Monthly Archives: December 2011

Grab Bars and Other Modern Metaphors

Hold On Tight for the New Year

My sister-in-law, who is an architect, recently led a workshop on the concept of accessibility for a design studio in the Middle East, which got me thinking, not only about grab bars but also about things that seize the imagination and sometimes cross boundaries. Practicality first: I think accessible designs — from grab bars to barrier-free elements like wheelchair compatible counters — should be elegant as well as useful. They do not need to look cumbersome, institutional, or like an afterthought. Some product manufacturers and designers know this and are showing how to combine comfort and style, especially in the bathroom and kitchen. For example, plumbing fixture manufacturer Moen has produced a handsome grab bar that incorporates a toilet roll holder into a single sleek curve.

Another grab bar is seamlessly integrated into a tray for soap and sponges (both

photos courtesy Moen). This is just common sense: good design is about solving problems gracefully, not to mention keeping things (and people) in balance. And even a Cirque de Soleil acrobat might need a steadying hand now and then, especially if she or he slips on the body wash. (Of course you need to screw all grab bars and related elements into the wall studs.) Jaclo’s new slotted channel drain

gate makes it possible to step or roll across the threshold and into the shower unimpeded. For the kitchen, Broan has introduced an under-cabinet range hood — their

Evolution QP3 Series —  with an optional hand-held remote allowing you to control the lights and fan without reaching up, which might be difficult or impossible if you’re in a wheelchair. On a broader scale, we have an expanding collection of plans designed for accessibility, such as the Inspired In-Law Cottage Plan 507-1 by Larson Shores Architects, which includes a shallow ramp to

the entry deck, as well as as a roll-in shower and a hallway handrail that does double duty as a picture rail.

Now what about intellectual grab bars — design ideas that seize the imagination and cross boundaries or even twist away to set you off balance? One definition of Modernism – that “form ever follows function” in Louis Sullivan’s famous phrase — has captivated architects for more than a century. Functionalist elements like the open plan, window walls, and seamless transitions between inside and outside are all aspects of Modernism and remain hugely seductive and useful elements for shaping a home. You can see a particularly elegant, if menacing illustration of these ideas in the Miesian glass box on the cliff in the recently released film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher (the American version), which I saw last week. The house is real, according to Mark Lamster of the Design Observer, and it’s the Villa

Abbortkroken in Overby, Sweden by Jon Robert Nillson, Architect (photo courtesy Design Observer). It’s very beautiful. But what a cinematic metaphor and what a set-up! In the movie the utterly transparent living areas of the house — white walls and modern furniture and art, minimalist kitchen island, heavy glass sliding doors — and the apparent good will of the owner, Martin Vanger, are used to hide a gruesome secret, which I won’t divulge here. It’s a classic bait and switch and very well done. Accessibility? NOT! But it certainly grabbed my attention! It also made me struggle to think of an example where a modern house was used as a metaphor (grab bar) for good, or at least hope. (This could be a game.) All I could come up with was the marvelous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Walker house on the beach at Carmel, California, completed in the early 1950s and used as the home of a newly reunited couple in the melodramatic 1959 film A Summer Place, starring Dorothy McGuire, Troy Donahue, and Sandra Dee (image below courtesy Gutbrain Records).

A key line deftly capturing this home’s redemptive quality (courtesy The Internet Movie Database) is read by the Dorothy McGuire character: “We live in a glass house — we’re not throwing any stones.” Now that sounds like accessibility to me, and a good start for the year ahead. May it be the best yet.




Dream Cabins and Cabin Dreams

Getaway Architecture

Now, during the holiday week, is a good time to dream about rest and relaxation in your own rural getaway. So here’s a short list of architecturally suggestive cabins.

One. The prefab in the trees by Swedish firm Cyrén & Cyrén gives new meaning

to lodging, not to mention lodge-pole pines. It’s a bedroom unit in the Tree Hotel, located in Harrads, near Sweden’s Lule River, and looks like it came from a galaxy far far away (photo above courtesy Inhabitat, photo below courtesy Dezeen). A catwalk leads to the

rooftop entrance (one of the other suspended rooms is a mirror cube). Improbable and delightful — I want to go there! Presumably a gentle breeze will rock you to sleep, but if you hear a chain saw it may be time to check out.

Two. Continuing the rustic theme, here’s a cabin designed for Hans Liberg by Piet Hein Eek that uses tree trunks as a way of

playing with geometry: more of a log box than a log cabin. In full camouflage mode (the wood covers a prefab plastic and steel frame) with the shutters down, the

logs pile up and the hut disappears — well, almost. “Ceci n’est pas un woodpile,” as Duchamp might say. I like the way the design takes the idea of the duck blind and runs with it (quite far away!). Images courtesy Andrew Michler on Inhabitat and also Dornob. For more images see Thomas Mayer Archive.

Three. Architect David Coleman describes his Hill House in Winthrop, Washington as a “20 ‘ wide x 115′

long stepped platform… sited on a long, narrow, rocky hillside…it reads as a habitable landscape” (photos courtesy David Coleman). I like the way it culminates in the deck with the round fire

pit defined by gabion (rock filled cages) walls on the master suite end, and with another deck and more gabions on the living room end, as if the structure is growing out of or into the land itself (photo courtesy Mocoloco.) This simple serene progression from public to private and vice versa is evocative: home as a short architectural hike…

Four. This urbane floating home on Seattle’s Lake Union by Vandeventer & Carlander Architects puts the main entertaining spaces — organized as a series of framed openings within an elegant

box — on the upper level. The living room veranda is carved out of the rectangular volume to sharpen sight lines across the water. It also cantilevers over the lower floor to shelter the deck off the master bedroom. The design shows how to swim with geometry (photo courtesy Karmatrendz).

Five. “Packed But Never Shipped” might be a good name for this clever cabin by Olson Kundig Architects.

When the window flaps — resembling warehouse pallets — are down they form the surrounding deck platforms so the tiny structure can expand (images courtesy Olson Kundig). When the vacation ends, the platforms fold up for security and the house is effectively crated, to await the next weekend when it can be unpacked and played with again. Take care of your toys and they will last longer!

These design approaches appeal to me because they are all about serious play: taking inspiration from settings, structure, and materials to fashion something unique and memorable. Use them — along with the many serious and seriously playful schemes in our Cottage Plans Collection and One Bedroom Plans Collection, like 479-1 by architects Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso (below)

or 517-1 by architect Jonathan Feldman (below);

or 452-2 by architect David Wright (below)

to help you jump start your own getaway cabin dreams. (When you browse these collections sort by “newest plans” to see our latest designs.) Here’s to the comfort and joy of architectural invention.

Holiday Bookshelf: On Kitchens, Salvage, Edward Durell Stone

Supporting Ideas

Before I recommend some home design-related books for your last-minute gift list, let’s consider the bookshelf that will hold those new tomes. Thanks to a cool website called The Design Vote, I came across a poetic version: two artworks by Mike & Maike (produced and sold by an innovative design company called Blankblank) that comment on the influence of words and ideas. Each is a cluster of books on a single theme notched into a shelf that’s a piece of reclaimed hardwood.  One, called “Juxtaposition: Religion” holds religious tracts, including the Bible, Qur’an, and Tao Te Ching (according to the company the art piece is one of twelve things Gwyneth Paltrow can’t live without).

The other,  “Juxtaposition: Power” holds political treatises, from Plato’s

Republic to The Communist Manifesto. By bringing such volumes together and scribing slots for them into the wood so that they all sit at the same level, the artist makes us think about the influence of each book, their competition with each other, and how juxtaposition is important in stimulating curiosity and the imagination itself. The fact that each book has its specific (literal?) slot is also suggestive –

things can get messy — and interesting — when ideas move off the page (out of the slots we invent for them) and into the world at large (a land of many suppositions and juxtapositions).

On a somewhat more practical level, what’s a good shelf that’s flexible enough for changing needs and expanding collections? We used the infinitely adjustable Rakks system of extruded aluminum shelf supports (photo courtesy Rakks),

in the laundry and closets of our Online Ranch House, Plan 508-1 (detail below). The brackets notch into the vertical strips at any point so shelves can be placed

at whatever level you wish. We’ll be using the same system in our Online Country House, Plan 508-2, which is now under construction.

Three New Design Books

Counter Space, by Juliet Kinchin with Aidan O’Connor, accompanied the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition on design and the modern kitchen – shown below – and offers a fascinating look at how

architects, product designers, and artists re-imagined the kitchen in the 20th century. For some, such as Viennese architect Grete Schutte-Lohotzky,

it was a kind of laboratory where efficiency, cleanliness, and storage became standard elements. The photo shows the MOMA exhibition replica of her 1926-27 “Frankfurt Kitchen” for affordable public housing. MOMA started collecting stylish kitchen implements in the mid 1930s. Ideas for “Kitchens of Tomorrow” proliferated during World War II. Tupperware appeared in 1958. Television writers and film directors used the kitchen to communicate harmony or chaos. In short, it’s a huge subject – this book just scratches the surface – or should I say, scrubs the sink.

Salvage is always of interest but especially during a difficult economy, so I was drawn to Salvage Secrets by Joanne Palmisano (W. W. Norton & Co.),

which offers a wealth of ideas for using old objects and materials in new ways. She includes a helpful lexicon — for example, recycled refers to items made from salvaged materials whose basic structure has been changed and repurposed means  items reused in a different area of the home or used in a different way — like the antique swing doors adapted as sliders, shown below.

Chapters are on wood, glass, metal, stone/concrete/brick/ceramics, lighting, where to find salvage outlets (a countrywide listing is included), and design concepts. The book shows the wide range of salvageable material available and what to do with it.

Edward Durell Stone was one of the most influential yet least appreciated modern architects. His work was uneven but fascinating. The excellent and exhaustive new biography by his son, architect Hicks Stone (Rizzoli, publisher)

lucidly describes the man, his work, and his contradictions. An abstract modernist, he was strongly influenced by pattern and texture. He developed a form of ornamental grillwork — beginning during his participation in the design of Radio City Music Hall during the 1930s — that culminated in his famous American Embassy in New Delhi,

completed in 1959 (image above courtesy David Cobb Craig blog; below, courtesy Goat Hill Resorts).

Hicks writes that here “Stone had essentially taken a glass building and wrapped it with ornamental screen block.” The interior courtyard is an elegant water garden, expressing — with the screens — not just connections to Indian landmarks like the Taj Mahal, but also to Stone’s lifelong interest in unifying indoor and outdoor space (photo below courtesy Bustler.net).

Stone later used similar concrete block grills on other commissions and then other architects and designers copied the idea and it became a cliché-victim of its own success. (I remember wondering about such screens on dental offices and shopping malls as a boy.) Stone rose from poverty to become one of the country’s most successful architects who counted Eero Saarinen, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and other visionaries among his friends. He also designed some of the earliest dramatically modern American residences,

like the Mandel house at Mt. Kisco, New York, of 1935, with its iconic curving

glass block dining room (photos courtesy Arch News Now). And yet he had a lifelong drinking problem that no doubt lead to his multiple marriages, poorly managed office, and work that occasionally verged on the simplistic and banal. The story brings an important but largely forgotten architect, and architectural culture, back to life. It turns out Stone isn’t easy to pigeonhole — or slip into a notch on a book shelf.

Ice Cube’s Take on the Eames House, etc.

Architectural Raps and Other Design Gifts

It’s not every day that you hear a rapper talk about architecture, let alone a mid-century modern design icon like the Eames house in Pacific Palisades, California of 1949. But that’s what Ice Cube does, deftly and with precision, in a brief new online video (see The Daily Beast and The New York Times) about husband-and-wife industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames (image below, courtesy NYTimes).

A replica of the living room, shown below courtesy F8daily, is in the current “Living In A Modern Way”exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — part of the huge cultural collaboration across LA called Pacific Standard Time — and prompted the rapper’s review.

In the video, Ice Cube, who studied architectural drafting before becoming a rapper, says that growing up in South Central LA you learned to “use what you’ve got and make the most of it” then walks into Charles’ and Ray’s famous house made of prefabricated parts, sits down in their iconic lounge chair and praises their resourcefulness with everyday materials, how “they were doing mash-up before mash-up even existed,” and the way their house “made structure and nature one.” That’s one of the best descriptions of the Eames approach that I have heard.

A longer but equally interesting discussion of Eamesian design and how they created a studio full of talented designers who worked around the clock in order “to make the best for the most for the least” can be found in the fascinating new documentary film Eames: The Architect and The Painter by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey. Charles was trained as an architect; Ray as a painter. The film makes one realize that with their omniverous curiosity about the world and how to represent it — especially in a film like Powers of Ten explaining the notion of scale — Charles and Ray were much more than chair designers: they were Googlers before Google.

If 20th century modernism is your gift-giving sweet spot, browse the Eames Gallery for a variety of design-oriented stocking stuffers,

from reproductions of the folk art black bird that resided in their living room

to coffee mugs patterned after some of their fabric designs.

The Eames House was part of the Case Study House Program sponsored by Arts + Architecture magazine, which expressed an avant-garde modernist esthetic in its layouts and covers as well as subject matter. The magazine is no longer in print but you can purchase cover prints like these –

the one on the left shows biomorphic paintings by Ray Eames — and other so-called “retro-edge” items like graphic tees from the Arts & Architecture Collection during their holiday sale.

For your holiday bookshelf: a new volume on a glass and steel house by architect Thomas Phifer that has a distinctive Case Study feel, though built recently by former museum director Tom Armstrong (who ran several institutions including the Whitney in New York and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh),

is unusual in that it describes the design and building process in the client’s own words (image courtesy The Quantuck Lane Press). The previous house on the site had burned, which gave Armstrong the opportunity to realize a long-held dream to create a way to live in a garden surrounded by modern art.

(photo courtesy Thomas Phifer and Partners). He wanted landscape, house, furniture, paintings, and sculpture to be part of a single architectural composition — like a latter day reinterpretation of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, shown below.

(The Glass House was built at the same time as the Eames house, but on the other side of the continent; photo by Paul Warchol, courtesy The Glass House).

The program for the Armstrong house seems a little self centered to me — with only one bedroom there is no room for the Armstrong’s children or grandchildren but but lots of space for modern paintings and sculpture — yet the story is fascinating because Armstrong tells how he was able to achieve  his vision. He died earlier this year so this book is a poignant record of an architectural dream: his home was his last museum.

If books aren’t enough, you can browse historic modern layouts like our Plan 529-1, which is Case Study House #3 by Wurster & Bernardi, 

with it’s rear elevation opening to a private outdoor world; or Eames-inspired designs by architect Gregory La Vardera, such as Plan 431-5

with it’s bright, loft-like two-story living room. As Ice Cube says in his Eames video: “You always gotta have a plan.”

Ice Cube’s Video Celebrating the Eames






Plant Globes, Wrightian Doormats, and Other Holiday Ideas

Random Access Gift Online Update Tips (or RAGOUT)

Now that we’re in December it’s time to browse the i-cloud for holiday present possibilities, so here’s a quick website round-up. To set the mood: seasonal items from Flora Grubb Gardens online shop, an unusual design-oriented nursery in San Francisco (and mentioned in a previous post) famous for their vertical wall plantings. The hanging globe containing tillandsias — so-called air plants that need no soil (a species of epiphytes and part of the Bromeliad family) –

caught my eye for its elegant simplicity. And it’s growing. Another ingenious product is the succulent ornament consisting of a special hanger

for one plant. Living ornaments for living trees! Speaking of succulents, Flora Grubb now offers a do-it-yourself kit to help you approximate their impressive succulent wall gardens, like this one

Here’s the tray that holds all the plants.

(Previous photos courtesy Flora Grubb Gardens.) If you plan to be in the San Francisco Bay Area during the holidays this

place is worth a visit — and there’s even a cafe so you can sip while you search. I photographed the wall of succulent wreaths when I visited last week.

To continue the nature/diy approach, what about drink coasters made from  your own images downloaded from the computer?

I used my photos of things like — naturally, for me, chiseled granite  — and they seemed to work well. I ordered the photo coasters from Shutterfly.

Candles are an easy and festive present but it can be difficult to find simple ones.

I found these slender vividly-hued, 13-inch tall, dripless tapers at Terrestra, a store of well-curated modern objects.

Industrial designer Eric Pfeiffer over at The Utility Cooperative continues to produce innovative furniture. His most recent introduction is the series of  memorably monikered “Cross Dressers,”

so-named because each bureau or end table rests on crossed legs. The handsome contemporary units are made of hand-selected veneers mounted to formaldehyde-free plywood panels. 

If you have followed this blog you know my fixation with architectural toy blocks. I recently found other sources for the artificial stone Anchor blocks, made in Germany: Fatbraintoys offers a basic set of the blocks, which can build a small Medieval 

gateway like this (photo courtesy Ankerstein, the key Anchor Stone Building Block site in Germany). The sets are numbered and provide plans for larger and larger structures, from houses to castles. The Toy House website offers a variety of sets, explains the building sequence, and provides resources for the surprisingly large and devoted world of Anchor Block aficionados (that includes — as you would expect — an associate professor of Medieval History at the University of Chicago.)

Ever since boyhood when my mother gave me a set of Swiss Naef blocks I have loved these Bauhaus-influenced smooth wood elements. A new set is called Tectus and

is perfect for building the odd Miesian apartment house.

Toy block-talk makes me think of Frank Lloyd Wright (his mother gave him Froebel blocks — maybe I just got the wrong set…). The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust has a large and exciting new website — ShopWright — devoted to products inspired by Wright, from textile block planters to Fallingwater T-shirts. I was intrigued by the nightlight

based on a geometric railing design from the Rookery in Chicago (the building was designed by Burnham & Root, then remodeled by Wright) and by the doormat

inspired by the glazing pattern in Wright’s famous Robie house, also in Chicago. The tough coir fibers are anchored in black rubber.

So now that you know where to get the doormat, how about a house plan like

Design 530-2 from Classic Colonial Homes. Why not put something substantial under the tree.