Monthly Archives: January 2012

Praise and Parody for the Minimalist Home

Nature Abhors a Vacuum Cleaner, or Maybe Not

I’m always drawn to the orderly, spare, modern designs you see in glossy home magazines and books. But my house is not so spare and not everything is in its place. I’m kind of a pack rat as my wife — and office mates — will tell you. I go through periodic bouts of frenzied cleaning but the tide of newspapers, magazines, and books rises regularly. So I was pleased to come across the ingenious new book by Molly Jane Quinn and Jenna Talbott aptly titled It’s Lonely in The Modern World (Chronicle, 2011), which is an ironic primer on how to navigate the field of architectural minimalism.

These are the people who started the clever blog Unhappy Hipsters, which takes a wry look at ambitiously artful modern homes like this one and the way they’re

portrayed, where the individuals on the stoop seem quite unaware of what’s behind them (or perhaps it’s the elephant on the deck; image courtesy ifound). In these sorts of houses messy realities — like the need for windows and daylight, for example — never intrude, especially in architectural magazines. But spoofs are the sign of a publication’s success. (Remember the Tolkien parody Bored of the Rings by the Harvard Lampoon, and the one of Sunset magazine with a photo of a family picnicking in front of a nuclear reactor.) So I started looking around for ways to be both hip and realistic — i.e hide the clutter in sleek and elegant ways —  like this handsome storage bench from Herman Miller. It would help with all the bags

and blankets at the bottom of our bed. Or maybe we just need a new bed frame that incorporates storage drawers, like this version from Bluedot, which

streamlines a storage idea that was popular in the 1960s and 70s. Then what about a place for charging cameras, iphones and ipads? Bludot’s “Juice box” is

a clever solution in the way it hides the plugs and keeps the wires under control (image courtesy Mashable). This loft bedroom by Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture includes an

especially clever stair/bureau with pull-out storage drawers — though I would

probably need a railing, and I notice that the books seem to be piling up…

So in the end I confess I am impossibly conflicted because I am a huge fan of spareness and the uncluttered look and am always promoting it, while only rarely achieving it myself. Our Plan 491-2 by Braxton Werner and Paul Field

might be one answer to my dilemma — it’s uncluttered but not severe, there is storage, and pillows are scattered on the floor!

Mies, Modernism, and the Accent Wall

Brno: Above and Beyond

Villa Tugendhat, the famous house built in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1930 (now the Czech Republic) for textile manufacturer Fritz Tugendhat and his wife Grete and designed by architect Mies van der Rohe, opens for tours after restoration (photo courtesy Great Buildings.com).

The Tugendhats fled the Nazis in 1938 and after a complex history it is now owned by the city of Brno. I want to visit someday! Until then, let’s look at how this icon of modernism treated house design not as a box but as a series of

interpenetrating and overlapping spaces and planes. What a departure it was

and is! Here’s a view of the neighborhood. In the upper aerial photo see how the floors appear carved out of a large rectangular volume; sections even seem to  float. The street level entry with bedrooms is at the top; living, dining, study, kitchen occupy the middle; utility spaces are at ground level. Roof decks, window walls, even the terrace stair read as voids in, or extensions of, the elemental geometry. Views of the living room from the 1930s show how Mies treated walls,

whether sold or transparent, not as fixed boundaries but as shifting planes (though they are in fact fixed) that give shape and character to what is essentially an infinite extension of space from inside to outside.  The living room window wall takes the idea of uniting interior and exterior a step further: an electric motor allows it to disappear into the floor. (These elegant panels are the precursors to the sliding partitions of countless modern homes and, less nobly, convention hotels.) Here ornament is no longer something applied but must be inherent in the luxurious materials used — onyx, Macassar ebony, rosewood,

polished metal — as shown in a recent photograph of part of the living area and the curving dining room wall (courtesy Great Buildings.com). According to the villa’s website the Tugendhats were decidedly forward-thinking and must have been perfect clients for Mies. Grete recalled: “I truly longed for a modern spacious house with clear and simple shapes. My husband was horrified by the idea of having rooms full of objects and cloths as he had known from childhood.” The Mies-designed Brno chairs, seen in the dining room above, and armchairs,

like the one above, added to the spacious uncluttered effect. These chairs remain popular today and even spark further inventiveness, as in the recent art piece by

Fernanda Fragateiro, which cleverly comments on the creative relationship between Mies and his interior designer collaborator and erstwhile mistress Lilly Reich: sort of a love seat with stretch marks! (photo courtesy Frieze magazine.) For more on the house and its restoration see Architectural Record.

Today many architects and designers continue to interpret and expand upon aspects of a Misian esthetic, as Braxton Werner and Paul Field do in Plan 491-6,

with the stone wall that extends through glass to shape a patio, and in Plan 491-5

where the headboard becomes the storage wall. Here the element that defines the room is what one might call a multi-functional accent wall.

The Tugendhat house remains a remarkable symbol of the 20th century. Bravo to Brno for bringing it back to life. In a recent novel — The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer (Other Press, 2009), which uses the Tugendhat house and its glass living room as the key setting, architect-protagonist Rainer von Abt says: “Architects are people who build walls and floors and roofs. I capture and enclose space within.” I’ll let you know how everything turns out.


Paint Palettes New and Old

Hues and Dyes

I just played the online Color Sense Game by Voice of Color from Porter Paints (part of PPG Paints). It’s a kind of test – your answers to a range of questions like “pick 5 words that inspire you” (out of a given list), or “where would you feel most at home?”(you select one image out of a wide range), or “what animal would you be?” (again from a range of pictures) —  result in your own personal paint palette. It seemed fairly accurate in my case; that is, I liked the color range that my answers produced.

Apparently I’m “Al Fresco” – or is that the brother of Bill Fresco. Apparently it means that I like green tones. You’ll note that there is a little tab on the upper right corner that says “Your Secondary Harmony Family” (this will be news to my wife — and me too, come to think of it!).

My secondary family turns out to be the Whites…It all sounds a little corny, but I think it can help you figure out what colors are meaningful to you. Painter beware, however because if you play again and change one or two answers you may get a very different set of colors…After I switched from tiger to eagle

my secondary harmony family became Desert Spice. I think I like Al Fresco and the Whites better. I guess I’m just a cat after all.

Color is at once very simple and subjective (you instinctively like certain hues) and highly sophisticated and complex (the psychological study of color perception, for example). In the history of architecture there are many color palettes, from the vibrant reds and yellow ochres of Pompeiian frescoes (image below courtesy Natural Pigments)

to the white and intense chromium yellow that Thomas Jefferson used

in the dining room at Monticello. According to retrofit guru Bob Vila, this particularly vivid palette is a relatively recent discovery, thanks to scientific analysis of the original pigments (photo courtesy his website). At the turn of the 20th century architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bay Area’s Bernard Maybeck became identified with an Arts & Crafts palette (from the movement of the same name) and evolved their own set of hues and tones

often with autumnal hues like red, burnt orange, and even gold to complement the use of natural materials like redwood and brick. In fact Wright’s favorite color was what he called Cherokee red (photo of Wright’s Zimmerman house, by David J. Bohl, courtesy Currier Museum of Art, from About.com).

European modernists like Le Corbusier developed their own palettes as well;

his was based on primary colors, but, as shown above,  included a variety of subtle variations. These colors (and the image) are from the website Aaltocolor.com. The elegant palette published in 128 Colors: A Sample Book for Architects, Conservators, and Designers, by Katrin Trautwein (Birkhauser,

Basel, 2010) includes 68 Corbusian hues along with 60 others. Trautwein founded an artisinal paint manufacturer in Uster, Switzerland in 1997. She explains how Le Corbusier’s colors were designed to “remain stable in space to support architecture’s three dimensional effects.” As a painter as well as an architect (remember his Purist efforts,

like this still life of 1922, courtesy Ferris) he knew what he was talking about. He probably was not thinking about tigers and eagles.




Cantilevers at Home

Hanging Tough

Brad Pitt has long been interested in landmark residential architecture, having co-authored a book on the Blacker house of 1907 designed by Greene & Greene, as well as having founded the Make It Right Foundation for housing in the Ninth Ward of post-Katrina New Orleans. According to Celebuzz, he’s also a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, at Bear Run, Pennsylvania,

which he visited in 2006 (photo of Brad and Angelina by Cara Armstrong, courtesy Celebuzz). All of which brings to mind the starring roles of architectural elements like the cantilever — which Wright made so famous in his waterfall -lunging design. This is evidently partly why Brad is interested — he’d like to build on a similar site some day. (Maybe we can provide a plan!) Indeed, the cantilever, defined as a projecting beam or member supported only at one end, is very seductive. Alvar Aalto’s cantilever chair for Artek of the early

1930s is a perfect example (photo courtesy Kissthedesign).  So

is one of Marcel Breuer’s famous metal chairs (photo courtesy Factoidz) designed in the late 1920s. The trick is to provide enough counterweight or balance to support the projection. The idea was quickly adopted by the most progressive architects of the 20th century for its expressive quality as a form of  abstract space-shaping sculpture, as Marcel Breuer did in the first

house he designed for his family in New Canaan, Connecticut of 1947 (photo courtesy Archives of American Art). Architect and Breuer biographer Robert F. Gatje, who worked in the Breuer office for many years, told me that the “floating” portion of this house worked well — no posts to get in the way of the carport below it — but that it always had a certain “bounce” to it, especially on the deck. No doubt it gave Mrs. Breuer an extra spring to her step. The cantilever is in fact a space-saver and architects often use it where there is a desire to minimize site disturbance or to take dramatic advantage of a view, as the architectural firm

Anderson Anderson did with this house in the Cascade Mountains north of Seattle (photos above and below courtesy Anderson Anderson).

The architects give a good rationale for this design: “The small ground floor building footprint/foundation reduces the cost of this expensive area of the house, and allows the points of attachment to adapt to varying slope and soil conditions with minimal disruption of the natural topography.” In other words they can use this or similar designs on a variety of rugged sites. With cantilevers, things can get dramatic very fast, as in the “Ribbon House” by the Perth, Australia firm H + AA.

Not only is the  glass-walled living room projecting into the landscape but the roof appears to be rippling into the sky as if caught by a sudden gust of wind.

I think a cantilever is most useful for a house if it can be used in a way to maximize the appreciation of a beautiful landscape feature, the way a great bridge does. So Brad, I hope you find a good site, first!

A Good Idea

With football bowl season upon us — not to mention the second series of Downton Abbey — it’s time to look around for the correct TV remote — now where did you see it last? So here’s an idea that my wife Mary dreamed up: the Multiple Pocket Remote Holster!

Straightforward sewing around a long dowel, from which it hangs. Fabric and pattern up to you. There. Now it’s easier to find the clicker so you can watch the latest Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie film!