Category Archives: holiday gift ideas

Holiday Bookshelf: On Kitchens, Salvage, Edward Durell Stone

Supporting Ideas

Before I recommend some home design-related books for your last-minute gift list, let’s consider the bookshelf that will hold those new tomes. Thanks to a cool website called The Design Vote, I came across a poetic version: two artworks by Mike & Maike (produced and sold by an innovative design company called Blankblank) that comment on the influence of words and ideas. Each is a cluster of books on a single theme notched into a shelf that’s a piece of reclaimed hardwood.  One, called “Juxtaposition: Religion” holds religious tracts, including the Bible, Qur’an, and Tao Te Ching (according to the company the art piece is one of twelve things Gwyneth Paltrow can’t live without).

The other,  “Juxtaposition: Power” holds political treatises, from Plato’s

Republic to The Communist Manifesto. By bringing such volumes together and scribing slots for them into the wood so that they all sit at the same level, the artist makes us think about the influence of each book, their competition with each other, and how juxtaposition is important in stimulating curiosity and the imagination itself. The fact that each book has its specific (literal?) slot is also suggestive —

things can get messy — and interesting — when ideas move off the page (out of the slots we invent for them) and into the world at large (a land of many suppositions and juxtapositions).

On a somewhat more practical level, what’s a good shelf that’s flexible enough for changing needs and expanding collections? We used the infinitely adjustable Rakks system of extruded aluminum shelf supports (photo courtesy Rakks),

in the laundry and closets of our Online Ranch House, Plan 508-1 (detail below). The brackets notch into the vertical strips at any point so shelves can be placed

at whatever level you wish. We’ll be using the same system in our Online Country House, Plan 508-2, which is now under construction.

Three New Design Books

Counter Space, by Juliet Kinchin with Aidan O’Connor, accompanied the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition on design and the modern kitchen – shown below – and offers a fascinating look at how

architects, product designers, and artists re-imagined the kitchen in the 20th century. For some, such as Viennese architect Grete Schutte-Lohotzky,

it was a kind of laboratory where efficiency, cleanliness, and storage became standard elements. The photo shows the MOMA exhibition replica of her 1926-27 “Frankfurt Kitchen” for affordable public housing. MOMA started collecting stylish kitchen implements in the mid 1930s. Ideas for “Kitchens of Tomorrow” proliferated during World War II. Tupperware appeared in 1958. Television writers and film directors used the kitchen to communicate harmony or chaos. In short, it’s a huge subject – this book just scratches the surface – or should I say, scrubs the sink.

Salvage is always of interest but especially during a difficult economy, so I was drawn to Salvage Secrets by Joanne Palmisano (W. W. Norton & Co.),

which offers a wealth of ideas for using old objects and materials in new ways. She includes a helpful lexicon — for example, recycled refers to items made from salvaged materials whose basic structure has been changed and repurposed means  items reused in a different area of the home or used in a different way — like the antique swing doors adapted as sliders, shown below.

Chapters are on wood, glass, metal, stone/concrete/brick/ceramics, lighting, where to find salvage outlets (a countrywide listing is included), and design concepts. The book shows the wide range of salvageable material available and what to do with it.

Edward Durell Stone was one of the most influential yet least appreciated modern architects. His work was uneven but fascinating. The excellent and exhaustive new biography by his son, architect Hicks Stone (Rizzoli, publisher)

lucidly describes the man, his work, and his contradictions. An abstract modernist, he was strongly influenced by pattern and texture. He developed a form of ornamental grillwork — beginning during his participation in the design of Radio City Music Hall during the 1930s — that culminated in his famous American Embassy in New Delhi,

completed in 1959 (image above courtesy David Cobb Craig blog; below, courtesy Goat Hill Resorts).

Hicks writes that here “Stone had essentially taken a glass building and wrapped it with ornamental screen block.” The interior courtyard is an elegant water garden, expressing — with the screens — not just connections to Indian landmarks like the Taj Mahal, but also to Stone’s lifelong interest in unifying indoor and outdoor space (photo below courtesy

Stone later used similar concrete block grills on other commissions and then other architects and designers copied the idea and it became a cliché-victim of its own success. (I remember wondering about such screens on dental offices and shopping malls as a boy.) Stone rose from poverty to become one of the country’s most successful architects who counted Eero Saarinen, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and other visionaries among his friends. He also designed some of the earliest dramatically modern American residences,

like the Mandel house at Mt. Kisco, New York, of 1935, with its iconic curving

glass block dining room (photos courtesy Arch News Now). And yet he had a lifelong drinking problem that no doubt lead to his multiple marriages, poorly managed office, and work that occasionally verged on the simplistic and banal. The story brings an important but largely forgotten architect, and architectural culture, back to life. It turns out Stone isn’t easy to pigeonhole — or slip into a notch on a book shelf.

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 “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.”


Plant Globes, Wrightian Doormats, and Other Holiday Ideas

Random Access Gift Online Update Tips (or RAGOUT)

Now that we’re in December it’s time to browse the i-cloud for holiday present possibilities, so here’s a quick website round-up. To set the mood: seasonal items from Flora Grubb Gardens online shop, an unusual design-oriented nursery in San Francisco (and mentioned in a previous post) famous for their vertical wall plantings. The hanging globe containing tillandsias — so-called air plants that need no soil (a species of epiphytes and part of the Bromeliad family) —

caught my eye for its elegant simplicity. And it’s growing. Another ingenious product is the succulent ornament consisting of a special hanger

for one plant. Living ornaments for living trees! Speaking of succulents, Flora Grubb now offers a do-it-yourself kit to help you approximate their impressive succulent wall gardens, like this one

Here’s the tray that holds all the plants.

(Previous photos courtesy Flora Grubb Gardens.) If you plan to be in the San Francisco Bay Area during the holidays this

place is worth a visit — and there’s even a cafe so you can sip while you search. I photographed the wall of succulent wreaths when I visited last week.

To continue the nature/diy approach, what about drink coasters made from  your own images downloaded from the computer?

I used my photos of things like — naturally, for me, chiseled granite  — and they seemed to work well. I ordered the photo coasters from Shutterfly.

Candles are an easy and festive present but it can be difficult to find simple ones.

I found these slender vividly-hued, 13-inch tall, dripless tapers at Terrestra, a store of well-curated modern objects.

Industrial designer Eric Pfeiffer over at The Utility Collective continues to produce innovative furniture. His most recent introduction is the series of  memorably monikered “Cross Dressers,”

so-named because each bureau or end table rests on crossed legs. The handsome contemporary units are made of hand-selected veneers mounted to formaldehyde-free plywood panels. 

If you have followed this blog you know my fixation with architectural toy blocks. I recently found other sources for the artificial stone Anchor blocks, made in Germany: Fatbraintoys offers a basic set of the blocks, which can build a small Medieval 

gateway like this (photo courtesy Ankerstein, the key Anchor Stone Building Block site in Germany). The sets are numbered and provide plans for larger and larger structures, from houses to castles. The Toy House website offers a variety of sets, explains the building sequence, and provides resources for the surprisingly large and devoted world of Anchor Block aficionados (that includes — as you would expect — an associate professor of Medieval History at the University of Chicago.)

Ever since boyhood when my mother gave me a set of Swiss Naef blocks I have loved these Bauhaus-influenced smooth wood elements. A new set is called Tectus and

is perfect for building the odd Miesian apartment house.

Toy block-talk makes me think of Frank Lloyd Wright (his mother gave him Froebel blocks — maybe I just got the wrong set…). The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust has a large and exciting website — ShopWright — devoted to products inspired by Wright, from textile block planters to Fallingwater T-shirts. I was intrigued by the nightlight

based on a geometric railing design from the Rookery in Chicago (the building was designed by Burnham & Root, then remodeled by Wright) and by the doormat

inspired by the glazing pattern in Wright’s famous Robie house, also in Chicago. The tough coir fibers are anchored in black rubber.

So now that you know where to get the doormat, how about a house plan like

Design 530-2 from Classic Colonial Homes. Why not put something substantial under the tree.

Sears Stock Home Revival

Sculpting the Classic Home

Meet Michael Curtis — a sculptor who also designs houses — and the newest member of our Signature Studio. Here he is at the Supreme Court with his portrait of Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

His most significant sculptural commissions include The History of Texas at Texas Rangers Ball Park, Arlington, Texas, the largest US frieze of the 20th Century; numerous portrait busts for the Library of Congress, The Supreme Court, and other public buildings. Recent statues include General Eisenhower and The Shipbuilder, both in Alexandria, Virginia and his painting, sculpture, and architectural drawings are represented in over 250 private and public collections. He also designed The New American Home 2011, debuting at the National Association of Home Builders Show in Orlando this coming January (to be described in a future post).

Naturally Michael’s house designs are rooted in the classical tradition, as you can see in his Plan 492-2 The Philadelphia, which re-invigorates the Colonial Revival style while adapting it to modern living.

The symmetrical arrangement of windows, porches, and columns adds a sense of courtly elegance and poise. Lots of curb appeal here: “Knock, knock, Ben Franklin, are you home?!” Inside, the layout of the main floor follows a classic Georgian/Colonial plan, with central foyer and stair hall between living room and kitchen/dining room. The rooms are distinct yet connected to one another (guess what: no dead-rooms!). Space flows gracefully in a circular motion, making this a good house for playing tag with the family dog — something I do quite a lot — and my ultimate test for a good floor plan.

Both the island kitchen and the dining room open to the screen porch or sun room as well as to the central hall. The living room opens to the central hall and to its own spacious covered porch. Because each main floor room is so well defined even as it connects to other spaces, the house can feel intimate or expansive, depending on the occasion. Such a design immediately brings to mind the Sears mail order houses of the early 20th century, like this one,

called The Lexington, from 1927. Note the price, $4030 for the whole house, not just the plan! The almost circular layout (too bad the living room has only one way in from the hall), the side porch, the symmetry, and the shutters are very similar to The Philadelphia. According to the online Sears Archives (a treasure trove of information): from 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold 70,000 – 75,000 homes through their mail-order Modern Homes program and designed 447 different housing styles. Well, I guess you could say Michael Curtis’ plan is an improved late entry!

In Plan 492-3 Ann’s Arbor, Michael departs from the Sears model somewhat in opting for an almost geometric Greek Revival style design. He wraps a very simple gabled rectangle in a porch with Tuscan style wood columns, like a modest Greek temple.

The Greek temple form is also evident in the floor plan,














with a very straightforward arrangement of rooms. In good weather the front veranda becomes an outdoor living room, while the side porches allow master suite and dining area to expand as well. Upstairs














there’s space for three bedrooms and a game/media room. More Michael Curtis designs will be debuting shortly. It’s a pleasure to welcome him aboard.

Two New Design Books

The subject of classical design is handsomely explored in the just published Classic Homes of Los Angeles, by Douglas Woods, sumptuously photographed by Melba Levick (Rizzoli).

Many of LA’s most impressive eclectically styles houses from the 1920s and 1930s are here including mansions by Paul Williams (who also produced several important stock plan books), George Washington Smith, and Roland Coate, along with brief histories of each commission.

A new book of architectural criticism also caught my eye: Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, by Blair Kamin, architecture critic at The Chicago Tribune.

Most of the essays are about Chicago but several are especially perceptive about larger issues. For example, he describes the restoration and improvement of Paul Rudolph’s famously battle-scarred Art & Architecture Building at Yale, a building that suffered fatal flaws in circulation and ventilation — and even a fire — despite heroic sculptural ambitions.  (I remember that building from my own time at college — with its fortress-like ribbons of corduroy concrete; if you leaned against it you bled. ) Kamin applauds how the redesign solved the functional problems and says “It is fitting that the restoration at once celebrates him (Paul Rudolph) and sends the broader signal that no matter how disheveled they appear, masterpieces of mid-twentieth-century modernism can and should be preserved.” Another essay on the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (2,717 feet) shown on the book’s cover, praises the skill of its design while acknowledging the questionable nature of the tall for tall’s sake commission. I like his final punch line: ” Nothing succeeds, it seems to defiantly declare, like excess.”

Idea Patios, Ranch House, Architecture Essays

Space to Think

I think we all need a place to think (perhaps especially during the holidays). For me that sometimes means looking out the window or just finding a quiet place to read or write. Architect Jerry Veverka’s solution is what I would call a “contemplation courtyard” just outside his home office, combining elements from the house of Mexican modernist Luis Barragan and Japanese Zen gardens. It’s  in his new house in a fairly dense older neighborhood so outdoor privacy was important. The view is to a small, vibrantly hued but spare patio courtyard with its simple wall fountain pouring over a gravel floor pepppered with glossy bowling ball “stones.”

You walk through it to get to the study. Jerry’s desk faces it. His wife’s office faces the little patio from the other side; a very clever arrangement which can easily convert to a guest suite or in-law unit at some future date.  Here’s another view from the terrace off the living-dining area.

See how it draws the eye — you wonder what’s in there, and the sound of water adds to the allure. It’s a classic example of an “in-between space” that acts as a kind of a visual and mental palate cleanser, focusing the gaze to set the mind free. Even the sky takes on an artful aspect  when framed by such colorful walls. Such a simple idea — what a recirculating pump, paint, gravel, and a steel spout can do to make a  special “room with a view.” 

Speaking of frames (as I often do), here’s a quick update on our ranch house revival (Plan 508-1 by Nick Lee. I was worried that the water tank near the master bedroom would block the view but now I think it will be ok.  Here’s a photo looking through the window frame from where the bed will be, taken last week.

The tank becomes part of the landscape and doesn’t overwhelm it. The rest of the house is rising fast. The exterior walls are up.

And you can see the foundation for the long west-facing porch.

We are on track — though perhaps the pool will have to be postponed, for budgetary reasons. Next week the roof trusses should be up and I’ll have more to report.

Book Review

Shameless Self-promotion Department: I have an essay about San Francisco architecture between World Wars I and II (originally written for an exhibition at SF Museum of Modern Art) in a new book called Frozen Music: A Literary Exploration of California Architecture, edited by David Chu with a forward by SF Chroncle architecture critic John King (Heyday Press, 2010). The articles range from a chapter by 19th century novelist Helen Hunt Jackson to recent pieces by architecture critics Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp and include classics like Charles Moore’s “You Have To Pay for the Public Life,” which was one of the first architectural appreciations of Disneyland. Needless to say I recommend the anthology — perhaps an essay here will spark your own idea patio.

Tiny Houses and Architect Lester Walker

Small Is The New Big

It’s a special pleasure to welcome architect and teacher Lester Walker into our Signature Plans Studio. His Tiny Panelized Cottage (Plan 510-1) is particularly relevant for today’s economy because it’s compact (at about 250 square feet), efficient, and full of character.

The gabled micro cottage is essentially one room for living, dining, and

cooking (including an enclosed corner bathroom) opening to a screened porch, which can be used as a summer living room. A ladder leads to a sleeping loft over the kitchen. The design would work as a starter home, cabin, or even an in-law/guest house for the backyard.

Another favorite architectural type for Walker is the American farmhouse, as shown in his White Traditional Farmhouse (Plan 510-2),

which updates historical examples with a two-car garage and more open and contemporary layout that combines, kitchen, breakfast area, and home office.

The master suite is on the upper floor

and includes a study that is accessible both from the master bedroom and the hall (no dead-end rooms!).

A variation is his Very Small Farmhouse (Plan 510-3), shown below,

which has a storybook look with its simple porch, front gable, and double hung windows — easy to imagine at the edge of a cornfield or down a country lane.

The 1,000 square-foot plan is simplicity itself — a wide open main living area and kitchen; the bedrooms are upstairs.

Walker is the author of several influential architecture books including the indispensable classic American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home (Overlook Press).

It describes building methods and the characteristic features of architectural styles. I keep a copy by my desk. For example, the illustration below explains how a modern prefab is put together (courtesy Lloyd Alter on Treehugger).

The late great architect/educator  Charles Moore called it ” a genuine feast for the eyes and mind” — and I agree. Equally useful — and delightful — is Tiny Tiny Houses: Or How To Get Away From It All (Overlook Press), where Walker explores the world of living small —  from Thoreau’s cabin beside Walden Pond to a contemporary dune shack. (Image below courtesy Apartment Therapy).

Detailed perspective drawings explain how a wide variety of fascinating diminutive — even Lilliputian– structures are constructed. Two of my favorites are the historic 196 square- foot Sunday house  in Fredericksburg, Texas and the so-called “1950s Ranch”  in Virginia that’s  a mere 109 square feet — I guess it’s not a rambler but a squisher!  The book uncovers a treasure trove of historical and contemporary architectural novelties from across the country.

I admire Lester Walker’s ability to combine practical building expertise with an understanding of and enthusiasm for the diversity of architectural history. As he says: “Creating a home is a multi-faceted experience that borrows from the past, studies the present, and imagines the future. If owner, architect, and builder remain open-minded and resilient during the design and construction process, the result will be personal, comfortable, and exciting.” Well said. Welcome, Professor!

Home Style Gift Ideas

An Early Holiday Hunt, from Coasters to Chicken Coops

The news that some stores are opening at 3:00 am on the day after Thanksgiving has made me a little panicky, so here are some early and  random design-oriented gift suggestions. I’m a big fan of personalized gifts, like luggage tags that incorporate your own imagery (a faster way to distinguish one black bag from another on the carousel)…they feed my obsession with stones, thanks to the easy upload process on Shutterfly:

Coasters are another item that shows off your eye for design. Here’s what I did with Chief of Design Nick Lee’s elevations for the house we’re building in Sonoma (Ranch House Plan 508-1):

(This view is from my Shutterfly project page.) A nice way to dream about the house you’re hoping to build as you sip that holiday cocktail.

Or to continue the agricultural theme of the house, how about a prefab chicken coop. The subject seems to be gaining in popularity at the moment, in any case. I like this A-frame example, which I found on, an interesting shopping guide to green materials:

Designed to house two chickens, the simple clarity of the structure is appealing. It’s the Eco Coop by Rentachook and uses primarily recycled materials. Friends just remodeled their kitchen and that made me look for an appropriate “warming” present so at Placewares I found Marimekko oven mits. One with a floral pattern:

The other more abstract:

Speaking of house presents, consider an ornament, like this globe. It seems an obvious idea to dangle the world on a string but this version seems particularly elegant:

And why not give your friends and relatives a planet anyway! This example is one of several from the shop at the extraordinary Museum of New Mexico Foundation. I also tend to check the offerings at Terrestra and this time I found an eye-catching, wave-like wine rack.

Something to help me surf the holiday season, perhaps…