Monthly Archives: November 2010

Home Style Gift Ideas

An Early Holiday Hunt, from Coasters to Chicken Coops

The news that some stores are opening at 3:00 am on the day after Thanksgiving has made me a little panicky, so here are some early and  random design-oriented gift suggestions. I’m a big fan of personalized gifts, like luggage tags that incorporate your own imagery (a faster way to distinguish one black bag from another on the carousel)…they feed my obsession with stones, thanks to the easy upload process on Shutterfly:

Coasters are another item that shows off your eye for design. Here’s what I did with Houseplans.com Chief of Design Nick Lee’s elevations for the house we’re building in Sonoma (Ranch House Plan 508-1):

(This view is from my Shutterfly project page.) A nice way to dream about the house you’re hoping to build as you sip that holiday cocktail.

Or to continue the agricultural theme of the house, how about a prefab chicken coop. The subject seems to be gaining in popularity at the moment, in any case. I like this A-frame example, which I found on renest.com, an interesting shopping guide to green materials:

Designed to house two chickens, the simple clarity of the structure is appealing. It’s the Eco Coop by Rentachook and uses primarily recycled materials. Friends just remodeled their kitchen and that made me look for an appropriate “warming” present so at Placewares I found Marimekko oven mits. One with a floral pattern:

The other more abstract:

Speaking of house presents, consider an ornament, like this globe. It seems an obvious idea to dangle the world on a string but this version seems particularly elegant:

And why not give your friends and relatives a planet anyway! This example is one of several from the shop at the extraordinary Museum of New Mexico Foundation. I also tend to check the offerings at Terrestra and this time I found an eye-catching, wave-like wine rack.

Something to help me surf the holiday season, perhaps…

Bridges and Starter Homes

Architect for all Reasons

Donald MacDonald is a renaissance man: architect, illustrator, bridge design consultant, and writer. He designed the tollbooths for the Golden Gate Bridge and is consulting architect for the new Eastern Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. His most recent book, written with Ira Nadel, Golden Gate Bridge: History and Design of an Icon, (Chronicle) is full of fascinating drawings like this one

showing color schemes for the towers proposed by the US Air Force and the US Navy (apparently the Air Force wanted orange and white stripes to make the towers more visible to aircraft — looks to me like the bridge in pajamas), and this one comparing

tower heights. The book is a fun read, especially in the section on toll collecting: “Collectors have been handed everything from dead fish to live kittens, pizzas, fruit, and even loaded guns. Drivers have been proffered money in their teeth, behind their ears, and between their toes.” All this bridge banter is simply to demonstrate how multi-talented is the architect of our most recent exclusive house plans.  Donald MacDonald is especially interested in the small home for the first time builder/buyer and has evolved a range of inventive stock plans over the years. Here’s his  Starter Home Plan 511-1.

It’s a tiny gabled box — a deftly designed micro cottage of 238 square feet.


The view below shows a small table at the center of the space;  a sofa faces the fireplace. It’s basically a kitchen/living studio with bathroom and closet along one side. A sleeping loft is above. Donald told me he wanted to make it straightforward enough that a do-it-yourselfer could build it. Innovation is in the unit’s expansion potential. By adding similar units, like this,

with one unit sliding by another to make a series of small courtyards, you can create a house for a variety of site conditions. This plan is also illustrated in another book by MacDonald: Democratic Architecture: Practical Solutions to Today’s Housing Crisis (Whitney Library of Design).

MacDonald’s Cottage Plan 511-2 is somewhat larger — at 400 square feet — and  two stories.

Various facade treatments are possible. This one shows a wood grid — a modern twist on the half-timbered look. There are two cottage variations;

one with garage, living area/ kitchen on the ground floor and two bedrooms above; the other with two bedrooms on the ground floor and living area/kitchen above.

The high ceiling makes the upstairs living room feel light and airy.

Plan 511-3 is a very slender row house.

With these designs Donald works with variations on very simple forms — I would call them his Monopoly row house series  — and shows how each plan can provide comfort and character on a very small lot. No suspension spans here — instead, bridges to better living. Welcome, Donald MacDonald!

Fireplace Chat

Warmth Without Wood

In many areas wood burning fireplaces are prohibited in new construction because particulate-heavy smoke adds to air pollution — so what are the modern alternatives? We want a  sleek contemporary design for the living room of the ranch house Houseplans.com is building in Sonoma, California. Ecosmart, for example, makes a range of portable units that burn denatured ethanol, a liquid fuel made from fermenting the sugar and starch components of plant by-products such as sugarcane and grain, using yeast. I have mentioned them before; this is one called Aspect.

Because the flame does not produce smoke and burns at a relatively low temperature (compared to wood) no flue or vent is required so all the heat from the burner remains in the room. The stainless steel box comes fully assembled.  I saw one installed in the guest room/home office of a new townhouse in

San Francisco’s new Presidio Landmark LEED-certified townhouses recently (shown at left) and it seemed a good choice for the compact space. I happen to like the portability and geometry of such an appliance but one person told me that to her it looked a lot a like a suitcase…(well it’s definitely a way to pack warmly!) Such units retail for a round $6,000. It could sit on the room-wide hearth that’s to be the focal point of our living room. Or could it? Take a look at these sketches of the fireplace wall by architect Nicholas Lee.

This one shows a built-in fireplace on a cantilevered hearth.

Here’s one that’s framed on all four sides and floats over the hearth, like a painting.

I think a portable ventless fireplace would look too temporary in this situation, so I guess I would have to agree with the suitcase comment. An alternative that we are now considering is a vented gas unit, like this one — the Solace, from the Marquis Collection by Kingsman.

But we want it to rest flush with the concrete hearth — that is, with the floor of the firebox resting on the hearth so the opening is framed on only three sides, like Nick’s first sketch — and we want a flat front, which will have to be in metal or plaster or some other non-combustible material. The flue will either be buried in the wall or project slightly from it. Our estimate for the fireplace with gas line, venting flue, including the concrete hearth, is around $7,000 so we think this might be a better fit for us. What do you think?

Flexible Shelves and Forward Thinking

Boxing Days

It is a truism that limitation breeds invention, especially in the field of design. Take the ordinary bookshelf, for example. Industrial designer Eric Pfeiffer of PfeifferLab has re-thought it as a set of six different-sized, sturdy, well-constructed wood frames that you can rearrange to create a sideboard, bookcase, bedside tables, or media storage wall.

“The set encourages interaction and lets you bring your own personality to the product,” according to Eric.  It shows just how flexible and adaptable the simple box can be: the humble orange crate transformed. Two of the boxes have two compartments; the rest are single boxes.

They’re all  just very large toy building blocks after all — no wonder I like them! They are  the first product from a new company founded by Eric, and Steve Piccus, called The Utility Collective. The idea is to bring intelligent, well-made products to market and share how they are designed and made. Here’s a sequence from TUC’s website showing the construction process for each box, from cut wood panels to joinery, clamping, and sanding.

All TUC products are made in the US with sustainable materials. I like their passion for the utility, function, and craftsmanship of everyday objects and for sharing the stories about their design and construction. TUC’s next introduction, to be ready by Thanksgiving, is something eye-catching and useful for your home office: a whale of a desk accessory.

It gives new meaning to “catch of the day.” Now I would like to know what the inspiration for this object was — a recent rereading of Moby Dick? The ocean of learning that lies between the pencil holder and the post-it note?

Doing Good Works

Speaking of thinking inside and outside the box, I recommend a new book about donated imagination and expertise: The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients (published by Metropolis Books, 2010, which is part of Metropolis Magazine).

It’s edited by John Cary and Public Architecture, which is an organization that puts the resources of architecture in the service of the public interest.  The projects range from a sculptural tool shed/shelter

by Cast Architecture for the Interbay P-Patch Community Garden in Seattle, Washington to a sleek minimalist and lens-like arts studio addition by Gray Organschi Architecture

for the Calvin Hill Day Care Center in New Haven, Connecticut. The book itself was a pro bono project designed by the well-known graphics and branding firm Pentagram. These projects — and the descriptions by the architects and their non-profit clients — vividly show how high quality design improves lives. In a sense I guess Pro Bono really means building outside the box.