Monthly Archives: March 2011

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, 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 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.

Small Modern Cabins and Veneer Stone

More from Mies

Mies van der Rohe’s famous phrase “Less is More” described his method of reducing a design to essential elements like glass, steel, simple forms, and strict proportions. It was a way of concentrating on the shaping of functional spaces without being distracted by extraneous details. It’s an approach that’s neatly illustrated in some of our newest home designs, like the one bedroom, 860 square-foot  Cocoon Cottage Plan 517-1, by architect Jonathan Feldman, which is part of our Signature Plans Collection.

The layout is simplicity itself: three splayed Us  — like small stages — slide against each other and angle toward exterior openings for carport, living area, and bedroom.The bathroom is at the rear, in the most enclosed part of the bedroom U.

The bedroom illustrates how each section orients toward an opening or view — in this case to a small patio and rolling hills. The kitchen/dining/living space

at the center feels spacious despite its small size because it is treated as a frame, not just a box to fill. One functional area borrows space from the other and walls have double functions, becoming a built-in daybed over the large storage drawer in one corner and a rolling barn door — more of a moving wall than a door — across the opening to the laundry/pantry in the other. An understated palette of concrete, wood, and glass continues into the bathroom,

enhancing the uncluttered atmosphere and thus the feeling of spaciousness. There’s also a rhythm to the design, with the master bedroom opening to the private side of the cottage and the kitchen/dining/living space to the public or entry side. Windows on two sides of each space provide balanced light. It’s a modern vacation cabin that’s designed to complement nature.

Another Exclusive Studio design, the 950 square-foot Wavewatcher Plan 479-1 by architects Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso, takes a more rustic approach but achieves similar ends.

Deck, window bays, and shed dormer animate what is a simple gable-roofed box — like a seaside  chalet. An open plan and doors to the wrap-around deck

on two sides make the bottom floor feel expansive. Upstairs the simplest details,

a window bay for each bedroom and the long shed dormer enclosing the window seat/dressing area (treated as a balcony overlooking the living area), transform an ordinary box into Vacationland.

Both houses show “escape artists” at work: they pull architecture out of a hat.


Veneer stone continues to improve in quality and has become an artful alternative to the real thing, as I saw at the International Home Builder Show in January. It’s lighter and easier to use and new variations are appearing all the time. El Dorado Stone’s introductions, like this “dry stack” fireplace example “Ledge Cut 33” in a color called “Birch”

or the more traditional Mediterranean look of their “Cypress Ridge” pattern in a color called “Orchard” are especially eye catching. A close-up view shows

how authentic the product is. Made of portland cement, lightweight aggregates, and mineral oxide colors, it’s cast in molds made from real stones. El Dorado stone has even developed regional variations in some patterns for  different parts of the country.

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!