Desk Design, Jefferson, and Siting Help from Don Lyndon

Looking In and Looking Out

I should have taken a “Before” photo of my desk and the surrounding area, with its sea of loose manila file folders crashing against reefs of brochures, books, magazines, and rolls of drawings. The new year seemed a good time to clean up my act: now the tide of paper has receded, if only briefly,  and the desk is visible again. So work surfaces and paper storage are on my mind, like the handsome bent bamboo  K Work Station by the innovative design firm MisoSoup:

It creates a serenely efficient corner office, though I would need space for conventional non-computer files (not to mention a waste basket).  Older desks often have more storage compartments — for a more paper-dependent age no doubt — such as this stair-stepping antique from the 1920s by designer Paul Frankl (image courtesy the very informative interior design resource Design2Share).

It takes inspiration from the signature silhouettes of New York’s Art Deco skyscrapers and is all about storage, as if Rockefeller Center were really one big filing cabinet above an ice skating rink  — which come to think of it, it is (I love those morphing metaphors!). The simplest way to deal with clutter is not to organize it but to hide it, which is what the rolltop desk does so well. The famous example by George Nelson for Herman Miller from 1964

simply pulls a tambour door across the low work surface, like a wooden blanket (image and Gueridon). But I’m afraid if it were my desk the cover would never completely close. Then again some designers appear to be “embracing the clutter,” as this example does,

with built-in bins for rounding everything up (I found this image on Dornob, a website full of fascinating design and furniture ideas). Room and Board’s Eames File Drawer Desk

remains a classic and would meet some of my needs. But I think my favorite example of a great desk is the one Thomas Jefferson designed in 1776 for use while traveling between Monticello and Philadelphia:

(both images courtesy The Smithsonian). This is the original lap top/I-Pad for writing occasional notes and the odd Declaration of Independence. In the end all you really need is a wide flat surface, good lighting, storage drawers, and inspiration.

The first weeks of the year are also a good time to look outward and for me that means thinking about siting. I asked the eminent architect Donlyn Lyndon — one of the designers of Sea Ranch (and author of the definitive book about it),  co-author with Charles Moore and Gerald Allen of the influential The Place of Houses

and Emeritus Professor of Architecture at U. C. Berkeley — for advice to share with prospective house plan purchasers. Here’s what he very eloquently wrote for me: “Siting is about Making Places. Siting is about making connections — to the ground; to the sky; to neighbors; to existing vegetation; to water and its flows, both natural and channeled; to the sun and the wind; to transportation. Siting is making the most of your surroundings; finding the best places to be for various activities, inside and out.”

He wants you to think creatively about the site even before you start looking for a house plan. He continues: “The first step is to examine your site, imagine being in it in various ways and at differing times of day and season. Make careful note of levels and change/slope of the ground. Get a sense of its dimensions by positioning yourself in ways that you expect to interact with people and measuring the distances.” I would add that a way to start thinking about such connections would be to find a few plans that already show some sort of site relationship,

the way Ross Anderson’s Ranch House Plan 433-2 wraps around a courtyard;  or the way Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso’s Whitehall Plan 479-8

uses porches and dormers to capture views; or the way Daniel E. Bush’s Modern Living Plan 460-3

opens to a variety of outdoor spaces.

Donlyn sums up his recipe for siting success: ” Choose a house plan not just on what looks good to you, but on what plan will do three things: Make rooms in the right places on the site; Make best advantage of your site and its views, outlooks/connections; Make sense with your neighbor/neighborhood, add value to the place. Then start imagining how that plan can best fit on the site, given the findings above. Make several different arrangements of the house on the land and imagine what might eventually be added to the site.”  (You can find more detailed analysis of siting principles in his Place of Houses book.) I think Donlyn must have been using that Jefferson desk — we should hold his truths to be self-evident.

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