Category Archives: Appliances and Fixtures

New Products from the 2013 Home Builders Show

Karaoke Showers: Or How Home Building Is Picking Up the Beat

A new tune wafted through the convention hall at the Home Builder Show in Las Vegas last week: it was a little bit Adele, as in “Let the sky fall/When it crumbles/We will stand tall/Face it all together/At skyfall” and a little bit Christina Perri, as in “I have died every day/Waiting for you/Darlin’ don’t be afraid/I have loved you for a thousand years/I’ll love you for a thousand more.” In other words, everyone seemed tempered by the downturn yet recommitted to the future. Keynote speaker and former Disney chairman Michael Eisner captured that spirit by showing clips from the film Cool Runnings about the improbable Olympic bobsled team from Jamaica who suffered a disastrous crash but then picked up their sled and carried it over the finish line to wild applause. Here are the products that caught my eye (and ear), with more to come in the next post.

Kohler launched their very cool, clever, and sleek Moxie shower head: it has a built-in wireless speaker and plays up to 7 hours of music and news (you should

be very clean after that…). The magnetic speaker pops out of the shower head for easy recharging of its lithium-ion battery. It pairs with Bluetooth-enabled Continue reading

Top New Products at 2012 Home Builder Show

Winds of Change in Kitchens, Bathrooms & More

The current economy has certainly made the annual product showcase that is the International Home Builder Show smaller but it has not dampened the spirit of invention — in fact it may have had the opposite effect. Take the range hood, a fairly prosaic appliance. That is, until the Italian designers for Best S. p. A. blew

cooking odors into a galaxy far far away with models like their space ship-shaped Fusion, above, which is wall-mounted and made of stainless steel and glass. Or

how about their racetrack-curved Shelf, or their ceiling-mounted Sphera,

 which is camouflaged as a pendant globe light from the 1950s. The website for another Best line, the Sorpresa collection, offers a “Visualizer” that shows how different models look in the same kitchen, which is very useful. All these products dominated the Broan-Nutone booth (Broan, Nutone, and Best are subsidiaries of Broan-Nutone, and produce their own lines of range hoods.)

The Vault drop-in apron front stainless steel sink from Kohler caught my eye.

I like the way it updates the farmhouse sink with a crisp modern outline. Kohler is also expanding its array of enameled cast iron sinks with the Bellegrove

Double-Equal” version, which includes two reversible racks and a sponge caddy that fits over the saddle. For the bathroom, Kohler introduced the Hydrorail

shower column (two versions are shown above). It includes an integral two-way diverter, and allows you to convert your existing fixed shower head to a spa-like shower. Also the column, which is insulated, functions as a grab bar. Sterling, a

Kohler subsidiary, introduced its Accord 60-inch Seated Shower, a very practical solution for aging in place since it can replace a typical bathtub for an easy retrofit.  The seat can change position and there’s ample shelving.

Mainstream manufacturers are improving their website functions. Lumber Liquidators, a large flooring supplier, has a new Room Designer tool that lets you see how various flooring choices might look in typical rooms — such as a cork floor in a kitchen

or a bamboo floor in the living room. You see the floor choices in each setting.

There are three versions or decorating styles for each room, which limits you to Lumber Liquidator’ taste, but it’s a good start. I wish you could upload pictures of your own kitchen or family room and see how they look with different floors. Maybe that’s next.

You’ve heard of key-less entry for your car – how about for your front door: it’s

the Simplicikey remote control door lock. If you prefer the digital lock, lift up the

escutcheon and type in your code; or you can still use a key! A clever idea, and they are working on a wider range of hardware styles.

Leviton, a major manufacturer of electrical devices, debuted its new universal

dimmer. The switch is unremarkable looking but does a lot: it includes a microprocessor that allows it to regulate current and emerging incandescent, dimmable compact flourescent (CFLs), and dimmable light emitting diode bulbs (LEDs). According to Leviton, the device can properly dim next-generation lighting sources “while remaining backwards compatible with current bulbs.” I love that phrase “backwards compatible” — it could be another term for an architectural historian like me. 

While at the show I toured three forward-thinking Builder Concept Homes sponsored by Builder Magazine and built by Centerline Homes, which cleverly target three demographic groups: Gen X (1966-1985), Gen Y (1986-2005), and Gen B — Baby Boomers (1946-1964).

Interestingly, they occupy a decidedly retro subdivision layout — a cul de sac — perhaps another example of “backwards compatible.” But each house aimed for flexibility with guest suites for in-laws or other relatives. The Gen X house by designer Tony Weremeichek of Canin Associates even has a full-fledged “Granny Suite” complete with kitchenette. I was struck by how the Gen X house, and Gen Y and B, designed by architect Mike Woodley of the Woodley Architectural Group, all made use of 90-degree corners defined by telescoping sliding glass patio doors (by WinDoor) to allow spaces to expand

or contract depending on needs and weather. Above is the corner of the Gen Y great room when opened up so that it blends with the pool patio. And here is a

corner of the great room at the Gen B. house. Woodley used sliding barn doors in

a similar way to open up or close off the study in Gen Y. The same idea was also used in The New American Home, mentioned in a previous post. I guess one good corner slider deserves another! 


Home Idea Hunting

Conceptual Drainboards Everywhere

Small ideas with large impact always grab my attention. For example, I just saw an early twentieth century farmhouse kitchen and I was transfixed — not so much by the kitchen as a whole but by the shiny wooden drainboard — which resembled part of the galley on a vintage yacht.

What could be simpler, or warmer in its honey tone and richly grained texture than this shiny slab and backsplash, with undermount sink and porcelain-handled taps. This kitchen, which was beautifully restored by Backen Gillam Kroeger Architects for the MacMurray Ranch vineyard, is a throwback but also perfectly contemporary in its use of a natural material as a thing of beauty in itself, without affectation. Such a drainboard is hard to do today — the various woods available are costly and maintenance around water is always problematic — but it is seductive nevertheless and reminds me of the counters made of sugar pine and other woods that early modern architects like Gardner Dailey and William Wurster used in kitchens, well before the explosion of new materials like Caesarstone or Zodiac. These latter materials are attractive in their own right but a little wood goes a long way toward warming up a space. The way to achieve a similar effect today without risking water damage might be to use wood on a kitchen island, as architect Jonathan Feldman does in this example.

Or simply purchase a wood-topped rolling cart like the John Boos Rosato Kitchen Cart (below)

or the Belmont White Kitchen Island (below) — both through Remodelista, one of my

favorite home resource websites, where co-founder/curator Julie Carlson has an exceptional design eye. Another way to use wood as a warm-up accent is shown in the house built from our Plan 508-1 by architect Nicholas Lee,

where the extended hearth — for display as well as sitting — is a length of recycled fir. Such a device not only warms up an all-white room but adds individuality.

Of course, paint is really the easiest way to personalize a space quickly. A new apartment complex called The Presidio Landmark in San Francisco – an elegant adaptive reuse of an old hospital by the architectural firm Perkins & Will – includes a model unit that shows a clever way to add character to a room without a lot of effort and expense: painted wainscoting, as shown below.

The green swath reaches to head height and draws the eye up, at once creating an intimate corner within the larger space. It adds personality without the expense of extra woodwork. Look around you — and keep that digital camera or I-phone handy — you never know when an idea for your new home will strike — or drain, as the case may be.

News from Pacific Coast Builders Show (PCBC)

Looking Forward to Cargo Containers, Sliding Walls, Skylights, and LEDs

The tagline for this year’s Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC) was “The Beginning of Next,” which either sounds like a clever adaptation of the title of Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, or the start of a talk by a Zen tea master. I guess the beginning of Next is really the end of Now – and for many builders and developers that would be a good thing. In any case, the conference was smaller and more intimate than previous ones. Here’s what caught my eye.

The most compelling display was the Cargotecture C Series by Hybrid Architecture, a fascinating design firm based in Seattle.

This clever living unit made from a steel cargo container appeared earlier in the month at Sunset magazine headquarters in Menlo Park as part of their Celebration Weekend — the following images are from there, courtesy Hybrid Architecture.

You can see how the container has been opened up on three sides — and how important a deck is in expanding the unit.

The view above is looking toward the kitchenette and the bathroom.

The living/sleeping end opens to the entry deck.  At PCBC there was a balcony on the other side.

The unit is basically three spaces: a living/dining/sleeping area, the tiny galley kitchen, and an equally small shower cabinet that includes the sink and toilet – like a bathroom on a motorboat. You can just make out the toilet and the sink — and the redwood boards covering the drain pan — in the photograph. This micro cottage would work well for a guest house or pool house. The HyBrid Architecture firm offers a variety of models; the base specifications include the recycled cargo container, soy-based spray insulation, aluminum clad wood windows and doors, Duravit bath fixtures, Summit appliances, and IKEA cabinets. Options include solar panels and retractable shade structures and modular foundation systems

Sliding glass door/walls continue to evolve. Marvin Windows and Doors has produced an impressive “lift and slide” example.

The four panels slide into a pocket at the side.


I also saw some very sleek electronic sliders that stop when they meet resistance – like elevator doors. They are manufactured by an Italian company called Apexfine; the US distributor is the Albertini Corporation.

Apexfine also makes what they call the “Guillotine” window – a large glass panel rises out of the floor.

The one shown above is positioned a little over halfway up, to create an instant balcony or glass half-wall – very cool!

Builders are beginning to take advantage of the Web in new ways. One impressive app that was introduced at PCBC is Imfuna’s Punch List.

This app makes it possible to manage the final stages of the home building process — when changes and updates are especially difficult to keep current — from your I-Phone. It avoids the need for paper-based, time consuming documentation; makes it easy to assign sub-contractors and immediately deliver tailored reports to them for completion; allows you to view, approve or reject updates on the punch list from your phone or laptop — and keeps files current so everyone sees the latest updated documents; makes it possible to edit the data collected in the field and add more details such as plans or schedules, without specialized hardware or training; and keeps records safe in a secure online environment (i.e. “the cloud”). This program is tailored for contractors but would also be useful for homeowners acting as their own contractors. Imfuna is an interesting company co-founded by Jax Kneppers, a forensic engineer. The Punch List grew out of the company’s experience inventing an app for building inspections that increased efficiency by 70%.

There is news in skylights. Velux introduced its ingenious “Lovegrove Chandelier” option for their “Sun Tunnel” skylights.

This ingenious device is a reflective globe that suspends from the bottom of the skylight funnel and “uses the sun as the bulb.” The top of the globe bounces sunlight light up, washing the ceiling with a natural glow.

LED lights (light emitting diodes) are competing more strongly with compact fluorescents.

I saw these LED examples from Viribright – the bulbs last up to 25,000 hours, use 80% less energy than typical incandescent bulbs, and are available in warm, natural, and cool light. They also switch on instantly – just like conventional light bulbs. Even the most advanced fluorescents have a slight delay before reaching full brightness, so these lighting products are a compelling alternative. I guess the beginning of Next really starts with a light switch!

Historic Modern Houses to Tour, Garage Storage

The Architect’s Imagination

I recently attended a private benefit for U. C. Berkeley’s  Environmental Design Archives at an extraordinary Mid-Century Modern house. Designed by architect Ernest Born for himself and his wife Esther in 1951, the simple board and batten exterior (shown at left, photo by Morley Baer, courtesy EDA) literally draws a redwood curtain across the front of the house. See how the top rail reaches across the driveway to complete the geometric composition — like a curtain rack itself. The house is in a windy location near the ocean so the wall functions as a wind break as well as privacy fence. But what a surprise inside! You pass a galley kitchen under a balcony (that’s part upstairs hall, part study) and enter a sensational loft-like two story living room overlooking an expansive rear garden — this view is from the balcony. The monumental two-story square window wall functions as a gigantic lens for looking out and looking in and effectively doubles the size of the indoor world. The fireplace is treated as a geometric sculpture –  — the brick firebox resting on a cantilevered hearth and fronted with vertical wood strips below the cylindrical chimney. It’s clear that Born was influenced by Casa Luis Barragan in Mexico City of 1948 with its iconic square window, mentioned in earlier posts, but there’s also a strong resemblance to the loft-like living room of the Charles and Ray Eames house near Santa Monica of 1949, shown at left  — though in the Eames house the window wall is treated as a more complex grid, steel ceiling ribs extend outside to form a canopy, and a wall of books extends along one side (image courtesy Gabriel Ross Blog, which covers modern furniture, lighting, and home accessories). Experiencing the Born house – which also has a beautiful and deftly composed contemporary addition by Aidlin Darling Design – see the three-story addition on the left in the photo above (by Dwight Eshliman, courtesy the architects) — made me look for significant modern houses that you can tour by appointment. Spring is the best time to explore — here are my current top five (not including the Eames house and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, discussed in previous posts).

Los Angeles, California. The Schindler House (part of the MAK Center) by Rudolph Schindler of 1921 is really two living units and was built for Schindler and his wife, and his engineer colleague Clyde Chase and his wife. The tilt-slab  concrete-and-glass construction was both forward-thinking and historically minded, with outdoor fireplaces and roof decks. The entry fee includes a visit to the Fitzpatrick-Leland house of 1936 also designed by Schindler (however, only on the first Friday of every month — photo courtesy MAK Center).

Dearborn, Michigan. Futurist-engineer R. Buckminster Fuller’s famous round steel Dymaxion House of 1947 (though initially conceived in the late 1920s) is one of the exhibits at the Henry Ford Museum. The name was invented by a publicist who followed Bucky Fuller around and eventually combined parts of words that he seemed to use a lot as he was speaking about his inventions: “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension.” The shiny metal structure — a sort of cross between a spaceship and a souffle — was meant to be a prototype for efficient modern living, though only one was built. Two prefab bathroom units and a kitchen pod are at the center, ringed by living areas and the two bedrooms.

Norman, Oklahoma. An organic original. The Bavinger House of 1950 by the brilliant and eccentric Bruce Goff, who studied for a short time with Frank Lloyd Wright and developed new versions of the quonset hut during World War II, is one of the most unusual modern houses in the U. S. In concept it’s a spiraling stairway under what feels like a tall tent. A series of living and sleeping platforms are suspended on cables along the stair like giant candy dishes. The modernity is in the openness of the interior, the free-form structural conception, and the novel use of materials.

Plano, Illinois. The levitating, mirage-like, glass and white steel Farnsworth House, by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, takes modernity to an extreme. As Marc Myers wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal piece: it’s “part fishbowl, part tree house, and part transparent time capsule.” It was built for doctor Edith Farnsworth as a country retreat; only the bathrooms are enclosed. 

New Canaan, Connecticut. Architect Philip Johnson’s justly famous Glass House  of 1949 was heavily influenced by the Farnsworth house, but here, instead of floating over the landscape the structure is firmly grounded in it — in fact becoming an artful rearrangement of it. Again, only the bathroom (the cylinder) is enclosed. Johnson told the story of a visit by Frank Lloyd Wright: Philip met Frank at the front door. “Well, Philip” said Frank. “Am I inside or am I outside? Do I keep my hat on or do I take if off?” Johnson kept the building/landscape dichotomy front and center by prominently displaying an important 17th century landscape painting by Nicolas Poussin in the living room. Now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the house is open for tours by appointment from May through November. The house is one small part of Johnson’s large estate, with many other buildings by him, including an underground art gallery and a lake pavilion, which can also be toured. (Photo courtesy The Glass House.)

Spring Cleaning

It’s interesting to note that few of these landmark modern houses have garages — apparently architects didn’t like dealing with the automobile (some still don’t). But spring is a good time to think about reorganizing. I saw these garage storage systems by Gladiator Garageworks in KBHome’s Greenhouse at the Home Builder Show and was envious. The units free up the floor space so there’s room for all kinds of tools and sports gear as well as cars. Brackets supporting the shelving click into horizontally grooved wall panels. Cabinets on casters add flexibility. Gladiator also has a new 66.5 inch bamboo-topped modular workbench with leveler legs for uneven floors.

So maybe this is how a modern architect would at least organize a garage, if not design one from scratch!

New Products at KBIS

Showtime

At the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS) in Las Vegas last week I had the feeling I was watching a market in transition. Overall, I saw an emphasis on new ways to deliver products and product information such as  via iPad aps  but  fewer new introductions and exhibitors. Here’s what caught my eye.

This  “Image-in Motif” tub from Wetstyle.CA , a Canadian firm, is seductive.The calligraphy pattern is part of the design. I like the Zen-like simplicity of the oval shape (also available without the lettering), which would be a nice upgrade for my bathroom!

For something a little different in the bathroom, especially for the younger set, how about turning your tub into a fire truck. Perhaps something Salvador Dali might appreciate…It’s possible with American Standard’s FunBath Temporary Bath Conversion. The solid molded acrylic tub deck and front panel apron fit over your conventional tub. They can easily be removed when the truck no longer appeals. Ingenious!

Turning the closet pole into a lighting system is a clever idea — and puts the light right where you need it most — along the bottom of the pole shining on the top of the hangers. I can see this Sempria Illumirod from Task Lighting becoming especially useful for smaller, darker, narrower closets.

Solid surface countertops with quartz crystals saw expanding color and pattern choices. Dupont Zodiaq introduced  five new colors

inspired by spices, bringing their total palette up to 59 hues. Korean solid surface producer Hanwha added a little “life” to their introduction of new Hanstone quartz colors by using people dressed in skin tight body suits to  call attention to several new designs including Indian Pearl (left),  Grigio (center), and Sabbia (right). Cambria also unveiled new colors.The trend in all these colors seems to be toward a little more veining and figuration in the pattern, approximating various granites and marbles. These materials are  smooth, non-porous, and exceptionally hard.

Italian design is always worth seeing and the Colombini Group presented its new City line of Kitchen cabinetry — a sleek minimalist dove gray/beige (like an Armani suit), with doors faced in melamine for easy cleaning. I like the way the table extends at right angles from the island: an alternative to the typical breakfast bar. Finally there seemed to be more toilets at this show than any other product: every possible size and flush ratio was represented as the Japanese brand Inax showed.Toto introduced their Aquia high efficiency toilet,which is an all-in-one fixture. Kohler’s big splash was the Numi, the sculptural modern rectangular fixture that does everything imaginableincluding greet you when you walk into the bathroom (motion sensors make this possible). It also provides music. Another novel feature is its flushing sensor: if you remain aboard for longer than a set period,a stronger flush ensues. This reminds me of an inscription on a public bench in Denver: “If you wish to rest, rest not too long.” The Numi took years and many engineers from various disciplines to produce and is an impressive technological achievement.

Earth Day Ideas and the Fountains of Rome

Common Sense Conservation

Earth Day is Friday, April 22, 2011 — a good time to remember that building sustainably is the right thing to do (see the Earth Day website for events and activities.). Begin with a thoughtful design that suits the climate and the site and aims for longevity. The choices you make for the shell of your house — including the foundation, walls, windows, and roof — and in how you orient your house to the sun, will result in the greatest savings in energy, natural resources, and money over the long term. Health is another consideration — i.e. use formaldehyde free insulation and no- or low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint — such as Yolo Colorhouse, shown here. The U. S. Green Building Council’s Green Building Guide provides a good introduction to what’s possible. Here you’ll find information on a vast array of eco-oriented topics. The section on bathrooms  is 

especially useful in explaining what to look for in low flow-fixtures — since the bathroom is one of the most resource-intensive rooms in the house. The Green Building Council website is also where you’ll find the LEED rating system (an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the useful LEED for Homes Scoring Tool, where you can find out if your home qualifies for LEED certification.

Another important resource is the website for the Environmental Protection Agency’s  ENERGY STAR® program, which lists all the home products — from LED (light emitting diode) lights  to dishwashers to fans — that meet national environmental standards. This is the source for those appliance labels that say ENERGY STAR® and give you a quick calculation on, say, a particular refrigerator’s energy use and savings on energy bills. The EPA’s   WaterSense® programs is a similar labeling system for water-conserving appliances and fixtures.

More Efficient Building Shells

Structural insulated panels (SIPs) — like those manufactured by Premier (shown here) are an energy-efficient building system made from thick expanded polystyrene (EPS) sandwiched between oriented strand board (OSB). The high-insulation value is built-in and the panels allow for faster construction time. Many of the designs at Houseplans.com can be converted from conventional 2-by-4 or 2-by-6 framing to SIPs by Premier. Another possibility is to use the Vitruvian system of panels made with EPS and light gauge steel (diagram shown above). We have a range of plans designed for Vitruvian panel construction. A sampling of SIPs plans can be found in our Energy-Efficient Plans Collection.

Ancient Aqua

Talk of conservation, especially water, brings to mind the role of water in defining the shape and character of our life. In Rome, for example, it has been a powerful design force for more than 2,000 years. A fascinating and important book by Katherine Wentworth Rinne — The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City (Yale Press, 2011) — explores this  subject in depth and I recommend it highly. Here you’ll learn how the city’s aqueducts got built, how the waterworks work,  and why, and how each major fountain became an expression of power by emperors, popes, and the most powerful Roman families.  It’s a waterwise whodunnit by a true scholar. This where resource cultivation and conservation began in earnest!





Flat Screen TV Placement

Digital Decor

In our house we have a tiny TV room/home office that was carved out of part of a bedroom. Call me a “slow adopter” but I think it might be time to take advantage of the flexibility that today’s flat screens allow: replacing our bulky television on its rolling cabinet with a flat screen mounted on the wall would dramatically expand the available floor space. The clever five-part wall cabinet  by my friend Nathan Hartman of Kerf Design, shown here, would be  a great way to go. The cabinet acts as a frame, turning the TV into a contemporary artpiece. And according to Nate it’s a drinks cabinet as well as storage for dvds — what a clever idea — mai tais with movies! The TV cabinet unites the dining area with the rest of the kitchen — where the Kerf system expresses new functionality and warm contemporary character.

Or consider Sarah Susanka’s Plan 454-6 (Not So Big Showhouse 2005), which shows a popular approach in the living room:  treating the flat screen like a painting over the mantelpiece. The wood of the mantel itself helps frame the TV. A flat screen can even be worked into the wall paneling, as the master bedroom in Plan 56-604 Plan 56-604 demonstrates. The flat screen can be set into the wall between the studs — so it’s flush with the wall surface — a pricey but elegant solution. Sometimes it’s even hidden behind a real painting whose frame is hinged.  It’s even possible to aim a little higher, as happens in our Plan 48-433. Here bedtime stories take on new meaning when you lie back and look up at the TV in the master bedroom  — it’s on the ceiling. Talk about Super Titles! For more flat screen placement ideas check out Houzz.com, a fascinating and comprehensive source for remodeling inspiration.

In Praise of the Japanese Imagination

Looking East

Our hearts go out to the Japanese people in this tragic time. Scenes of incalculable destruction by earthquake and tsunami make me want to articulate my unshakable faith in Japan as an extraordinarily creative and resilient and influential force in the world of architecture and design. So here is a brief toast to the Japanese imagination.

Look at this new library for Musashino Art University, 25 miles west of central Tokyo, where bookshelves become floor-to-ceiling frames for every room (image courtesy Architectural Record). The building, by Sou Fugimoto, is “a single large spiral-shaped bookshelf encased in a glass box,” as Record writer Naomi Pollock aptly describes it. I love this image of the grand staircase — showing all the ways one can read, from books to I-Pads — because it expresses the very foundations of possibility. The metaphors are resonant: building on the book and a staircase for the mind.

Japanese design has always stimulated creative thought. Remember the great Zen Buddhist Ryoan-ji Dry Garden at Kyoto. When I visited many years ago it was early in the morning and for a few minutes there was only one other person on the wooden steps overlooking the raked gravel sea with its 15 stones-as-islands. For that brief moment the garden was the world and the world was the garden (photo by Marcus Trimble through Creative Commons). The cold light outlined gravel furrows and the grain of the wood and time suspended. At the Imperial Villa of Katsura (17th century) not far away, which I also toured, the experience is very different: an orchestrated promenade where the control of sights and spatial experience is everything, from the structurally expressive bamboo fence at the entrance to the painterly Nut Pine tree flanked by hedges.  Every step and view appears planned: you look down to pay attention to the stone path you are treading and then look up to see another special tree or view across the lake (previous three photos courtesy Gardening Grandpa website). The villa buildings are equally eloquent in their forms, functions, and seamless connections to the landscape. The journey through the complex makes you perceive more sharply the constituent parts of the composition and ultimately its wholeness (photo by Wiiii through Creative Commons). But this is only my amateur reaction. In his fascinating book Japan-ness in Architecture (MIT Press, 2006, 2011), the eminent architect Arata Isozaki explains that the buildings and garden of Katsura form an ambiguous composition of overlapping styles, spatial arrangements, and literary allusions: “the equivalent of an extensive machine for arousing all our imaginative facilities.” Such monuments have been rediscovered and reinterpreted by successive generations of architects and designers (not to mention scholars).

The influence of Japanese design in the US began most forcefully with the Japanese Pavilion or Ho-o-den at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893

which Pasadena architect brothers Charles Sumner and Henry Mather Greene saw in the year they opened their practice, absorbing ideas like expressed joinery and garden connections that would ultimately flower in their Craftsman bungalows of the early 20th century (image courtesy Gibbs Smith publishers). Frank Lloyd Wright was another early devotee and famously became both collector and seller of graphically powerful, almost abstract Japanese prints like this view of Mt. Fuji

by Hokusai from 1831-33 (courtesy Hammer Museum), where the gable echoes the slope of the mountain. And of course he designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, completed in the early 1920s and which survived the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, when much of Tokyo was heavily damaged (photo of the reconstructed facade, preserved at Meiji-Mura Museum, Nagoya courtesy Wikipedia). Toward the middle of the 20th century architects saw compelling parallels between the open plan tenets of Modernism and the way tatami mats and  shoji screens defined space without walls. In furniture the influence is equally strong, with a stairstep tansu, (this is a Meiji-era cabinet, courtesy Shibui) for example, contributing important DNA to work by architects like Steve Ehrlich in this contemporary Los Angeles house; note the abstracted tansu- -as-stairway bordering the living room (photo courtesy Ehrlich Architects). Or consider such icons as George Nakashima’s Conoid Dining Table (image from galere.net) building upon the organic properties of the wood, and Isamu Noguchi’s coffee table

expressing a “there-and-not-there,” abstract, bio-morphic sensibility  (courtesy Room & Board). When you start looking, the influence of Japanese esthetics on contemporary design is everywhere. I see a Japanesque/modern abstraction in our own Plan 491-11 by Braxton Werner and Paul Field: the reduction to essentials — gable, window wall, breezeway, and engawa (a skirt-like deck) complementing a rural landscape.

The plan sits lightly on the land.

And finally, the 2010 Pritzker Prize — the Nobel of architecture — went to Japanese architects Kazuo Sejima and Riyue Nishizawa of SANAA, known for structures of understated elegance. They designed the temporary Serpentine pavilion  in London shown here (courtesy Jumpstart.11). The aluminum skin floats through the trees like an undulating mirage. The building is nature itself, uplifted and uplifting. Japanese design helps us see the world anew and I shall always be inspired by it.

Back to Basics

Choices in kitchen sinks are always expanding. I like the look and functionality of Kohler’s new under-mount Lawnfield cast iron kitchen sink(made from 93% recycled and reclaimed material) which was introduced at the Home Builder Show, where I saw it. The 9-inch deep double basin and wave-like outline complement different kitchen styles. It also comes in an over-mount version.

Sleek Grills, Cool Concrete, Small House Plans

Coolest Hot Products

Last week on a design awards jury I met Robert Brunner, founder of Ammunition Group, a fascinating product design and branding firm. He described some of his latest products and I think they are way cool, especially — just in time to fuel dreams of warmer weather — the Fuego Element gas grill (with an updated website),

a sleek metal cylinder topped with a concave cooking vessel. The perforated metal sides hide the propane tank.

It’s a textbook example of how a fine designer reinvents an everyday object in terms that are at once functional and formal (in this case, geometric) — here supporting cylinder and supported sphere combine in a way that really elevates barbecuing to an art. Here aspects of the wok and the patio heater have been combined — this must be DNA By Design — to produce an appealing  genetic manipulation of modernism.

The grilling surface is wide for maximum cooking space while the slender pedestal is just wide enough for the propane container: each section has a different function that is fully expressed in its shape. Brilliant. Brunner’s firm is also responsible for the Portable Element.

It weighs under 15 lbs and

the legs do double duty by forming the handle.

Brunner designed the original much larger rectangular Fuego Grill of a few years ago but I think these more recent streamlined Elements are the fires to follow.

The Ammunition Group has designed a wide range of other products, most notably partnering with Lady Gaga to develop a line of fashion-forward HeartBeat earphones

sunglasses, and instant cameras for Polaroid’s Grey Label — and now I’m a little out of my element.

Concrete design guru Fu Tung Cheng, founder of Cheng Design, sponsored the jury as a way to encourage concrete fabricators and designer/builders in the US and around the world. His own work is always an inspiration, like this two-toned kitchen island

with one  corner cantilevered for ease of movement at the breakfast bar; or this

super slick bathroom where the counter and the slanting slot sink are practically indistinguishable (images courtesy Cheng Design). Fu Tung has also invented a lightweight concrete — using fiber in the mix — that can be used for small scale furniture. I lifted one of thehandsome prototype stools in his office shown above and found them easy to carry. I could use one as a side table.

Meaningful Minimalism

My day spent reviewing projects with Fu Tung and Bob  made me think about house plans that express a sleeker sensibility. Plan 460-7 by Daniel Eric Bush is for an in-law unit or guest suite behind the garage.

It’s a solution for homes with garages set back from the street.

You walk past the garage door (the path is partially hidden by a vine-covered privacy screen in the view above) to the entry terrace off the living area. The design is simple and effective. The street facade of Plan 496-12 by Leon Meyer

speaks another spare but strong design language: garage, front door, picture window; each distinct but related to a larger whole. The path to the front leads all the way through the house to the dining area and family room at the rear. Again, here is a design that’s simple, clear, compelling. Note how the small bump-outs at the living room and dining room create corner views, giving those rooms a greater sense of spaciousness. The rooms engage with each other and with the site in a kind of dialog. I guess I’m always interested in what a design — whether plan or product — is trying to say. Speak up!