Monthly Archives: November 2009

Holiday Gifts for the Home

Start With a Bauhaus-designed Tree

Michael Cannell — our fearless correspondent in Manhattan, blogger for Fast Company, and former Home Editor for The New York Times — presents ten home-oriented gift suggestions for the holidays:

1. Believe it or not, fake Christmas trees are coming back into fashion as mid-century artifacts.

Kuno Prey, a Bauhaus professor, designed this 58-inch tree (it’s widest branches are 44 inches) to resemble a cluster of pipe cleaners. ($325)

2. Here’s a good way to replace ornaments dented or cracked in storage.

These felt holiday ornaments by Joshua Stone — snowflake, dove, tree, and snowman — are die cut from thick grey industrial wool. Each is threaded with orange yarn for hanging. ($20 for a set of four)

3. Kids will love this walking elephant because it trudges forward with a realistic rocking motion, making them feel like they’re on their own jungle safari.

Parents will love it because it’s made with non-toxic dye and chemical-free rubberwood. ($250)


4. These star-shaped lights can be hung from a light fixture, doorframe, or rafter to cast a dappled holiday glow.

Called Starlightz by Artecnica, they’re made from chlorine-free bleached paper and silk-screened and glued by hand. Light and cord included. ($35 each)

5. There’s no rule that you have to use those old-fashioned red-and-white stockings.

Give your mantel a more contemporary spin with wool felt stockings decorated with monkeys, mermaids and a surfing Santa from the New York textile company Hable Construction. ($76 to $135)

6. These super energy efficient L. E. D. (light emitting diode) mini lights — they use 80% less energy than conventional lights — will last up to 100,000 hours.

So no more replacing dimmed bulbs. Unlike earlier L.E.D. Christmas lights, which produced a bluish white, this version emits a pure white. ($14.95 for a string of 50 lights)


7. Here’s a modern variation on the cardboard take-out drink carrier: Brigade by Furni is a set of four porcelain cups, glazed on the interior and top lip.

They fit snugly into a walnut-veneer carrying tray so the quartet of mulled cider can be safely conveyed to the fireside. ($79) 

8. The mid-century designers Charles and Ray Eames were fascinated by toys. They scattered their office with a menagerie of playful objects, and in 1969 they made a short documentary about a spinning top.

Their interest prompted the artists James Klein and David Reid, who collaborate under the name KleinReid, to design a limited-edition set of three solid walnut tops made by Herman Miller. (set of three for $199)

9. How great is this? Bertand Planes, an artist and designer, created a mashup of high and low technologies by turning an iron windup music box into a USB drive.

The handle acts as a mouse, allowing you to scroll up and down text, change window size, etc. (Limited edition of five, price available on request) 

10. The holidays occur in waves: first comes the tsunami of catalogs. Then gifts. Finally, the obligatory thank you notes.

Make your gratitude stand out with these vintage-style cards from John Derian. ($1.50 apiece)

Thank you to you, also, Mike!

Modern Cottage and Bungalow Plans

In Pursuit of the Perfect Little House

I’m always looking for contemporary plans with a sense of history; that is, deft designs for modern living that also have warmth and character. Well, Eureka!  I’m very excited about the regionally-inspired designs by Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso for their Perfect Little House Company. These plans are the newest additions to our Signature Collection. For example, Plan 479-6,  the Tower Studio,

is actually a 262 square -foot  “micro cottage” with a small kitchen/living/sleeping area and bathroom

over a compact one car garage. I think it’s an ideal home office/retreat. With its simple square shape, tapering shingled walls, pyramid roof, and band of windows at the top it recalls early 20th century forest fire lookouts across the rural West, from Tumac Mountain Lookout

near Washington’s Mt. Rainier (Bob Baldwin photo, above) to

California’s  Gardner Lookout on Mt. Tamalpais (courtesy California State Parks). What could be more fitting for a writer’s retreat than a lookout, anyway —  isn’t that right, Virginia Woolf?  I’ll take it!

Classic early 20th century cottages,  bungalows, and farmhouses — which were themselves usually built from stock plans — are important reference points for Peter and Stella. Their 780 square-foot Willow, Plan 479-9,

wraps a generous porch around a compact 1 bedroom 1.5 bath layout to make the house feel larger than it is. A starter home with architectural character — suitable for an infill lot in an older neighborhood or as a mountain or lakeside cabin — this plan

could easily be expanded at the stairway as the family grows and budgets allow. Upstairs,  windows on all four sides

flood the bedroom and bathroom with daylight. Now compare this modern design to the 1908 Wietzel House from Tukwila, WA, shown below,

(photo courtesy Nickel Bros. House Moving). The old bracketed eaves, L-shaped porch, and big gable (not necessarily the weedy front yard) are signature features of many old cottages and farmhouses.  Add a contemporary looking standing seam metal roof and crisp shingled corners and some color — not to mention a new open floor plan — and there you are: another Perfect Little House.  Or compare the Weitzel house to The Cove, Plan 479-2 —  shown below.

It’s even closer in appearance — as if the older house has simply been remodeled. In the  new plan

the garage is on an alley at the rear.

On a somewhat larger scale, the Perfect Little House Company’s 1,914 square-foot, 3 bedroom 2.5 bath Kingfisher, Plan 479-4

offers larger gathering spaces and cozy nooks for reading and relaxing,

and on the second floor each bedroom is designed as a large window bay

for views across the treetops. Note the free-flowing circulation pattern — you can walk through the bathroom to the closet and back through the master bedroom — which adds a sense of spaciousness.

The trellis, shed dormers, and simple gable (shown above in the rear elevation of Plan 474-4) echo features of early Craftsman style houses, like this example

in Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman magazine (courtesy Arts and Crafts Homes magazine).

Peter and Stella earned their architecture degrees from the University of Michigan and recently founded the Perfect Little House Company as an offshoot of their firm, BC & J Architects. Peter has extensive town planning experience with emphasis on project management and building technology, and teaches architecture at the University of Washington. Their Cottages on the Green at Roche Harbor,

shown here, create a strong sense of place: it’s a new community that feels as though it has always been there. Welcome to our neighborhood, Peter and Stella!

Frames of Reference

Boxes and Barn Doors

I am always struck by how important frames are, visually and virtually, in helping us see. Take this very simple vignette by artist Spy Emerson that caught my eye recently at Flora Grubb, an exceptional garden design nursery in San Francisco.


The wood box — no bottom, just sides — focuses the eye on the blue bottles and the small plants, creating a vivid still life. The rough wood and the way the plants extend beyond the frame reinforce the naturalness of the arrangement. So sometimes thinking inside the box is more important. Flora Grubb is a talented designer/entrepreneur whose sense of composition is especially strong. She is most famous for her dramatic vertical succulent gardens — framed in sturdy boxes like this one

succulent wall

on the patio of her plant gallery. Each of those tiny plants comprising the mosaic grows out of a small soil niche that’s set on a slight diagonal. The frame literally holds everything together while the strong outline contrasting with the busy field of green is visually compelling in its own right. The surprising vertical placement is the clincher, making us look again — and again.

All of this rumination is by way of considering how we design or reinvent the boxes we inhabit and call home. The shape and character of the frame — walls and windows, their depth, height, materiality, proportion, and placement — are the keys to good design. One frame that has always appealed to me is the barn door. I like it because it’s a space saver (no extra feet required for the door swing — I like pocket doors too for the same reason), and it makes the opening simple and dramatic

photo2 atherton hse by tgh

as in this marvelous house by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects (photo courtesy the architects) where one outside wall opens through a series of elegant contemporary glass barn doors. Here the door becomes a feature in its own right and also disappears as one slides across the other.

photo4 atherton inside-outside

It’s a form of architectural magic.  Barn doors always seem to harbor an element of surprise when they’re used indoors, as in this more rustic example  by Johnston Architects of Seattle.

cabin-bedroom-l barn homes by mary

Here they open to reveal the bedroom, as if it’s on stage (photo courtesy Sunset Magazine). In many cases there are latent or obvious references


to real barns with elements like exposed diagonal bracing and expressive hardware. The example above is by Hutker Architects of Boston, Falmouth and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts (photo by Brian Vanden Brink). The rustic aspect can become a signature feature and is used to dramatic effect by Faulkner Architects of Lake Tahoe and Truckee, California

tahoe-house-barn-door-l tahoe idea house, sunset

and seems especially appropriate for a rugged ski country home (photo courtesy Sunset Magazine). There are almost as many examples of sliding barn doors as conventional swing types because almost any solid door can be hung on barn door hardware.

Hardware choices include spoked flat track

spoked flat track

(shown above), heftier barn-evocative type

flattrack02sm u shape

as in this U-shape example, and elaborate stainless steel systems

section3_img stainless steel track

as shown here. All three tracks are from Barndoor

Though a very simple architectural element, the barn door — like the box frame — can become a defining feature.

Micro Cottages

Thinking Big By Starting Small

I met up with a developer friend at the in San Francisco this week (more about this event in a later post), and he said he was looking for what he called “Micro Cottages.” It made me think about plans that might start small and grow over time when circumstances and budgets allow — which seems a practical approach to home building in the current economy. So of course I looked through our inventory and created a collection of plans that are 1,000 square feet and under. For example, Plan 536-4, by architect Bruce Tolar.


shown here, is a 672 square foot “shotgun” design,

536-4 plan

with rooms organized in a straight line. I can see adding onto this plan off the kitchen-dining area by the little deck, for more bedrooms or a side-oriented garage, which could also create a sheltered patio.

Or take one of Bill Turnbull’s Sea Ranch Cottages, like Plan 447-1,

447-1e-650 cottage photo

a little smaller at 650 square feet. The porch is an important expander in good weather. (Photo by Morley Baer, copyright The Morley Baer Photography Trust, Santa Fe; all reproduction rights reserved.)

447-1mf-650second image

A simple way to enlarge this plan would be to add more bedrooms and bathrooms off the living room and turn part of the front porch into a glazed hallway leading to them. Then the main living space could take over the original sleeping area.

For more “Start Small” home ideas see our Micro Cottage and Tiny Houses Collection. Each could grow up to be a larger home someday.