Just found this gem by Barbara Lazear Ascher, dated September 2002. The first few paragraphs are below; visit the NYTimes site to see the full article.

I'm driving down a twisting, clinker-brick driveway banked by boulders, wildflowers and rare Torrey pines. Ahead is a green-stained, cedar-shingled building, which from my East Coast perspective resembles an Adirondack lodge. Then I am reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie houses with their celebration of the horizontal line. An outward sweep of unpainted, broad roof overhangs, projecting outriggers, and rafter tails appear to dance with the light.

This isn't Surfin' Safari, Southern California. John Ruskin, William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh have come to La Jolla.

I'd heard about the recently opened Lodge at Torrey Pines from my stepdaughter in San Diego. Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and Torrey Pines State Reserve by the 18th green of the South Course of the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course, the hotel is a result of its owner William Evans's love affair with California's Arts and Crafts Movement.

I'm curious how a hotelier in the Era of Asphalt will interpret the movement's reverence for nature and craftsmanship. How will he tip his hat to Ruskin, whose espousal of the meditative and redemptive qualities of crafting and living in beautiful surroundings inspired the movement in England? And how is it possible to integrate into a 175-room hotel the intimate details of Mr. Evans's inspiration, the 1907 Blacker and 1908 Gamble Houses designed by his idols, the Pasadena architects Charles and Henry Greene?

I drive beneath the port-cochere composed of massive timbers stacked horizontally on one another like a bird's wing feathers, which impart an ironic sense of lightness, as though the entire lodge could be carried skyward on these outstretched wings.

photo of the Torrey Pines Lodge courtesy of Flickr user John Koss