Tag Archives: William Wurster

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.


Contemporary House Plans from Estonia

Talent — and Modern Living — from Tallinn

I am excited to introduce house plans by Andrus Elm and Oliver Kangro of Concept Home, a company from Estonia on the Gulf of Finland with wide engineering, architecture, and development experience across Southern Europe and Scandinavia. Concept Home is the newest member of our International Exclusive Studio, which also includes plans by architects from Australia, Brazil, India, Ireland , and Italy. I’m drawn to Concept Home’s open and adaptable layouts, wide range of plan types, and warm contemporary style. Plan 537-9, for

example, which has 1,487 sq. ft., would work well for a ski chalet or a country getaway, with its strong

indoor-outdoor connections (terraces on two sides) and upstairs balcony leading

to two bedrooms, which lets the upper level share views out the tall living room window wall. Plan 357-13, below, has 4 bedrooms, three baths in 2,300 sq. ft.

boasts a handsome extended hearth in the living area and a generous covered

dining terrace off the kitchen. With its shed roof, vertical board siding, and

window wall, Plan 537-17 recalls classic modern designs like the Sugar Bowl Ski

Lodge of 1939 designed by architect William Wurster (photo courtesy 2729

Hyperion.com) and a mid 1960s house like this one at Sea Ranch by Joseph Esherick (photo courtesy Sea Ranch Escape).The layout of Plan 537-17 is

carefully thought out with a multi-functional island — for cooking and dining –

separating the kitchen from the living area, a large storage closet near the kitchen, and terraces at front and rear on the ground floor and deck above. The aim of Concept Home is to design houses that are flexible, functional, full of

natural light (this is Plan 537-4), and inexpensive to build. They feel natural and warm. And, according to Concept Home: “Most of our houses can be adjusted to passive house principles in a great variety of geographical locations. We believe that a modern house must be energy-efficient.” Bravo.

So welcome home, Andrus and Oliver — or should I say it in Estonian: Tere tulemast kodu!!


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






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.

Garden Spas and Tower Houses

Bubbles and Bromeliads

Summer’s end prompts one last grasp for outdoor recreation, say for this seductive, round stainless steel spa deftly set into a boulder-strewn backyard slope.

Thanks to the simple clarity of the design — a smoothly turned curve set into upper and lower decks that stair-step down the hill — it becomes an integral part of the landscape (unlike so many prefabricated spas that resemble huge plastic tub toys full of bubbling hot water). Rectangular versions can also become focal points instead of eyesores.
This one edges a patio close to the house and doubles as a garden seat.

Here the clear green-blue water stands out against the burnished steel of the spa and the red-brown of the wood deck, to make a serene reflecting pool when not in use (examples and photos courtesy Diamond Spas). Though custom-designed, these modern spas are less expensive than adding a pool, fit smaller spaces, and allow for year-round use. 

Rapunzel was a Ranger — and More

Small towers — with a room at the top for reading, sleeping, or just looking out – have been seductive since well before Rapunzel was asked to let down her hair. There’s just something very appealing about having your own retreat at least one story up with a commanding view across the landscape — especially to architects. Of course it helps to have a way in and out that doesn’t involve a lot of “product.” Montana architect Jeff Shelden of Prairie Wind Architecture designed a tower as a weekend getaway, and patterned it after fire lookouts in national forests, complete with a walk-around balcony.

I visited it with Jeff  during the winter a number of years ago and I was entranced. It has everything: the lower floor is a country kitchen

complete with an old-fashioned range, and a dining nook. Upstairs is the living

area and the wrap-around balcony sheltered by the pyramid roof.

San Francisco Architect Lewis Butler (Butler/Armsden Architects) has designed a getaway for his parents in California’s Central Valley that harks back to 19th and early 20th century water towers, as well as early  work by William Wurster.

A lookout is where the water tank would have been.

The view across fertile fields is majestic: “Good Morning, Yolo County!”

Much of the interior of the tower is occupied by the soaring master bedroom (a circular stair in one corner winds up to the lookout). The kitchen/living space is in the shed roofed section at the base.

An equally seductive tower house by Andersson-Wise Architects overlooks Lake Travis near Austin, Texas. 

Each of the lower two floors has a bedroom with a dramatic corner window. At the top is a kitchenette and dining terrace where I think every meal must

begin with a toast to Lake Travis (images courtesy Andersson Wise Architects). Arthur Andersson was a design partner of the late Charles Moore, who was one of the architects of Sea Ranch and other modern regionally evocative designs and founder of distinguished firms across the country. Moore’s Quarry Road House,  also in Austin, is a magic cabinet of design ideas in its own right and can be visited by appointment.

At Houseplans.com we have several tower plans, including Plan 64-202,

which includes two bedrooms on the ground floor, kitchen-dining in the middle, and living room at the top. Tower Studio Plan 479-6, by Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso, mentioned previously, is shown here included in a larger house.


Using a small tower element to define some aspect of a larger house or compound is a clever idea. It can help define an entry or organize a composition. I have even seen a very elegant modern house that included two towers diagonally opposite each other, designed for an artist and an architect — a sort of Romeo and Juliet approach but with a happy ending. Maybe Rapunzel can find a compatible Prince architect someday.