Monthly Archives: October 2009

Illuminate the Dining Table

Contemporary Dinner Lighting

Because darkness is falling earlier these days, let’s talk about certain slants of lighting (with apologies to Emily Dickinson). I’m thinking of ways to brighten the dining area in time for the family gatherings that are just around the corner. The variety in contemporary pendant lamps, for example, is vast. Here’s a sampling. 

asset_upload_file132_2027 aura from surrounding lighting

The 7- by 11-inch “Aura” Resolute from Surrounding Lighting, with its amber-hued whirl shape made from printed polycarbonate plastic, takes a compact fluorescent bulb and would suit a dining alcove. The “Moare”

ylighting_2078_5766966 moare from ylighting

Moare mesh-covered drum-within-a-drum design at ylighting comes in small, medium, and large sizes (up to 24.8 inch-diameter by 24 inch-high).  It uses an incandescent bulb. The free form 


WillyDilly pendant by Ingo Maurer at Ambiente Direct uses stiffened card and plastic, takes a halogen bulb, and is put together by the purchaser. These more dramatic pendants would suit larger spaces.

A more eclectic though still contemporary approach would be to mix a traditional fixture with modern furnishings — a simple candle chandelier from Shaker Workshops like this one

shaker chandelier

would work well with more contemporary furnishings.

A friend has an antique candle chandelier on a rope and pulley so that it can be lowered and lit and then raised to the appropriate height — this might be the perfect solution for adding romance and a sense of history to your evening meal. Another friend scoured junk stores for old electric chandeliers, rewired several,  and strung them up on pulleys in the trees around the house for his daughter’s wedding reception. Now that was a magical evening!

As you browse pendant possibilities think about the kind of light you want and balance that with projected energy use: fixtures designed for compact fluorescent bulbs remain an important eco-friendly alternative to typical incandescent lights, though even more efficient LED (light emitting diode) fixtures are developing fast.

If  you want your light to be on the table itself — with old fashioned candle power — check out these intensely colorful glass votives


from GlassyBaby. They come in a great many nature-based hues. A recent GlassyBaby blog post

6a00d8341fce4953ef0120a66b6565970c-320wi glassy baby blog

even matches a range of votives to a collection of fall leaves.

Or consider a modern candelabra

PT0010S_1_Zoom dutch by design slim candelabra

such as this solid chrome example by Design Mango from Dutch by Design. I like the contrast between the minimalist base and the slightly wavery candles…it’s ultra-sleek and Shaker-simple at the same time.

So now that you have the lighting, what about the room? An open layout means the dining table is all the more important as a place to dine, work, play games, and relax. Thus flexible lighting — often complementing fixed downlights in the ceiling — is important. In this compact row house, Plan 469-2


the table is under the stair, which creates a feeling of intimacy so a small adjustable pendant would work well. For a more open area, either directly in front of the kitchen island, as in Plan 436-1


or off to one side in a section of the great room, as in  Plan132-221 below

132-221 kitchen dining

a more expansive and dramatic sculptural fixture creates a focal point to define the dining area within the larger space. For more dining area ideas browse our Room Collections.

As you explore, think about how your ideal dining area will function at different times of day and try to imagine it in daylight and illumined at night. With the right lighting you should be able to create a variety of moods to match different occasions.

Modern Living At Bat

Hitting Home

The approaching World Series makes me think about connections between baseball and contemporary home design. Themed decor is an obvious overlap and a brief web search produces an array of examples. 

 Baseball wall murals

baseball_fl_top mural from wallpapers, murals, blinds, and more!

like this 9- by 15-foot example from Classic Wallcoverings, Inc., might suit a media or family room. (Bring out the garlic fries!) 

Naturally every front doormat

FireShot capture #252 - 'HOME PLATE MAT I Home Plate Mat Welcomes Baseball Fans at Your Door I UncommonGoods' - www_uncommongoods_com_item_item_jsp_itemId=15042

is really home base. The one shown above is from Uncommon Goods.

Interestingly, the baseball diamond makes a useful house plan diagram. For example, if I rotate Plan 48-415 slightly,

48-415mf-1891 mascord plan

home base becomes the front entry; first base: bedroom 2; second: the master suite; and third: the kitchen. The dining area makes a good shortstop — for a short stack? — and the great room is a natural infield. Of course the back yard becomes the outfield and maybe the garage is the dugout. (You can’t do this with football.) The point is that a simple way of organizing a home is to think of it as a malleable baseball diamond. The tricky part is adjusting the space between the major rooms, er bases. You can borrow space but there’s no stealing.


Baseball has other connections to home design. My wife and I were in Buenos Aires earlier this year, visiting our daughter on her semester abroad. She had a room in the elegant early 20th century house of a remarkable woman named Diana who had raised three children there after her husband suddenly died. A plant-filled front hall, high ceilings — some a little crumbly and patched but full of character and style — welcoming dining and living rooms, and a roof deck were key features. Diana spoke very movingly of the house as “my partner in raising the children.” The roof deck was especially important as a protected place for them to play in that particularly dense section of the city. In other words, like a dependable catcher, a good house is a team player, working with you as life throws new challenges, allowing you to live not just more comfortably, but more fully.

Outfields of Dreams

The roof deck-as-team-player is worth considering for houses on tight lots with little yard space. The deck can be at the top of the house

431-8alt2-2386 for roof deck

as in Gregory La Vardera’s Cube House, Plan 431-8, or to one side

472-7e-1905 for roofdeck

shown here over the carport in Plan 472-7, or


above a detached garage as Plan 64-195 shows. In all of these cases you just have to be sure your decking is over a gently sloped, well drained, and permanently sealed (often with an elastomeric membrane) roof.

Another way to to make sure your chosen plan is a team player is to customize it by building in a little flexibility; for example, by making sure there’s a ground floor bedroom and bath for when stairs become a problem. A good house plan can accommodate the seventh inning stretch.

West Coast Green and the Solar Decathlon

New Green Ideas for the Home

The 2009 West Coast Green environmental showcase took place on the two main piers at San Francisco’s picturesque Fort Mason. A novel 200 foot-long bamboo trellis demonstration garden by Design Ecology — resembling a line of teepee frames —

West Coast Green  and Las Vegas 015

connected the exhibit halls and served as the emblem of the show.

Design Ecology drawing

The walkway’s native and drought-tolerant plant habitat, shown above in a schematic, illustrated key storm water filtration strategies: landscape buffer, hanging gardens as pre-filtration, and in-situ water treatment. Plans for a floating exhibit did not work out this year but I think a modern demonstration houseboat with a living roof would be a great draw in the future — call it the SS Green Living!

Here are some other new home products that stood out.  Nick Lee ( Services, Inc. Chief of Design) also toured the show and contributed several discoveries.

Green Lights. This trumpet vine-shaped LED (light emitting diode) pendant light system

M262 LED pendant from EST

is from Energy Savings Technology, LLC, a small Northern California company. The shape is a classic but using it to surround an LED light is new. The company also offers a sleek tube shaped light

M410_01 led light pendant from est

for installations over a counter or dining table. According to engineer-founder Gerhard Hoog  these lights provide either warm or neutral white light and up to 80% power savings compared to halogen spots or flood lights. They are fully dimmable.

Renaissance in Wood. That new hardwood floor you have been considering (actually I have been dreaming of replacing the dark brown tile in my kitchen with wood) might be older than you think. Recycled wood for flooring, furniture, and cabinetry is an expanding category at the show, with several companies represented. Wood Anchor, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, specializes in reclaiming and reusing wood from urban elm trees (victims of Dutch elm disease) and demolished grain elevators to produce flooring

West Coast Green  and Las Vegas 021

as shown above, and they’re always looking for more. As their website says: “Will Work For Wood.” I coveted their stools

West Coast Green  and Las Vegas 019

reclaimed from old timbers. 

An innovative new wood flooring product was literally uncorked at the show: it’s made from slices of wine corks.


These Showercork™ mosaic tiles by Sustainable Floors have a resilient cushiony feel. They come in 12- by 24-inch by 1/4 inch-thick sheets

showercork2 intallation

and are installed over a mastic, then grouted and sealed with a urethane finish like ceramic tile.

Fresh Air. With new homes becoming air-tight thanks to more efficient insulation and building systems, poor indoor air quality can be a problem. Enter the electric Lifebreath Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV),

155_max_large lifebreath air exchange

which moves stale, contaminated, warm air from the house to outdoors and draws fresh oxygen-laden air from outside and distributes it throughout the house.

illustration.medium air exchanger

The two air streams pass on either side of an aluminum heat-exchange core that transfers heat from outgoing to incoming air. So on cold days warmth is retained as the air gets refreshed.

Green Days on The Capitol Steps

Take a look at this year’s Solar Decathlon on The Mall in Washington, D. C., ending this week.

2009 Solar Decathlon

Sponsored by the Department of Energy (photo above by Stefano Paltera for DOE), this international competition among college teams to design, build, and operate highly energy-efficient, completely solar-powered houses has resulted in an especially innovative crop of designs. It’s a veritable world’s fair of green architecture. Here are some highlights (photos by Jim Tetro, US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon).

Team Spain — photovoltaic walls and sun-tracking roof:


Team Germany — louvers of integrated thin-film copper indium selenide cells (CIGS):


Cornell University — corrugated drum shapes and solar panels:


Team California — solar power and maximized indoor-outdoor living:


University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign — Midwest farmhouse forms and recycled barn wood:


The Ohio State University– recycled wood and solar collectors:


Rice University — growing walls:


This year winning teams will be awarded $100,000 over two years to support the Solar Decathlon’s research goal of reducing the cost of solar-powered homes and advancing solar technology. Check out the Solar Decathlon website for in-depth coverage. What a great way to use the nation’s outdoor living room below the Capitol! Members of Congress strolled this “solar subdivision” on their front lawn with evident interest.

Once and Future Home Ideas

Drawing from Disney

Walt Disney was fascinated with the shaping of space both visually and physically, from the way he transformed the animated film to his invention of the modern theme park. I think architecture was always an important theme for him, like the shiny-bright suburb in the Goofy cartoon Motor Mania of 1950 or the suave contemporary ranch house in the original Parent Trap of 1961. I vividly remember touring Monsanto’s  House of the Future at Disneyland


(image with its curvilinear white plastic pods

monsanto04 section,

cantilevered over a central support and utility podium ( Though designed not by Disney but by two MIT professors — who must have been channeling Buckminster Fuller

Dymaxion House model from website

and his similarly central-masted Minimum Dymaxion house of 1929 — Walt had the sense to give the plastic Monsanto house a ten-year lease in Tomorrowland. The swoopy modern  furniture from fifty years ago

monsanto05 lv rm

still looks contemporary today ( photo)

I was reminded of these images and Disney’s huge influence on design and our appreciation of it when I toured the superb Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. Two hours flew by. I felt I had stumbled into an animated autobiography, or rather, a compelling four-dimensional biopic.

San Francisco’s Page & Turnbull Architects have deftly inserted the state-of-the-art museum

WDFM by Cesar Rubio

into an historic 19th century brick row (photo by Cesar Rubio) along the Presidio’s parade ground — which is itself like a distant extension of Disneyland’s own Main Street. From the front there’s no hint of the wonderland within. And at the rear only an elegant glass skin

Disney Museum

drawn across an addition (photo by Bruce Damonte) suggests a house of marvels. You experience the museum as a journey through Walt’s life with text blocks, still images, film clips, memorabilia, and narrations by Walt and others every few feet along a carefully choreographed and roughly chronological path. It’s a soft cacophony of sounds and images,  a “dark ride” that you walk, and even then it’s impossible to absorb everything.

Highlights for me are the multi-story “multiplane camera” that allowed Disney  filmmakers to create a realistic sense of depth within animations, the clever elevator that’s designed as a train car (the vertical naturally becomes the horizontal in this Looking Glass world), and the sleek modern terrazzo-and-glass mini-Guggenheim ramp

dol_dfm_v10__0042_MUSEUM-_-museum-campus_disneyland gallery

(image courtesy Walt Disney Family Museum) spiraling around a huge and meticulously detailed scale model of Disneyland.

In one sense it’s all a bit deifying, as if Walt were a latter day King Tut, but — as they say in Egypt — what a cool tomb! And here the hieroglyphics even dance to Silly Symphonies.

Beyond the Casino

I was also in Las Vegas last week, for a talk about Cliff May’s ranch houses at the Las Vegas Market (Design Center) which is another sort of  “ride.”


Well off the Strip on the north end of town across from City Hall (you can see the Stratosphere Casino tower in the background), this enormous furnishings marketplace is a contemporary landmark in its own right. The complex consists of a series of interpenetrating cubes and polygons that wrap around a 15 story tall central court that’s open to the sky,

West Coast Green  and Las Vegas 025

like a box canyon from Red Rocks Park  reassembled as a building. It feels like the entrance to Oz. One of the great things about this design center is that it’s open to the general public, not just to professional designers. The Center’s Design Salon


offers consumers the ability to purchase designer furnishings previously offered only to the trade. Complimentary one-hour consultations with interior designers accredited by the American Society of Interior Designers are also offered. It’s a good place to get ideas for shaping or reshaping your home.

A short ride away is the new 180 acre Springs Preserve, Las Vegas’ answer to Tucson’s Living Desert Museum, and built on the site of the original springs for which the city is named (vega means spring in Spanish).

West Coast Green  and Las Vegas 047

Here’s one of  the rotundas, recalling a sculptural sundial or open cistern. Part of the vast indoor-outdoor complex comprises a  sustainability hall where one gallery has  been turned into a model home — which puts a novel recycling spin on that overworked trademark phrase “what’s done in Vegas stays in Vegas.” One of the most effective exhibits here

West Coast Green  and Las Vegas 043

West Coast Green  and Las Vegas 044

simply shows how much water is used in a typical five-minute shower with and without a low flow showerhead. (Nothing about sand baths, however…) Elsewhere in the museum you can experience a simulated desert flash flood (perhaps the other side of sustainability?) which in this case is fun: inside one of the buildings you stand on a metal bridge across a boulder-strewn arroyo and suddenly the water surges around and under you.

So what does it signify, when Disney comes to San Francisco and resource conservation arrives in Las Vegas? That may sound like the resolution of some distant prophecy but I think it means that things are looking up.

In other news, check out Design Writer Tracey Taylor’s  fine article about about us and affordable home design in the Financial Times! 

Modern Living Around the World

House Plans from Italy and India

Our window on the modern home is widening: we’ve recently added some exciting (and exclusive to us) contemporary plans from abroad. Plan 473-1 by architect Lorenzo Spano, originally of Terni, Italy, takes  an artful and sleek approach to indoor-outdoor living, from the cylindrical chimney floating over a circular hearth


that draws your gaze into the landscape (in a retro wave at mid-century modernity), to the dramatic concrete cantilever


that shades one side of the house,


to the seamless connection to a pool terrace on the other side. A roof deck also overlooks the water.

Plan 467-2, by Mumbai architect Rinka D’Monte opens up a simple box with walls of glass.


The floor plan takes the form of two rectangular volumes that appear to slide past


each other, which allows room for private decks at front and rear.  It’s a new twist on the row house idea. We’ll be adding more international plans shortly.

Dutch Design and Other Inspirations in New York

I just returned from New York City, where I visited Governor’s Island off the tip of Lower Manhattan.

The Historic District and Lower Manhattan

It’s a remarkable enclave of early 19th and 20th century Army and Coast Guard houses, barracks, forts, and other structures now being preserved by the Governor’s Island Preservation and Education Committee  (GIPEC), a New York State agency. One model for them might be the public-private joint venture at San Francisco’s Presidio, which was reinvented as a national park.

When I toured the Island the historic officer’s houses (at lower right in photo above) were being used for art installations celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Dutch arrival in New Amsterdam (New York). Droog, the innovative Dutch industrial design and branding firm was one of the participants and worked with artist Marije Vogelzang (she is known as an “eating-designer”) to convert one house into a “Go Slow Cafe” that I found very appealing. I entered an all-white room and was asked to take off my shoes — the first gesture toward slowing down —  and then sat at a white table. Lunch arrived on a simple board, like this:

CM in Encino, W Esherick, NYC Sept 09 041

with circles around each item noting the distance it had traveled. The wood and the food comprised the only color in the space. The point: to slow down, focus on the meal,  and think about the energy used to bring us sustenance. The generous sampling of lettuce and cheese came from less than 100 miles away while the small portion of Chinese lychees (the white fruit at right) came many thousands of miles. For a while I was alone at the table as other visitors ambled past. I felt like part of the installation, which I guess I was. Of course another way to “slow down” like this is simply to have a real conversation with your family over the dinner table!

Droog is a fascinating global firm and reminds me of Marcel Duchamp in the way they transform an everyday object into something unusual.  The word droog, in Dutch, means “dry” or “wry.” One of Droog’s more provocative products is the “Do hit Chair”:


a metal box that comes with a sledgehammer allowing you to bang it

FireShot capture #236 - 'Droog products __ Studio work__ Do hit chair' - www_droog_com_products_0_do-hit-chair

(and your frustrations, presumably) into shape.

At the Island, Droog took a somewhat calmer, “Do Hit the Cool-It Button” approach (as we have seen) and also supplied products for an intriguing temporary design  store designed by Marcel Schmalgemeijer. He stacked chairs to create shelving and display units like this:

CM in Encino, W Esherick, NYC Sept 09 039

It makes you reconsider the typical rented party chair  — maybe a way to use that leftover furniture in your basement…

Finally, I just had to visit one of the greatest American Beaux Arts monuments: the monumental New York Public Library of 1911, by Carerre & Hastings. Now this is a room for reading!

CM in Encino, W Esherick, NYC Sept 09 048

In the age of Kindles and I-phones, it still has the power to awe and made me appreciate anew the grandeur and majesty that can arise from the intersection of knowledge and imagination. And outside, the famous lions

CM in Encino, W Esherick, NYC Sept 09 049

are still guarding the majestic Fifth Avenue entrance. Read about them and New York’s many other landmarks in the just published Public Art New York by architect Jean Parker Phifer (W. W. Norton 2009).


Deftly written, it’s an indispensable guidebook to every monument worth seeing in Metropolis. From the book I learned that the lions, sculpted by Edward Clark Potter in 1911, are named “Patience” and “Fortitude.” I think they’re good to have around in a time of economic uncertainty. Don’t leave home without them.