Monthly Archives: March 2012

Spring Color Palettes

The Art in Artichoke

There’s just something about April: Chaucer talked about the showers, T. S. Eliot said it was the cruelest month, and travel agents call it a “shoulder season.” Though to me April means doing a lot of weeding, I think it’s also a great time to develop a nature-oriented paint scheme for freshening up your interior.  My friend the architectural colorist Tina Beebe once told me to look no further than the artichoke for one of nature’s most elegant color palettes so, since artichokes are now in season, let’s start here. Cut one open, as this photo (courtesy The Delicious Life) shows and you’ll find a surprising range of spring hues to choose from. Now thanks to color matching websites you can develop a palette from

almost any image. Here’s the palette that deGraeve’s Color Palette Generator produced from the photo I uploaded. It’s appealing, with bright and dull versions, though it didn’t get the subtle violet at the center. Or how about this

image of a granite dock on the Maine coast. I like the greens and grays. Here’s how deGraves’s other color match website called Color Hunter isolated the hues.

You don’t get to see the original image alongside the isolated hues as you do with deGraeve, but Color Hunter’s black background makes the tones stand out. Though you should always allow for color variation on the computer as well as in print, this is a great way to develop a set of colors you like before confronting the dauntingly vast array of color chips at the hardware or paint store. Another way is just to print out an image of a space that appeals, like the living room of

Plan 496-1 by Australian architect Leon Meyer, then identify the color palette yourself. Here the white walls, black hearth, moss green fireplace front, and natural wood furniture work well together: it’s essentially a white background with major and minor accents. The living room in a Sea Ranch, California house designed by Tina Beebe and her husband architect Buzz Yudell offers

similar lessons. Here again, background colors, this time in wall plaster and concrete floor, are neutrals; accents are mostly primary with greens toned to echo the meadow grasses outside; the wood is unpainted. In short, paint palettes don’t need a lot of colors; simpler is usually better; materials like wood and concrete are part of a palette just like paint and fabric; and nature is often a very good place to start.

For a fine introduction to the subject see Design With Color, by Karen

Templer, who is the newest member of the Houseplans family. It includes a wide range of color schemes to help you articulate your own taste. And for an intriguing view of color history I recommend browsing Pantone: The 20th Century in Color, by Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker, which

cleverly shows color palettes derived from popular culture, decade-by-decade. The authors isolate key colors from each period — for example, the Arts & Crafts Movement is represented by various artifacts, like a chandelier designed by

Greene & Greene and is paired with eight Pantone swatches. It’s fun to see how the authors derive the dominant colors for each era. It all shows how color taste changes and makes me wonder what a representative palette for the 21st century — so far — would be.

“Mad Men” and Mid-Century Modernity at LACMA

Stereos and Studebakers

The start of Mad Men‘s fifth season this week on cable TV is fortuitous. Though the series spawned a new appreciation for slick Madison Avenue Modernism of the early 1960s — not to mention accompanying cocktails — it wasn’t easy to see

where part of that esthetic came from (photo courtesy shinyshiny.tv). But now you can, thanks to the exhibition running through June at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965 curated by Wendy Kaplan. In fact, the advertising firm that the character Don Draper runs, seen above at his desk with drink in hand, ought to be developing campaigns for many of the products in the exhibition, like the Studebaker Avanti of 1961-2 by Raymond Loewy, below.

California — and especially Los Angeles — became a remarkable incubator of modern design during the middle of the 20th century. The benign climate, burgeoning post World War II economy and population, and movie mystique attracted imaginative designers and take-a-chance clients. I toured the exhibit recently and was impressed with the way it explores connections between popular and high style design, from furniture and clothing to houses and cars while bringing the Left Coast side of the Mad Men era to life.

Time here begins in the 1930s, quite literally, with one of the first digital clocks,

the Zephyr clock by Lawson Time, from around 1938 (photo courtesy LACMA blog). My uncle had one of these and I always admired it — when the numbers turned over they bounced slightly before resting in place (perhaps a metaphor for hanging fire?). Time did appear to be hustling as new tracts developed across

the LA basin. Modern architects were designing houses and filling them with furniture like this 1931 bent plywood chair by Richard Neutra or this squared off

corner grouping by A. Quincy Jones from 1961 and Mondrian-esque glass coffee table of c. 1950 by Milo Baughman for Glenn of California  — which look like they belong in one corner of Don Draper’s office. Living In A Modern Way shows how California designers celebrated the casual indoor-outdoor living that

the California climate made possible, as in this promotional image for a development called Monarch Bay Homes at Laguna Niguel by delineator Carlos Dini, from 1961 (image courtesy LACMA).  My favorite part of the exhibit juxtaposes two elegant designs from 1961 by LA’s most minimalist architect,

Craig Ellwood: a superb elevation of his Rosen house and the Rosen’s custom stereo cabinet. Now this takes Machine Age abstraction to its logical extreme: house and stereo are extensions of each other, if not virtually indistinguishable —  do I live in the stereo or does the stereo live in me? Talk about surround sound! The only real difference, besides scale and some plumbing, is that the stereo has four bays while the house has only three. Clearly the sort of house where you would expect to hear Frank Sinatra, not to mention the architect, crooning My Way — and sotto voce “or the highway.” (Images courtesy LACMA.)

Even Barbie went modern, and her Dream House of 1962, shown below, is fun to

to see. The largest element in the show is a replica of the loft-like living room of  the Charles and Ray Eames house of 1949, the most famous structure in the

Case Study House Program of the late 1940s and early 1950s sponsored by Arts + Architecture magazine (photo courtesy NY Times). It functions both as a frame for nature and an elegant specimen box for the Eames’ collection (1,869 items in this space alone!). Which reminds me: Case Study House #3 shown below, by William Wurster and Theodore Bernardi is not in the exhibit but is in the

Houseplans.com Exclusive Studio and is Plan 470-9. See how it too blends indoor and outdoor space into a seamless whole: the house is the lot. Our Eichler Plans offer further variations on the modern living theme. They’re all part of the Mid-Century Modern design history you can own.

So, Don Draper — time to put down that highball and get back to work. You have a lot of selling to do!

 

Architecture Is Not a Luxury

Living With Ingenuity

Architecture is often considered a luxury but why should that be true? I think good design is a necessity; it’s about invention and making new things happen. Bad design ought to be the luxury we cannot afford. And what is the general definition of luxury anyway? It derives from the Latin words luxuria and luxus, meaning excess; in the 18th century it came to mean “something enjoyable or comfortable beyond life’s necessities,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Shelter is of course a necessity; but it’s the job of architecture to make shelter something more — and more can mean comfortable, expressive, ingenious, idea-rich, even memorable. If that’s a luxury then hold the foie gras — I’ll take design. I feel architecture can inspire our own sense of possibility and make us aware of nature and the world around us in fresh ways. Take a tiny “unbuildable” infill lot in Tokyo, for example. Architect Yasuhiro Yamashita,

of Atelier Tekuto (photos courtesy the firm) saw the size limitation as an opportunity to develop a sort of contempo-Gothic iceberg: towering translucence

above, expanding volume below. Walls of obscure glass soar to a point (the wall is the ceiling) over the entry and bedroom floor above ground and make it

possible to flood the underground living area with daylight. Also the plan of the house tapers toward the back door, creating a false perspective that gives an impression of spaciousness, which is accentuated by the white metal fittings and walls. It resembles the bridge of a ship. Or a lantern for living. (Though I admit there’s not a lot of room for Granny’s sleigh bed.)

Or what about this unusual house by architectural historian and architect

Terunobu Fujimori (photo by Adam Friedberg via Dwell) that ingeniously combines opposites, an anchoring cave and a high-in-the-sky tea house, within a charred cedar skin — which is a traditional Japanese method for


protecting wood from insects (photos, courtesy Materia Design, and Japanese Craft Construction on Flikr). The design may be a luxury for the inhabitants but for me it is essential because it beautifully illustrates what a home can be: sheltering cave as welcoming entry and foundation; tea house as flight of fancy, an imagination set free. And yet contradictions abound — as they do in many homes. For what is a tea house but a space for ritualized ceremony — so here is ritual lifting away and loosening up — literally. And the cave is not dark and carved from stone but open and full of light, like a breezeway. Not to mention the burnt exterior protected from decay. Architecture can tell a story by turning some ideas upside down and making them hard to forget. Louis Kahn once said we didn’t need Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony until we heard it; well it’s the same with great houses. Maybe architecture is the luxury we didn’t know we needed.

On a somewhat more prosaic (certainly less melodic) level, to me the greatest luxury at the moment would be if my sweet peas climb up the grid of string I have tied to the backyard fence. Or maybe if we added an outdoor shower – like

the one here (courtesy Sunset Magazine). In any case, spring is here — and that’s a luxury I can live with.

Ranch House Roofs and other Restoratives

Shake, Rattle, & Research

At the UCSB exhibition on ranch houses  last week I met the owner of a 1960s Cliff May-designed house who impressed me with the care he has taken in replacing the original shake roof on his 60+ year old home. Restoration projects can be problematic. His modern lightweight cement tile solution,

shown here, is successful because it remains true to the roof’s original architectural character while accommodating today’s fire codes. (Even if new wood shakes could be made non-combustible they would be prohibitively expensive.) I think Greg’s experience is useful for anyone thinking about roof replacement.

He used a Boral roofing product called Cedarlite 600 — which is designed to mimic heavy wood shakes — in a color called Silverwood (originally from Monier Lifetile). The 600 refers to weight: a 100 foot-square of Cedarlite 600 tiles weighs 600 pounds and there are 120 pieces to a square. According to Greg: “It’s a lower-density concrete tile with the primary disadvantage that it’s not as strong and walkable as the heavier concrete products.” Using heavier tiles might have meant beefing up structural support. Here are some Cedarlite examples.

Greg likes the texture and  says “It looks reasonably like shake but all the tiles are the same size — although there is variation in the molds and colors of the tiles. They can be slightly staggered but that makes it really easy for the corners to be broken off. Looking at the roof at a certain angle you can see diagonal patterns going up the roof. Most people don’t notice that but once you’re familiar with it that becomes the signature in verifying that Cedarlite 600 or it’s slightly denser cousin Madera 700 is what you’re actually looking at. I felt it was the best shake alternative available.”

Greg was worried about walking on the roof — for maintenance , clearing leaves and such. I spoke with Boral representative Altie Winters about this and she said that if you need to walk on a Cedarlite roof you should wear sticky shoes like sneakers and step where the tiles overlap and avoid the center of the tile itself. Greg used a polyurethane expanding adhesive  in lieu of nails. “The idea,” says Greg, “is that it provides a cushion in the air gap under the tiles which enhances the support when walking on it. It does seem to help quite a bit but you still need to be as careful as possible. At least when the tiles do crack they tend not to move since the adhesive is applied to much of the bottom. Supposedly this material also provides an R-4 insulation value as well. The polyset product was originally designed as a hurricane solution to eliminate the pitfalls of nails coming loose. In the West they market it as a walkability solution. So knock on wood that it will stand the test of time. We’ll see.”

SIDE NOTE: Boral recently introduced an intriguing product called the Boral Pure Smog-Eating Tile. According to Boral, the concrete roof tile’s coating contains a photocatalyst activated by daylight, which helps convert harmful nitrogen oxides into calcium nitrates. A 2,000 square foot roof of these tiles can oxidize the same amount of nitrogen oxide that a car produces from being driven up to 10,800 miles. So far the tiles only come in Mediterranean profiles that 

resemble terra cotta, as shown above.  Maybe they will produce a smog-eating shake look-alike too, some day.

Shakes weren’t the only roofing material in Cliff May’s repertoire; he also used terra-cotta  — on some of his larger custom houses he aimed for a rough hand-crafted look — and occasionally even standing seam metal. Perhaps his

most exotic choice was ocatillo branches, as shown above, to create a shade canopy over the pool at a marvelous oasis-like house in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. According to the owner the branches need to be replaced about every ten years.

The wide glassed-in or open gable, sometimes with a ridge skylight running

down the middle — as shown here at the splendidly expansive house that’s part of Bronzewing Farm, two hours north of Sydney, Australia — became a signature feature of Cliff May’s work. Incidentally, this roof retrofit used a composite tile (not concrete) and works very well.  (Photograph by Joe Fletcher for my ranch house book — shameless self-promotion department!) Such features have

inspired contemporary designers like Dan Tyree in Plan 64- 172. As Greg Friedman might say: such roofs are worth preserving with a little research and a light step.

Major Ranch House Exhibition at UCSB

From Corral to Cul de Sac in the Southern California Home

I just saw “Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House” in the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, curated by Jocelyn Gibbs and Nicholas Olsberg. It’s the first scholarly  exhibition on the history of the suburban ranch house at UCSB since the late architectural historian David Gebhard founded the museum’s design archive in the 1970s and collected the Cliff May papers along with those of many other influential Southern California architects and designers (catalog to be published in April). The fence on the intro wall aptly expresses both the ranch house idea

and the intent of the show: to corral the many facets of ranch house history into a coherent narrative while showing off holdings from the museum’s extensive architectural drawings collections. It’s mostly about ranch house designer, developer, and popularizer Cliff May, who began his career in San Diego in the early 1930s with courtyard designs like this one, which cloaked functional planning and space for the automobile in the romance of history.

They were inspired by early California ranchos with their covered “corredors” or porches. In 1934 he moved to Los Angeles and soon began developing Riviera Ranch, an equestrian-oriented subdivision off Sunset Boulevard near Brentwood. With larger lots his plans could “sprawl” across the site.

This house — for his own family — became his best sales tool and a laboratory for trying out new ideas like residential incinerators and walk-in refrigerators. In the 1950s he and his architect partner Chris Choate developed their “low cost ranch house” concept using standardized, pre-cut elements.

(Image courtesy AD&A Museum.) Window walls and shallow gable roofs were signature features, as shown in the brochure plan and the supergraphic of another May design that dominates a section of the exhibit (below).

May’s designs resemble Eichler tract house plans of the same era — the ranch house concept was everywhere at that time and very malleable. The tract ranch house became popular for developers, which is when the word sprawl took on

a less positive meaning; this is an aerial view of Lakewood Rancho Estates, in Long Beach, California (image courtesy AD&A Museum). Meanwhile May was still designing larger and more lavish custom homes for people like the inventor of

the Lear jet and the composer of the theme song for the TV show Bonanza. The typical pool and patio example above — one of many in the exhibit — became synonymous with California living (image courtesy AD&A Museum).

By the early 1960s Cliff May ranch houses had spread across the country as this wonderful pin map — which I remember seeing in Cliff May’s last office — demonstrates. Some of the pins represent subdivisions of more than 25 houses — his designs are in almost every state as well as as Canada and Mexico.

The show includes ranch house designs by other Southern California architects, from John Byers to Rudolph Schindler, proving that Cliff’s wasn’t the only game in town. As Jocelyn Gibbs, who is the curator of the museum’s Architectural Drawings Collection, told me: the intent was “to suggest that the ranch house and modernist ideas are not incompatible.” Indeed, the ranch house idea was stylistically very loose — simply a one story house with a modern open plan and strong outdoor connections. It had little theoretical baggage.

The need to exhibit only work from the museum’s collections is understandable but I wish there had been a way to include the wider architectural context, from William Wurster’s Butler house at Santa Cruz, California of 1935

(image courtesy Modern in Melbourne), to John Yeon’s Watzek house in

Portland, Oregon, of 1937 (photo courtesy Inside Oregon), to Frank Lloyd

Wright’s Herbert Jacobs Usonian House in Madison, Wisconsin of 1936 (image courtesy GreatBuildings.com) to Walter Gropius’s Arnold Wolfers house in

Brooklin, Maine of 1947 (image courtesy The Downeast Dilletante). Most architects took the ranch house in a more strictly modern direction and didn’t acknowledge Cliff May’s contribution. Nor did most of the design critics of the day. But though Cliff May was left out of architectural debates at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere, it’s clear, as this exhibition vividly demonstrates, that Southern California had a richly experimental residential design tradition and that Cliff had the last laugh. The show remains on view through June 17, 2012; museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5; free.